Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Mosque hysteria: an ugly reflection on America

It makes me a bit queezy to have to write about this, but considering that this “ground zero mosque” issue has now crossed the Atlantic and is making the news in Europe, it would seem I have no choice. It’s incredible that such a ginned-up controversy has reached proportions so big that people are hearing about it here. Over the weekend while in Paris a French friend asked me incredulously, “I hear Obama is planning to build a giant mosque on ground zero?? What is he thinking??”

Le sigh. Yes, that’s it, Obama is personally flying down to the former site of the world trade center to build a mosque brick by brick. Honestly I don’t blame Europeans for being misinformed about this, the US media coverage has been almost completely fact-free, and that then gets passed on over here during a slow news month. And it’s an issue that easily resonates here in Europe because let’s face it, when it comes to Islam, America and Europe can be sisters in hysteria. So, forget whatever you’ve heard. Let’s review the facts, shall we?
  • It was not Obama’s idea to build a mosque, the project has nothing to do with him. A New York property developer put in an application to build an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, and that application was approved by NYC authorities. Obama was asked to weigh in, and he affirmed the constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion and said they have the right to build it.
  • They are not building a 13-story mosque. They are building a 13-story Islamic cultural center that will have things like daycare, a theatre, a gym, and a swimming pool (plan pictured below). It would be similiar to the 92nd Street Y, a Jewish cultural center that is open to everyone. It would contain one small prayer room/mosque within it.
  • The site is not at "ground zero". It is several blocks away, in an area which never had any connection to the World Trade Center and is so out of the way you'd have to be looking for this thing to find it. The building was previously a department store.
  • The Imam that has been the chief advocate for this center, Abdul Ralph, is not a "radical". He was actually in charge of Islamic outreach in the George W. Bush administration.
  • According to a recent poll, a majority of Manhattan residents approve of the cultural center being built. But nationwide, the vast majority of Americans oppose it.
  • The cultural center would include a 9/11 memorial. Not just for the over 60 Muslims killed in the attacks, but for all the innocent victims.
At first this building application was a low-key local story in New York City. But then the right wing blogosphere got ahold of it and it quickly spread into the mainstream media. Former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich started doing the TV interview rounds saying it would be like Nazis building a monument at a Jewish memorial, and that the US shouldn't allow mosques near ground zero "so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia".

But the issue really caught hold this week after Obama’s comments. Now the story has become about how much the president’s assertion of religious liberty is going to hurt the Democrats in the November election. It’s now being talked about as if it’s the biggest issue of the campaign, with every candidate expected to weigh in. Just look at the press releases issued on the 16th by the Republican National Senatorial Committee, which is in charge of electing Republicans to the senate. It looks like a spambot infected their page, as they issued one press release after another demanding that each Democrat in the race give an opinion on ‘the most important issue of the day’.

Has the United States really reached this new level of insanity? The most absurd aspect of this whole thing is that there isn’t even an issue here to be arguing over. Because the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, it is not legal for New York City to deny these people a permit to build their Islamic community center in lower Manhattan merely on the basis of the fact that they are Muslim. So what is it Republicans are demanding here? They keep repeating a line that “of course” this group that the right to build this center there, but the shouldn’t because it’s in poor taste and dishonors the memory of those who died on September 11th. And I’ve heard this line repeated from many of my American friends on Facebook the past few days. “Well of course they have the right to build it there, but come on!”

But even this ostensibly "nuanced" argument relies on a basic assumption that is just not rational. By taking at face value the assertion that a mosque is offensive to those who died on 9/11, you are buying into the main argument of Al Qaeda – that this is a religious war pitting Islam against the West. The implication is that all Muslims bear responsibility and guilt for 9/11, and it is therefore “insensitive” for them to congregate near ground zero. Without this central assumption, there is no case for why this community center should not be there.

But this assumption is patently absurd. It would be like saying there should be no Christian churches built in Oklahoma City because domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh was a fundamentalist Christian(in fact there is a Christian memorial at the site, pictured below), or that churches shouldn’t be built next to abortion clinics where doctors have been murdered by Christian fanatics. It would be like saying Catholic churches shouldn’t be built next to playgrounds because all Catholics are either paedophiles, or they bear responsibility for the paedophilia committed by priests and therefore it would be “insensitive” for them to be so close to an area with children. The potential examples are endless.

