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Talking Points

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NSHR Campaign AlertAugust 27, 2010
Talking Points: Anti-Muslim Backlash

by Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed,
National Director, Office for Interfaith & Community Alliances
Islamic Society of North America

In offering talking points about the controversy surrounding the proposed Cordoba Center in New York, it is important to begin with three points.

First, the debate is no longer about the Cordoba Center per se and advocates would be well advised to avoid a factual debate on the details and instead focus on the larger issue of the anti-Muslim backlash. While there is little chance of shifting peoples’ opinions on the factual details of the proposed cultural center, there is a considerable opportunity to increase the public’s discomfort with, and disapproval of, the ugly rhetoric, anti-Muslim rallies etc.

Second, it is critical to remember that this is a political debate, prior to midterm elections and as such the debate is being used as a “wedge issue.”

And third, we understand that these are extraordinarily painful and difficult questions for impacted communities, but given that the motivation of these bigoted attacks is to paint Muslims as the “other” we encourage you to squarely speak out as full participants in the fabric of American life. We recognize that some of these talking points will be a good fit for you or your organization and others will not. Please use those that are appropriate and comfortable for your unique organizational situation.

1. Pivot away from the details - the debate is no longer about a cultural center in New York, it’s about what we stand for as Americans.

Arguing about whether the Cordoba Center is or is not a mosque, is or is not at Ground Zero, will or will not “tower over” the world trade center site is likely a waste of time. The national debate is now much larger and arguing the facts about New York will not move the debate. The very ugly reality is that the attack on the Cordoba Center has encouraged and inspired anti-mosque rallies around the country, people have brought dogs to events for the express purpose of demeaning Islam, the internet is filled with hate speech and a church in Florida is planning a Koran burning on 9/11. Standing up to this wave of anti-Muslim nativism doesn’t mean that you have to agree with every aspect of the planned center or every word that the founder Iman Rauf has ever uttered.

Newt Gingrich and others have exploited the issue for political gain and President Obama’s tentative response has fueled this fire. The choice they are pushing is expressly political. In advance of the midterm elections, their goal is to frame the issue as “you are with the Muslims or you are with us.” They seek to use the issue as a wedge and paint President Obama as the “other,” as alien and threatening. This pattern is now repeating itself in congressional races around the country with candidates challenging one another to take a position.

In this context, it is essential to pivot and assertively change that frame. Advocates should pose a different choice – “Are you supportive of the ugly rhetoric and anti-Muslim rallies or are you with common decency?” Our goal should be twofold: a) to make those who have attacked the Cordoba Center own the bigotry they have spawned and pay a political price for it and b) hopefully awaken a greater response from Americans who are sickened by the anti-Muslim rhetoric and behavior but who have thus far remained silent.

Example: “Whether you agree or disagree with the proposed cultural center in New York, one thing is absolutely clear – the issue has become something much bigger. There are anti-mosque rallies taking place around the country, people have brought dogs to events for the express purpose of demeaning Islam, the internet is filled with hate speech and a church in Florida is planning a Koran burning on September 11th. Every American has a choice to make right now. Either you support this wave of religious discrimination, you sit on the sidelines and say nothing, or you stand up for the fundamental American principles that made this country a beacon to the world - religious freedom, pluralism, and tolerance."

In a broadcast context with an opposing guest, we encourage advocates to press the point further and insist that those speaking out against the Cordoba Center either denounce or embrace the anti-Muslim backlash. While a broadcast scenario like this may be unlikely for many groups, the goal should be to force the choice.

Example: “The question here is whether you support the anti-mosque rallies that are taking place in other parts of the country, or the planned Koran burning? Are you going to speak out against these extreme responses?"

2. What do you stand for?

Similar to the argument above, the controversy surrounding the Cordoba Center provides us with an opportunity to go on the offensive in a different way. At root, the nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim arguments that we are hearing get to a core aspect of American identity. In it’s simplest form, this allows advocates to go on the offensive and frame the choice in a different way.

Example: “This is simple. You either believe in the American traditions of religious freedom and pluralism and opportunity or you don’t. You’re either proud and confident in these sources of our strength or you aren’t. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with every religion or Priest, or Rabbi, or Iman."

