Ishaan Tharoor
August 7, 2010

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Opposition to a proposed mosque near Ground Zero swelled into a furor this week after its planners on Aug. 3 passed the last municipal hurdle barring them from building it. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg spoke passionately in defense of the project. “Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans,” Bloomberg said in a speech that day. “We would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else.”

Bloomberg’s predecessor didn’t agree. The former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, claimed that the project, which is partially intended to be an interfaith community center, would be a “desecration,” adding that “decent” Muslims ought not object to his opinion. Other GOP politicians and talking heads who have far less to do with the events of 9/11 — or, for that matter, New York — have joined the chorus, arguing in some instances that a mosque near Ground Zero would be a monument to terrorists.

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Such Islamophobia is unsurprising in the post–Cold War age of al-Qaeda and sleeper cells. And Islam, of course, has long been a bogeyman for the West. For centuries, a more advanced, more powerful Islamic world haunted the imagination of snow-bitten Christendom. When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they brought the language of the Reconquista with them, sometimes referring to Aztecs and Mayans as “Moors” and to their ziggurats as “mosques.” The Sultanate of Morocco was the first government in the world to recognize the existence of an independent United States, in 1778. But it was America’s naval expeditions to North Africa — the two early–19th century Barbary Wars — that first marked the U.S.’s arrival on the global stage and crystallized a new American patriotism at home.

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