“But what harm does it do for them to just build this mosque down the street?” I hear in response. Muslim Americans would surely disagree that it would do no harm. By telling them they cannot build their community center in lower Manhattan you are assuming that they have some culpability for what happened on 9/11. Otherwise there is no case for moving it. And if moving it is just to spare the feelings of some people who might have the misguided impression that it was Islam that attacked the twin towers rather than a small group of Islamic terrorists, what kind of a reason is that? Should people be denied their civil rights because if they exercise those rights it might make other people uncomfortable? And even if it were to move, there's apparently no aggreement among the critics of this plan on how far is far enough. Once you start talking about a "mosque exclusion zone" things have gotten pretty ridiculous.

Who would have thought I’d be longing for the ‘good old days’ under George W. Bush, but the fact is he did an excellent job of making the distinction between all of Islam and the terrorists who attacked America on 9/11. He constantly reminded the American public that the US was not at war with Islam and that Islam is a “religion of peace” (note: his words not mine) that is being "warped" by these extremists. Now that Bush is gone, this controversy is exposing the fact that Americans apparently never really bought that argument from him. Sure, they followed Bush’s advice at first, because he commanded great respect from the right and was “tough on terror” in their eyes. There was little violence or retribution against Muslims after 9/11 and incendiary comments about the religion, even on Fox News, were kept to a minimum. But now a Democratic president is more vulnerable on the issue, especially one that was accused by the right of being Muslim himself during the election campaign. For Obama, affirming the rights of Muslims is a liability. For Bush, it won praise. It’s the consistent double-standard for Democratic versus Republican politicians.

And it wasn't just pie-in-the-sky PC nonsense that motivated Bush to repeatedly issue this disclaimer to the American public. It was a knowledge that scapegoating and ostracising Muslims will only increase Islamic fundamentalism because it will foster resentment, particularly among the American Muslim population. This will likely create more men like Faisal Shahzad, the attempted Times Square bomber. If the vast majority of the American public is just going to assume that all Muslims are terrorists, or that they already bear the guilt for terrorist acts, than it's not much of a leap for Muslims to think they might as well just become one. But the today's Republican party, desperate to get back into power and now overtaken by the far-right fringes of the party, apparently doesn't have the same foresight as Bush. This is a dangerous game they're playing here, and this mosque debate will fan the flames of anti-Americanism in the Islamic world.

This thing is so ugly, and it’s only going to get uglier as election day approaches. It’s one of those emotional issues that Republicans love to exploit during an election cycle which will quickly fade away from the public consciousness after November. It just makes me profoundly sad. I’m going to New York next week to visit family and friends, and I have to say things like this make me dread the trip. There is so much in that country that makes my heart sink to the bottom of my stomach, and this is just the latest expression of that.

11 comments:

Billy said...

I was having THE SAME debate in my head this morning on the subway. I was thinking about Oklahoma City and other examples where churches are built in the shadow of a sensitive subject. This is all way out of hand. I mean.. I'm living here and it doesn't bother me.

Brian said...

From the NY Daily News:

"In a walk of the streets within three blocks of Ground Zero, the Daily News counted 17 pizza shops, 18 bank branches, 11 bars, 10 shoe stores and 17 separate salons where a girl can get her lady parts groomed."

Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/2010/08/16/2010-08-16_a_sea_of_filth_near_ground_zer0_mosque_gets_all_the_press_but_porns_around_corne.html#ixzz0wxy4w3QZ

Brian said...

Also, This story does a good job explaining how a nothing became a "story"

"To a remarkable extent, a Salon review of the origins of the story found, the controversy was kicked up ...and driven by Pamela Geller, a right-wing, viciously anti-Muslim, conspiracy-mongering blogger, whose sinister portrayal of the project was embraced by Rupert Murdoch's New York Post."

http://www.salon.com/news/politics/war_room/2010/08/16/ground_zero_mosque_origins

Alison said...

There are strip joints and sleazy bars in the area where they want to build this mosque. They are in the blocks next to and adjoining that immediate block on Murray, Warren and Chambers. That actual block is pretty much a blighted collection of empty buildings and shut storefronts in the middle of sleazy dive bars, strip clubs and the tourist shopping monstrosity that is Century 21. A cultural center akin to 92nd St Y would provide a much needed boost to the non-sleazy small businesses in the neighborhood whose sole purpose is not to exploit visitors to Ground Zero or cater to alcoholic finance scum bags and construction crews who enjoy a side of misogyny with their booze after work. One of the bars closest to there is known for having ladies generally considered past their prime light sensitive parts of their anatomy on fire for very small tips. And that's not even one of the strip clubs. The good places to eat, cafes and niche stores nearby, including the city's best hiking and outdoor store, are barely hanging on in this lovely economy. Urban renewal sounds like a positively awful proposition for the people who actually live and work there, right?

