I don’t usually like to pick current events to analyze for manipulation, for two reasons. One, it’s harder to divorce oneself emotionally from the content of a current event, and two, usually you need some time for the details behind a good manipulation to emerge. Things that seem very important today will look quite a lot less so in ten or twenty years, and tongues start to reveal secrets and that’s when you learn some really interesting things.

Sometimes, though, you get too good an issue to ignore. So let’s talk about the Mosque at Ground Zero.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know, of course, that there’s a recent controversy in the news about building a mosque near the hallowed area of Ground Zero in NY. Some claim it’s an insult and it should never happen. Others that this is precisely what freedom of religion means. Even President Obama weighed in on the issue. So it’s now officially a National Controversy.

Mosque in the media - manipulation going on?

A mosque. Well, the one we're talking about probably won't be as big as this one...

To begin with, a reminder – as I mentioned before, within this blog I have very little interest in the content of a story, or the absolute right or wrong of a topic. I am far more interested in the underlying manipulation exercise itself. In other words, I want to focus on the underlying manipulation issues, not the legal or moral issues that others have already discussed ad nauseum.

So, what’s so manipulative about this topic? Let’s look at it from both angles.

Those who oppose the mosque have used a number of interesting techniques. As Salon points out in a very good piece, the project was actually completely non-controversial for many months. Thanks to the efforts of a dedicated few, mostly right-wing bloggers and pundits, however, the issue is now a national obsession. So how did they do it?

First, intelligent word choices. It turns out that this “Mosque at Ground Zero” is neither a mosque, nor at Ground Zero. The project, Park51, is essentially a large complex that is pretty close to a Y. Calling it a mosque is a pretty big stretch – the project is 13 stories high, has auditoriums, sports facilities, daycares, a 9/11 memorial… and a prayer room. Yes, people will pray in it, but if that’s a mosque, then a number of YMCA could be called churches, and several buildings in NY ought to be named synagogues.

As to the Ground Zero issue, the project is two and a half-blocks from ground Zero. It’s not visible from ground zero, and you need a good 3-4 minutes to walk from one to the other. If you define “Ground Zero” as encompassing the Park51 project, you’d have to define a space that includes most of the South-West corner of Manhattan, and which would include several churches, a cemetery, a marina, an Amish market, a number of gyms, several hotels, and some pretty strange establishments. Take a look. Hallowed ground this is not.

Blue: actual Ground Zero. Pink line: "Ground Zero" defined to encompass the project

This may be one reason why New Yorkers are generally more supportive of the project than outsiders – they actually know the area under discussion, and we are less likely to be swayed by catchy buy inaccurate labels.

But, of course, calling something “A large, Y-type project with a Muslim prayer room in downtown Manhattan” is very different than calling it “A mosque on holy Ground Zero”. Which one generates a more visceral response?

Beyond the emotional impact of the name, the opponents of the project have succeeded in creating the vocabulary. This project is not a mosque and it’s not at ground zero. But, if you can repeat something enough times, it becomes familiar, and familiarity is one step removed from truth. In other words, if you repeat something enough, it becomes truth. What started as a small nickname on a blog got picked up by more and more right-wing media, and papers such as the Post. Eventually, mainstream newspapers and media started to refer to the story, and there was no easy alternative to “the mosque at ground Zero” story. The result of repeating the term over and over? The opponents of the project essentially managed to frame the debate into a series of terms that were emotionally charged, even if they were inaccurate, and made it so that even attackers had to use the “mosque at ground zero” vocabulary to talk about the story. And with each repetition, even to discredit the opposition, the media reinforced the emotionally-laden vocabulary.

The third trick is selective disclosure. Islam is a major religion, and there have always been mosques in NY, some of which are very close to the old Trade Center towers. The area in question was used as a prayer area for hundreds of Muslims until 2009, for example. Masjid Manhattan, an area of prayer for Islamic city employees, is 2 blocks from the Park51 project. So there are several “mosque near Ground Zero” already in place.In fact, Muslims pray at ground Zero, in front of the main fence, fairly regularly in any case.

And, of course, the final one is appeal to emotion. Opponents of the projects essentially escalated the rhetoric over the course of a few months. What started out as “an islamic center near ground Zero” became “a mosque at ground zero”, then a “Mega-mosque over ground zero” and now the rhetoric is growing even more. The point, of course, is portray the project as an insult to America and to tap into powerful emotional forces – 9/11, America, patriotism, and more.

