Monday, Aug 16, 2010 07:01 ET
By Justin Elliott
A group of progressive Muslim-Americans plans to build an Islamic community center two and a half blocks from ground zero in lower Manhattan. They have had a mosque in the same neighborhood for many years. There's another mosque two blocks away from the site. City officials support the project. Muslims have been praying at the Pentagon, the other building hit on Sept. 11, for many years.
In short, there is no good reason that the Cordoba House project should have been a major national news story, let alone controversy. And yet it has become just that, dominating the political conversation for weeks and prompting such a backlash that, according to a new poll, nearly 7 in 10 Americans now say they oppose the project. How did the Cordoba House become so toxic, so fast?
In a story last week, the New York Times, which framed the project in a largely positive, noncontroversial light last December, argued that it was cursed from the start by "public relations missteps." But this isn't accurate. To a remarkable extent, a Salon review of the origins of the story found, the controversy was kicked up and driven by Pamela Geller, a right-wing, viciously anti-Muslim, conspiracy-mongering blogger, whose sinister portrayal of the project was embraced by Rupert Murdoch's New York Post.
Here's a timeline of how it all happened:
Dec. 8, 2009: The Times publishes a lengthy front-page look at the Cordoba project. "We want to push back against the extremists," Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the lead organizer, is quoted as saying. Two Jewish leaders and two city officials, including the mayor's office, say they support the idea, as does the mother of a man killed on 9/11. An FBI spokesman says the imam has worked with the bureau. Besides a few third-tier right-wing blogs, including Pamela Geller's Atlas Shrugs site, no one much notices the Times story.
Dec. 21, 2009: Conservative media personality Laura Ingraham interviews Abdul Rauf's wife, Daisy Khan, while guest-hosting "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox. In hindsight, the segment is remarkable for its cordiality. "I can't find many people who really have a problem with it," Ingraham says of the Cordoba project, adding at the end of the interview, "I like what you're trying to do."
(This segment also includes onscreen the first use that we've seen of the misnomer "ground zero mosque.") After the segment — and despite the front-page Times story — there were no news articles on the mosque for five and a half months, according to a search of the Nexis newspaper archive.
May 6, 2010: After a unanimous vote by a New York City community board committee to approve the project, the AP runs a story. It quotes relatives of 9/11 victims (called by the reporter), who offer differing opinions. The New York Post, meanwhile, runs a story under the inaccurate headline, "Panel Approves 'WTC' Mosque." Geller is less subtle, titling her post that day, "Monster Mosque Pushes Ahead in Shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction." She writes on her Atlas Shrugs blog, "This is Islamic domination and expansionism. The location is no accident. Just as Al-Aqsa was built on top of the Temple in Jerusalem." (To get an idea of where Geller is coming from, she once suggested that Malcolm X was Obama's real father. Seriously.)
May 7, 2010: Geller's group, Stop Islamization of America (SIOA), launches "Campaign Offensive: Stop the 911 Mosque!" (SIOA 's associate director is Robert Spencer, who makes his living writing and speaking about the evils of Islam.) Geller posts the names and contact information for the mayor and members of the community board, encouraging people to write. The board chair later reports getting "hundreds and hundreds" of calls and e-mails from around the world.
May 8, 2010: Geller announces SIOA's first protest against what she calls the "911 monster mosque" for May 29. She and Spencer and several other members of the professional anti-Islam industry will attend. (She also says that the protest will mark the dark day of "May 29, 1453, [when] the Ottoman forces led by the Sultan Mehmet II broke through the Byzantine defenses against the Muslim siege of Constantinople." The outrage-peddling New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser argues in a note at the end of her column a couple of days later that "there are better places to put a mosque."
May 13, 2010: Peyser follows up with an entire column devoted to "Mosque Madness at Ground Zero." This is a significant moment in the development of the "ground zero mosque" narrative: It's the first newspaper article that frames the project as inherently wrong and suspect, in the way that Geller has been framing it for months. Peyser in fact quotes Geller at length and promotes the anti-mosque protest of Stop Islamization of America, which Peyser describes as a "human-rights group." Peyser also reports — falsely — that Cordoba House's opening date will be Sept. 11, 2011.
Lots of opinion makers on the right read the Post, so it's not surprising that, starting that very day, the mosque story spread through the conservative — and then mainstream — media like fire through dry grass. Geller appeared on Sean Hannity's radio show. The Washington Examiner ran an outraged column about honoring the 9/11 dead. So did Investor's Business Daily. Smelling blood, the Post assigned news reporters to cover the ins and outs of the Cordoba House development daily. Fox News, the Post's television sibling, went all out.
Within a month, Rudy Giuliani had called the mosque a "desecration." Within another month, Sarah Palin had tweeted her famous "peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate" tweet. Peter King and Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty followed suit — with political reporters and television news programs dutifully covering "both sides" of the controversy.
Geller had succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.
Justin Elliott is a Salon reporter.
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