Example: “People like Gingrich keep saying that when Saudi Arabia allows a church or a mosque to be built at Mecca then we should consider building the Muslim Community Center. Does he really think we should follow our lead on religious freedom from Saudi Arabia? Why is he so quick to turn his back on one of America’s greatest strengths – religious freedom and pluralism?"

3. Denying Americans their rights is wrong

It is worth emphasizing, with appropriate indignation, that the anti-Muslim backlash is aimed at selectively denying some Americans their rights. In this context, it is important to not give ground in the attempts to establish the “otherness” caricature that the bigots have been exploiting.

Example: “I am both an American and a member of the Muslim faith. Muslims participate in every facet of American life. We are teachers, police, firefighters, business owners, soldiers, sailors, doctors, lawyers, laborers, office workers, construction workers and taxpayers. Muslims, too, were among those killed on September 11. And Muslims were among the first responders who answered the call and died trying to help the victims when we were attacked. But some people want to selectively take away our rights because of the despicable acts of a few violent extremists.”

4. Exploiting September 11th is wrong

  A large sector of the public is uneasy about the politicization of September 11. This politicization violates a long-standing, unspoken rule—you do not brazenly make political points off a tragedy.

Example: “Some politicians are willing to exploit the tragedy of 9/11 to score political points. I think this is just wrong. The memories of those who died and the national tragedy of that murderous attack aren’t a political football. We should remember our loss with an affirmation of our unity and confidence as a nation, not with divisive efforts to exploit the tragedy.”

5. Anti-Muslim hysteria is bad for our troops, undermines our national security and is profoundly irresponsible

The core propaganda line of Al Qaeda and other extremists groups is that America is at war with Islam and contemptuous of the Muslim faith. The Muslim world cannot be marginalized, vilified and slandered, if their governments and people are to be allies in the fight.

Meanwhile, our troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan are fighting alongside Muslim soldiers in a struggle against extremism. In these wars, the Pentagon’s explicit strategy is to win “hearts and minds” among the populace and in the process marginalize extremists. Anti-Muslim rhetoric and attacks are totally irresponsible in this context.

Example: “Military leaders, intelligence experts and leaders from both major political parties have said repeatedly that Islam is not the enemy; we are at war with extremists who betray the tenets of Islam and do violence against innocent people. But Gingrich and others couldn’t be doing a better job of pushing al Qaeda’s propaganda line that America is at war with Islam. Their Muslim bashing rhetoric is a huge windfall for the extremists who can hardly believe their good luck.”

Example: “Our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are fighting alongside Muslim allies in a struggle against extremism. The Pentagon’s explicit strategy is to win ‘hearts and minds’ among the populace and in the process, marginalize extremists. Do those who are spouting anti-Muslim rhetoric not understand that their irresponsible actions are endangering our troops and seriously damaging our military effort? Or do they simply not care?"

6. This will be remembered as an ugly episode in American history.

A reminder of the historical perspective may help people to realize that there are greater issues at stake here. Reminders of the moments of ugliness in American history may serve to trigger a shame mechanism and give the speaker the moral high ground.

Example: “The United States has a long-standing commitment to its principles and sometimes we have failed to live up to our ideals, as when Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. But we own up to our mistakes and renew ourselves. What will we say when we look back at this moment? Those hateful signs held up in front of the building in Manhattan and at mosques around the country will be regarded in the same light. We look back now, more than 20 years later at the picture of the lone man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square and regard him as a hero for democracy. But today we need to see the courageous people stand up against the ugly rhetoric. We know they exist—there is a fundamental goodness in the American people that always comes out in times of crisis. And today’s crisis is not a hurricane, a tornado or an earthquake—it’s a storm of violent, hate-filled rhetoric targeting an entire faith for the violent acts of a tiny minority. The good people of the United States know that.”