In short, the opponents of the project have done a very nice job of manipulation. And, if you remember my previous posts, one of the hallmarks of a great manipulation is that even when exposed, it’s hard to rally against it. In this case, none of the analysis above is secret – but it will not sway a single opponent of the mosque. A very good manipulation in that sense.

What of the other side? Are they innocent victims of an evil (right-wing) world?

Not quite. To be fair, on this issue, the bulk of the manipulation has come from the opponents to the Parks 51 project. But its promoters have also used some of our bag of tricks.

One trick, for example, has been the use of corporate not-for-profit groups to back the project. The Parks 51 project has 3 main backers. Soho Properties, a real-estate developer with connections to the Arab League, is one. The other two are The Cordoba Initiative, and ASMA, the American Society for Muslim Advancement. Both of these are registered non-profits, have websites, and generally look imposing. But they are, to some extent, shells – both entities have been founded and are run by Feisal Abdul Raufman, a Sufi Imam, and his wife is the director for both. They both work out of the same address, and both were very tiny organizations prior to this controversy.

Now, there is nothing wrong with an Imam pushing for an Islamist center, but doing so through two corporate shells seems to be somewhat manipulative – it implies a greater level of support for the project than a single man could provide, and a broader set of resources and expertise than what is essentially a simple two-person husband and wife team.

There is also the financial question. Building 51 Park would cost would cost $100M. Some folks have questioned where the money will come from, but they are missing the point. Soho Properties can buy the site for, let’s say, $15M – traditionally, this might be $5M of equity, and $10M of debt. The original plan of the developer was to put up condos, but he was convinced by Mr. Raufman to go for a large-scale islamic center instead of condos. Why? Well, only they know, but consider this: if Soho built condos, it would need to front the development cost ($20+M) and get a bank to provide the rest. Then it would be on the hook to sell each condo at enough to repay the bank and make a profit, and these are hard times for real-estate developers. It is a hard way to make a buck. If the developer built an Islamic center, though, the odds are excellent that a willing patron could be found in the Middle East – or in the US – who would front a large amount of the cost as a charitable donation to a worthy cause. This means that Soho would not need to use its own equity in the deal, and could structure the deal so that its financial returns would be much, much higher with a lot less risk.

In the same vein, Mr. Raufman would go from being an Iman at a small NY mosque to essentially running a $100M complex.

Did these considerations figure in the motivations of the backers of the project? Only they truly know, but it’s important to understand that behind the facade of a noble Islamic cause lies some pretty compelling economics for the two backers of the project. And this structure and funding issue is probably the one area where the backers have been the least transparent thus far, which would seem to indicate that it is indeed a very favorable structure (especially if they are allowed to use the non-profit tax exemption of Mr. Raufman’s foundation to pass through some of the project’s financials).

"Money? We never even thought about it!"

I’ll close this blog entry with a relatively sad summary. I am a student of manipulation. I have studied and worked with masters at manipulating media, politics, and consumers. I appreciate, perhaps more than most, a good play. Yet this kind of dynamics makes me sad. Why? The manipulation of the right-wing bloggers that began the attacks on the project several months ago have worked, to some extent – they have stirred up controversy, raised their own profile, and maybe succeeded in blocking the project itself. But their avowed political goals were to stop the spread of extremist Islam, and their little victory has largely been a Phyrric win in that sense: had they done nothing and if that center was built, the impact would have been minimal – I don’t believe that a sports center and a prayer area would convert a lot of Christians to become radical muslims. But what they have done – this perceived attack on religious freedom, this portrayal of everything as a fight between American values and Islamic ones will probably do more to fuel extremism here and abroad than a hundred Ground-Zero mosques could have ever done. So the manipulators succeeded in their short-term goal while defeating their own long-term aspirations.

Similarly, the main backer of the project, Mr. Raufman, has written 3 books of religious tolerance of Islam and why extremism is bad and why Americans can and should embrace moderate Muslims. They are thoughtful and moderate (if a bit boring) books, and Mr. Raufman has spent a good deal of his life trying to show how to reconcile Islamic faith and US secular life. Now, with this project, Mr. Raufman has clearly failed: even if he gets this center built now, the amount of bad blood and resentment that has been created is far, far superior to any good that his previous 30 years of career have done. In other words, Mr. Raufman’s vision for this center was an ode to reconciliation and partnership, and it has now become a symbol of discord and intolerance. Succeed or fail in the short term, Mr. Raufman has thus failed in his own long-term goals.

So, for all the gallons of ink that have and will continue to flow into this debate, for all the manipulation tricks that one or both sides deploy, each step takes both sides away from their own goals. That is, in many ways, why this circus is destructive for all concerned…