Here in Rockford, as across the country, many Tea Party activists spent the latter part of the summer with their eyes figuratively fixed on the former site of the World Trade Center—or, rather, two blocks away.

The controversy over the Ground Zero Mosque generated much sound and fury, but in the end, what did it signify?  Those who should have been most upset over the proposal to erect within shouting distance of the site of the September 11 attack a building to worship the god who inspired the mass murder of 3,000 of their fellow citizens—that is, the denizens of New York City—seemed, on the whole, to have little problem with it (direct relatives of the victims largely excepted).  The imam of Park51 (as the proposed mosque is now known), on the basis of his speeches and remarks about Hamas, sharia, and September 11, can fairly be described as a radical Muslim, but until the GOP needed a hot-button issue to drive voters to the polls in November, Feisal Abdul Rauf’s utterances had largely been ignored, and he had even been praised as a voice of “moderate Islam” and hired by the FBI and the State Department to conduct training sessions on the religion.

In other words, the controversy over the Ground Zero Mosque had all the hallmarks of an election-year distraction, designed to keep voters from remembering that, for the better part of eight years, the Republicans up for election in November had all applauded George W. Bush’s repeated declarations that Islam is a “religion of peace” and that the events of September 11 had nothing to do with Islam, but were perpetrated by those who “hate us because we’re free.”

And the distraction worked.  Here in Rockford, the very Tea Party activists who denounced the Ground Zero Mosque most loudly were largely silent about the erection of a four-story, 6,000-square-foot mosque in their own backyard.

Longtime readers of Chronicles will recall that Rockford’s own mosque first appeared in these pages in April 2002, in an article recounting the day that Chronicles’ associate editor Aaron Wolf and I spent at the Iqra School.  Like the proposed Ground Zero Mosque, the Iqra School and the local mosque are contained in a Muslim “community center,” housed in a former public school.  As the local Muslim community has grown (the president of the Muslim Association of Greater Rockford estimates that there are currently 300 Muslim families in the city), they have raised the funds to build the standalone mosque, complete with a minaret and a gold dome that went up about the time that the Ground Zero controversy took off.

In fact, in a local TV news report in which Chronicles editor Thomas Fleming called the Ground Zero Mosque a “hostile gesture,” the Rockford imam, Shpendim Nadzaku, an ethnic Albanian who studied at a state-run Islamic university in Saudi Arabia, characterized the Rockford mosque as a symbol of religious tolerance.  Standing in the yard of the mosque, Nad­zaku gestured for the TV cameras: “We have the mosque right here, the Muslim Community Center, to our right Our Master’s United Methodist Church . . . ”

Nadzaku praised the “spiritual, emotional, intellectual maturity of the people here in Rockford.  They have only supported us.”  The imam is largely right, but why Rockfordians would support the construction of the grandiloquent new building is another question.

The most famous worshiper at the local mosque, Derrick Shareef, was arrested in December 2006 on charges of plotting to toss hand grenades into crowds of Christmas shoppers at the largest mall in the Rockford area.  The FBI had targeted Shareef as the weak link in a larger investigation involving a former member of the Navy, Hassan Abujihaad, who had passed classified information on U.S. Navy operations in the Persian Gulf to Babar Ahmad, the proprietor of a jihadist website in Great Britain.

Much has been made of the Ground Zero imam’s statement to a Jordanian newspaper in March 2009 that “The only law that the Muslim needs exists already in the Koran and the Hadith.”  But here in Rockford, Khalid Siddiqui, the president of the Muslim Association of Greater Rockford at the time that Aaron and I visited the school and mosque, praised Osama bin Laden (a mere five months after September 11), declared that sharia would come to the United States through constitutional means, and said that non-Muslims should not be concerned when it arrives.  “Who is superior to us?  Only God.  If He made the laws, then He can be unbiased.”

Last month, I argued that “thinking locally”—as the best among the Tea Partiers do—isn’t enough; we have to act locally as well.  Whether a mosque is built two blocks from Ground Zero means nothing to the daily lives of Rockfordians; whether a mosque run by radical Muslims becomes a magnet for further Islamic immigration to Rockford just might.