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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 5    Issue 8   01 - 15 September 2010

Mosque near Ground Zero and the Surge of Islamophobia

Our Mosque Madness


Maybe, for Barack Obama, it depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is.

When the president skittered back from his grandiose declaration at an iftar celebration at the White House Friday that Muslims enjoy freedom of religion in America and have the right to build a mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan, he offered a Clintonesque parsing.

“I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there,” he said the morning after he commented on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there. “I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.”

Let me be perfectly clear, Mr. Perfectly Unclear President: You cannot take such a stand on a matter of first principle and then take it back the next morning when, lo and behold, Harry Reid goes craven and the Republicans attack. What is so frightening about Fox News?

Some critics have said the ultimate victory for Osama and the 9/11 hijackers would be to allow a mosque to be built near ground zero.

Actually, the ultimate victory for Osama and the 9/11 hijackers is the moral timidity that would ban a mosque from that neighborhood. Our enemies struck at our heart, but did they also warp our identity?

The war against the terrorists is not a war against Islam. In fact, you can’t have an effective war against the terrorists if it is a war on Islam.

George W. Bush understood this. And it is odd to see Barack Obama less clear about this matter than his predecessor. It’s time for W. to weigh in.

This — along with immigration reform and AIDS in Africa — was one of his points of light. As the man who twice went to war in the Muslim world, he has something of an obligation to add his anti-Islamophobia to this mosque madness. W. needs to get his bullhorn back out.

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are both hyper-articulate former law professors. But Clinton never presented himself as a moral guide to the country. So when he weaseled around, or triangulated on some issues, it was part of his ultra-fallible persona — and consistent with his identity as a New Democrat looking for a Third Way.

But Obama presents himself as a paragon of high principle. So when he flops around on things like “don’t ask, don’t tell” or shrinks back from one of his deepest beliefs about the freedom of religion anywhere and everywhere in America, it’s not pretty. Even worse, this is the man who staked his historical reputation on a new and friendlier engagement with the Muslim world. The man who extended his hand to Tehran has withdrawn his hand from Park Place.

Paranoid about looking weak, Obama allowed himself to be weakened by perfectly predictable Republican hysteria. Which brings us to Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich fancies himself an intellectual, a historian, a deep thinker — the opposite number, you might say, of Sarah Palin.

Yet here is Gingrich attempting to out-Palin Palin on Fox News: “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington.” There is no more demagogic analogy than that.

Have any of the screaming critics noticed that there already are two mosques in the same neighborhood — one four blocks away and one 12 blocks away.

Should they be dismantled? And what about the louche liquor stores and strip clubs in the periphery of the sacred ground?

By now you have to be willfully blind not to know that the imam in charge of the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is the moderate Muslim we have allegedly been yearning for.

So look where we are. The progressive Democrat in the White House, the first president of the United States with Muslim roots, has been morally trumped by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, two moderate Republicans who have spoken bravely and lucidly about not demonizing and defaming an entire religion in the name of fighting its radicals.

Criticizing his fellow Republicans, Governor Christie said that while he understood the pain and sorrow of family members who lost loved ones on 9/11, “we cannot paint all of Islam with that brush.”

He charged the president with trying to turn the issue into a political football. But that is not quite right. It already was a political football and the president fumbled it.

(Source: The New York Times, August 17, 2010)

Park51 and the shame of American skittishness

HIGH-PROFILE conservatives contend that no one denies that the owners of the property at 51 Park Place in lower Manhattan have the legal right to build an Islamic community centre and mosque on their property. Rather, their argument is that a building devoted to Muslim purposes mere blocks from the site of the enormously deadly attacks on the World Trade Center—attacks motivated in part by a virulently radical strain of Islam—would be in exceedingly bad taste.

However, as this week's Economist/YouGov poll shows, slightly more than half of those identifying themselves as Republican do deny that Muslims have a constitutional right to build a mosque near the World Trade Center site, as do a quarter of those identifying themselves as a Democrat or Independent. Moreover, groups of Americans have been protesting the construction of mosques in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and Temecula, California, none of which are mere blocks from ground zero.

I think this adds up to fairly strong evidence that much of the opposition to the Park51 project flows from a general uneasiness about Islam, and that the argument that it is offensively provocative is to a significant extent cover for less noble sentiments. But why should Americans be uneasy about the growth of a religion that commands the allegiance of a tiny percentage of the population? Could it be that Americans, and conservatives especially, have grown sceptical of the capacity of American culture to accommodate even a little more religious pluralism?

Andrew Potter writes sensibly in the Ottawa Citizen:

It is hard not to conclude that the reason conservatives are so upset by the proposed mosque is that they don't have much faith in their own culture, and it is too bad they don't have Voltaire's confidence in liberalism. Imagine a society that could not just permit, but actually encourage Muslims to build a mosque a few blocks from Ground Zero. How fearsome would that be?