Marianne said...

I came over from Patti Digh's blog and I'm so glad I did.
So very well written and I agree whole heartedly. Living in Oklahoma, which is a very red state, is so very disheartening, listening to the woefully misinformed ranting.. gah.

John said...

First, having been in the Middle East for over a year and a half, I can safely say that, to Muslims, any building containing a mosque IS a mosque. And mosques are NOT open to the general public like the 92nd St Y is.

I also find it interesting that the same arguments being asserted to allow the construction of the mosque are the same ones ignored by the liberal left when the issue of the Ten Commandments in a school or courthouse is debated. It is sheer hypocrisy to say that Muslims, when supported by the local population have the right to build a mosque, but a school board, when supported by the parents of that school district, don't have the right to display the Ten Commandments.

All theory aside, my main disagreement with the mosque construction is, from what I understand, federal, a.k.a. taxpayer, funds will be used to finance the construction. Regardless of the right to build a religious institution, it is blatantly ANTI Constitutional to finance the building of ANY
religious structure with public money. If you want separation of Church and State, support all of it, or join the hypocrites.

Build the mosque, but don't use one penny of MY taxes. Let them pay for its construction.

John said...

Correction to above post:

"but a school board, when supported by the parents of that school district, don't have the right to display the Ten Commandments."

Should read:

but a school board doesn't have the right....,when supported by the parents of that school district.

My apologies for the error.

Kendra said...

John, each time I see someone begin an argument with "from what I understand," I know there is a very, very good chance that they do not.

This building is NOT being funded by taxpayer dollars.

The fact that you are here repeating a lie and basing your conclusions on this blatant falsehood is evidence that the author of the original post is spot-on about how hysterical this discussion has become.

Alex said...

Wow, I don't even know where to start with the inaccuracies in John's comment. Your argument about the ten commandments has no relation to the "mosque" controversy because that issue is over whether relgious symbols should be placed inside PUBLIC buildings. This community center is being built on PRIVATE property. Furthermore the community center is not receiving a dime of public financing, it is privately financed. Do you get all your facts from Fox News? Your level of ignorance is astounding.

dubaicory said...

i live in dubai, and what ever is clever here mostly for business reasons because people wouldn't want to come here if what fundimentalist islam. however not 30 kilometers to the south is Sharjah and it is fundementalist islam. no shorts in public, women must be covered, a man and women are not allowed to ride together in a car unless the are related or married and you have to show proof if you are stopped.

Big difference between the two: i don't think anybody hates muslims but when you hear about honor killings, stonings, lashings for simple things like daughters going to a party, or people being caught smoking during ramadan, or if a women raped it is her fault (which by the way has happened in dubai and the women was convicted all possessions confiscated, served 6 months in jail and was deported. sounds fair huh?) it sounds very oppresive and people are scared that these things are going to be pushed on them.

what do you do?

to me it isn't islam or christianity or buddhism or whatever else you can come up with it is the nature of religion period. it is oppresive, unnatural to the human condition and i really wish that people would just evolve past these bogus stories, myths, trite expanations to fill themselves and make them feel good.

people the world and the universe is a chaotic place filled with hurt and anguish and things that happen for no reason and religion adds to this. be the change you want to see in the world and there will be no need for religion.

dubaicory said...

i live in dubai, and what ever is clever here mostly for business reasons because people wouldn't want to come here if what fundimentalist islam. however not 30 kilometers to the south is Sharjah and it is fundementalist islam. no shorts in public, women must be covered, a man and women are not allowed to ride together in a car unless the are related or married and you have to show proof if you are stopped.

Big difference between the two: i don't think anybody hates muslims but when you hear about honor killings, stonings, lashings for simple things like daughters going to a party, or people being caught smoking during ramadan, or if a women raped it is her fault (which by the way has happened in dubai and the women was convicted all possessions confiscated, served 6 months in jail and was deported. sounds fair huh?) it sounds very oppresive and people are scared that these things are going to be pushed on them.

what do you do?

to me it isn't islam or christianity or buddhism or whatever else you can come up with it is the nature of religion period. it is oppresive, unnatural to the human condition and i really wish that people would just evolve past these bogus stories, myths, trite expanations to fill themselves and make them feel good.

people the world and the universe is a chaotic place filled with hurt and anguish and things that happen for no reason and religion adds to this. be the change you want to see in the world and there will be no need for religion.