This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.
There is a distinct creepiness to the controversy now raging around a proposed Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan. The angry “debate" over whether the building should exist has a kind of glitch-in-the-Matrix feel to it, leaving in its wake an aura of something-very-bad-about-to-happen.
It’s not just that opposition to the building has coalesced around a phony “Mosque at Ground Zero" shorthand (with its echoes of dust, death and evildoers). Many have pointed out—futilely—that the complex will be more than two blocks from the former World Trade Center, around a corner on Park Place, and will feature an auditorium, spa, basketball court, swimming pool, classrooms, exhibition space, community meeting space, 9/11 memorial and, yes, a prayer space for Muslims. The shorthand still sticks.
Nor is it just that this is only the most visible of a growing number of nasty controversies over proposed mosques in Tennessee, California, Georgia, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Illinois as well as Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn and Midland Beach, Staten Island, in New York City. Such protests are emerging with alarming frequency. Nor is it simply that political leaders—from Republican presidential wannabes to New York gubernatorial hopefuls—have sought to exploit the Lower Manhattan controversy. (Sarah Palin demanded that “peaceful Muslims" step up and “refudiate" the plan; Newt Gingrich denounced the building of such a “mosque" as long as Saudi Arabia bars construction of churches and synagogues; Rick Lazio, a Republican campaigning for the governorship of New York state, asserted that the plan somehow subverted the right of New Yorkers “to feel safe and be safe.")
No, it’s the déjà-vu-ness of the controversy that kindles special unease, the sense that we’ve been here before as a country, and the realization that, for a decade, a significant number of our nation’s political leaders have been honing an anti-Muslim narrative which fertilizes anti-Muslim sentiment to the point where it is now spreading like a toxic plume, uncapped and uncontrollable.