Quotes to draw on and Circulate Widely

Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush – "A president not only serves Muslim citizens, not only commands Muslims in the American military, but leads a coalition that includes Iraqi & Afghan Muslims who risk death each day fighting Islamic radicalism at our side. How could he possibly tell them that their place of worship inherently symbolizes the triumph of terror? [Politico,, 8/18/10]

Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City – "We must do what is right, not what is easy. And we must put our faith in the freedoms that have sustained our great country for more than 200 years…there is no middle ground when it comes to religious liberty, calling the plan to erect the mosque a litmus test for upholding "American values." There are people of every faith -- including, perhaps, some in this room -- who are hoping that a compromise will end the debate," he said. "But it won't…. "If we say that a mosque and community center should not be built near the perimeter of the World Trade Center site . . . we would undercut the values and principles that so many heroes died protecting. We would send a signal around the world that Muslim-Americans may be equal in the eyes of the law, but separate in the eyes of their countrymen…let me declare that we in New York are Jews and Christians and Muslims, and we always have been. And above all of that, we are Americans, each with an equal right to worship and pray where we choose. There is nowhere in the five boroughs that is off limits to any religion.” [New York Post,, 8/25/10]

Major General Paul Eaton, US Army (Ret) harshly criticized efforts to block the building of a mosque in lower Manhattan, contending such a position is unconstitutional and could harm U.S. relations overseas. "What we are seeing out of the Republican Party here is just appalling. From a constitutional perspective, from a common sense perspective and from a military perspective." Eaton added, "This is an extreme right-wing backlash to what we stand for: freedom to practice religion of your choice….It is a slap in the face to a great many people we wish to have as allies. We are trying to make allies of our colleagues in Iraq and Afghanistan and this is not helpful." He also added, "This is unhelpful to the American fighting men and women and counter to the image we wish to portray in Afghanistan and Iraq." [Media Matters,, 8/16/10]

Matthew Alexander, Former senior military interrogator who led the interrogations that found Zarqawi and author of How to Break a Terrorist – “The political uproar over the Cordoba project, and in particular the use of harmful, bigoted rhetoric by some opportunists, leaves America facing a choice. It can project one of two symbols: One of integration, acceptance and positive affirmation of American values; or one of intolerance, rejection, and animosity. The former will work to undermine al Qaeda as part of a long-term strategy to defeat them. The latter will bolster Islamic extremists' arguments that America is an intolerant country hell-bent on war with Islam, aid recruitment efforts and add support for more terrorist attacks. [, 8/20/10]

Ali Soufan, reputed to be FBI’s most skillful interrogator after the Sept 11 attacks - asserted that building a Mosque near Ground Zero helps al-Qaeda. “There are many reasons for supporting the Muslim community's right to build a cultural center and mosque on private property, not least of all the First Amendment of the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion, but from a national security perspective, our leaders need to understand that no one is likely to be happier with the opposition to building a mosque than Osama Bin Laden. His next video script has just written itself…“When demagogues appear to be equating Islam with terrorism, it's making young Muslims unsure about their place in the country,” he wrote. “It bolsters the message that radicalizers are selling: That the war is against Islam, and Muslims are not welcome in America….” [Washington Post,, 8/18/10]

Joe Scarborough, former Republican Congressman from Florida & Mark McKinnon, former Bush advisorcommenting on Newt Gingrich’s Mosque statements. "This is madness, there are elements of our party marching through fevered swamps of ideology" This sends a horrific statement across the world.” [] "When I was in Congress in 1994, when I got elected in '94, I was considered to be one of the more conservative guys up there," Scarborough said. "I am feeling further and further distant from the people who are running my party." For [Gingrich] "to suggest that someone trying to build a -- a tolerant center for moderate Muslims in New York is the equivalent of killing six million Jews is stunning to me. It's stunning and it is so contrary to our country's principle and the Republican party." Former Bush advisor Mark McKinnon agreed, then added, "I'm glad to see we're together on this and unfortunately I think we may get our membership revoked at the Pachyderm Club." "Screw 'em," interrupted Scarborough. [‘Screw’ GOP if I’m booted for defending mosque, MSNBC,, 8/16/10]

Ted Olson, the Bush administration's Solicitor General and 9/11 widower – “…we don't want to turn an act of hate against us by extremists into an act of intolerance for people of religious faith. And I don't think it should be a political issue. It shouldn't be a Republican or Democrat issue either. I believe Governor Christie from New Jersey said it as well, that this should not be in that political partisan marketplace." [Politico,, 8/18/10 ]

Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations and former Director Policy Planning in the Bush administration's State Department – "The anti-American aspect of this -- this has now become an international issue. One of the great ironies is the people doing this mosque, this community center, want to develop an American version of Islam that competes around the world with the Wahhabi -- with the Saudi intolerant version of Islam. So this issue now is being watched around the world to prove or to see whether Muslims in America have rights, have opportunities that Muslims in lots of other countries don't. So this has actually become an important aspect of our battle for the hearts and minds." [Media Matters,, 8/16/10]

Lawrence Wilkerson, Retired Army colonel and Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell in the Bush administration – "It is like offering your opponent two or three whips with which to beat you... The impact on our military people would be injurious if we say 'no.' It would put another instrument in the hands of those who want to exploit the fear that Americans are at war with Islam and not the radical elements within it." [Media Matters,, 8/16/10]

Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek writer and CNN host Returns Anti-Defamation League Award Over Ground Zero Mosque – “Given the position that they have taken on a core issue of religious freedom in America, I cannot in good conscience keep that award.” “If there is going to be a reformist movement in Islam, it is going to emerge from places like the proposed institute. We should be encouraging groups like the one behind this project, not demonizing them…The man behind the proposed Ground Zero Islamic community center, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, "has spent years trying to offer a liberal interpretation of Islam" and "argues that America is actually what an ideal Islamic society would look like because is it peaceful, tolerant and pluralistic. "His vision for Islam, in other words, is Osama Bin Laden's nightmare." [CNN show video, 8/6/10]

GOP Gov. Chris Christie (NJ), a rising star in the republican party, said that Obama and some members of the GOP are "playing politics with this issue, and I simply am not going to do it." "We have to bring people together," Christie added. "And what offends me the most about all this is that it's being used as a political football by both parties." [Washington Post,, 8/18/10]

Grover Norquist, conservative activist, who worked with George W. Bush & Karl Rove, warned that, "The support for criticizing a mosque is half a mile wide and an inch deep... And at the end of the process, the only people who will remember it are the people who feel threatened by this -- not just Muslims, but Sikhs, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Mormons." [Washington Post,, 8/18/10]

Ed Gillespie, former Republican National Committee chairman –Gillespie warned that voters could conclude that Republicans who oppose the New York mosque are taking a stand against Islam in general. "It's very important that, as Republicans talk about this issue, we be thoughtful and careful about making those distinctions," he said. [Washington Post,, 8/18/2010]

Chris Gibson, a Republican running against a House incumbent in upstate New York - "As it relates to religious buildings in the vicinity of ground zero, it's either all or nothing — churches, synagogues and mosques should be treated the same." [Chris Gibson, Facebook page]

Muslim and Arab Republicans Take Issue With G.O.P. on Mosque, six signers include officials from both the Reagan and George W. Bush Administrations – ‘We are deeply concerned by the rhetoric of some leading members of our party surrounding the construction of the Muslim Community Center in downtown Manhattan. These comments are not only constitutionally unsound, they are also alienating millions of Arab American and Muslim American voters who believe, as we do, in the principles of our party – individual liberty, traditional values, and the rule of law. As you know, our party has had a long history of inclusion – beginning with our great President Abraham Lincoln, whose leadership on the slavery issue was monumental, and continuing through President George W. Bush whose public statements and actions on the differentiation between Islam and the terrorists who attacked us on 9-11 were critically important…In expressing compassion and understanding for these families, we are asking ourselves the following: if two blocks is too close, is four blocks acceptable? or six blocks? or eight blocks? Does our party believe that one can only practice his/her religion in certain places within defined boundaries and away from the disapproving glances of some citizens? Should our party not be standing up and taking a leadership role– just like President Bush did after 9-11 – by making a clear distinction between Islam, one of the great three monotheistic faiths along with Judaism and Christianity, versus the terrorists who committed the atrocities on 9-11 and who are not only the true enemies of America but of Islam as well? President Bush struck the right balance in expressing sympathy for the families of the 9-11 victims while making it absolutely clear that the acts committed on 9-11 were not in the name of Islam.” [New York Times,, 8/17/10]

Disclaimer: Views expressed in this site are those of individuals and not necessarily the express opinion of the Islamic Soc. of Gr Lansing.
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