Mr Potter is right, I think, that the hubbub over the Park51 project has revealed the anxiety of an American public increasingly convinced that theirs is a culture too fragile for unfettered religious freedom. One would think that the proud denizens of the home of the brave would behave rather more bravely, and would not need Canadian columnists to tell them to grow spines.

(Source: The Economist, August 21, 2010)

Build that mosque

The campaign against the proposed Cordoba centre in New York is unjust and dangerous

WHAT makes a Muslim in Britain or America wake up and decide that he is no longer a Briton or American but an Islamic “soldier” fighting a holy war against the infidel? Part of it must be pull: the lure of jihadism. Part is presumably push: a feeling that he no longer belongs to the place where he lives. Either way, the results can be lethal. A chilling feature of the suicide video left by Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the band that killed more than 50 people in London in July, 2005, was the homely Yorkshire accent in which he told his countrymen that “your” government is at war with “my people”.

For a while America seemed less vulnerable than Europe to home-grown jihadism. The Pew Research Centre reported three years ago that most Muslim Americans were “largely assimilated, happy with their lives… and decidedly American in their outlook, values and attitudes.” Since then it has become clear that American Muslims can be converted to terrorism too. Nidal Malik Hassan, born in America and an army major, killed 13 of his comrades in a shooting spree at Fort Hood. Faisal Shahzad, a legal immigrant, tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square. But something about America—the fact that it is a nation of immigrants, perhaps, or its greater religiosity, or the separation of church and state, or the opportunities to rise—still seems to make it an easier place than Europe for Muslims to feel accepted and at home.

It was in part to preserve this feeling that George Bush repeated like a scratched gramophone record that Americans were at war with the terrorists who had attacked them on 9/11, not at war with Islam. Barack Obama has followed suit: the White House national security strategy published in May says that one way to guard against radicalisation at home is to stress that “diversity is part of our strength—not a source of division or insecurity.” This is hardly rocket science. America is plainly safer if its Muslims feel part of “us” and not, like Mohammad Sidique Khan, part of “them”. And that means reminding Americans of the difference—a real one, by the way, not one fabricated for the purposes of political correctness—between Islam, a religion with a billion adherents, and al-Qaeda, a terrorist outfit that claims to speak in Islam’s name but has absolutely no right or mandate to do so.

Why would any responsible American politician want to erase that vital distinction? Good question. Ask Sarah Palin, or Newt Gingrich, or the many others who have lately clambered aboard the offensive campaign to stop Cordoba House, a proposed community centre and mosque, from being built in New York two blocks from the site of the twin towers. Every single argument put forward for blocking this project leans in some way on the misconceived notion that all Muslims, and Islam itself, share the responsibility for, or are tainted by, the atrocities of 9/11.

In a tweet last month from Alaska, Ms Palin called on “peaceful Muslims” to “refudiate” the “ground-zero mosque” because it would “stab” American hearts. But why should it? Cordoba House is not being built by al-Qaeda. To the contrary, it is the brainchild of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a well-meaning American cleric who has spent years trying to promote interfaith understanding, not an apostle of religious war like Osama bin Laden. He is modelling his project on New York’s 92nd Street Y, a Jewish community centre that reaches out to other religions. The site was selected in part precisely so that it might heal some of the wounds opened by the felling of the twin towers and all that followed. True, some relatives of 9/11 victims are hurt by the idea of a mosque going up near the site. But that feeling of hurt makes sense only if they too buy the false idea that Muslims in general were perpetrators of the crime. Besides, what about the feelings, and for that matter the rights, of America’s Muslims—some of whom also perished in the atrocity?

Ms Palin’s argument does at least have one mitigating virtue: it concentrates on the impact the centre might have, without impugning the motives of those who want to build it. The same half-defence can be made of the Anti-Defamation League, a venerable Jewish organisation created to fight anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry. To the dismay of many liberal Jews, the ADL has also urged the centre’s backers to seek another site in order to spare the feelings of families of the 9/11 victims. But at least it concedes that they have every right to build at this site—and that they might (only might, since the ADL hints at vague concerns about their ideology and finances) genuinely have chosen it in order to send a positive message about Islam.

The Saudi non-sequitur

No such plea of mitigation can be entered on behalf of Mr Gingrich. The former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives may or may not have presidential pretensions, but he certainly has intellectual ones. That makes it impossible to excuse the mean spirit and scrambled logic of his assertion that “there should be no mosque near ground zero so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia”. Come again? Why hold the rights of Americans who happen to be Muslim hostage to the policy of a foreign country that happens also to be Muslim? To Mr Gingrich, it seems, an American Muslim is a Muslim first and an American second. Al-Qaeda would doubtless concur.

Mr Gingrich also objects to the centre’s name. Imam Feisal says he chose “Cordoba” in recollection of a time when the rest of Europe had sunk into the Dark Ages but Muslims, Jews and Christians created an oasis of art, culture and science. Mr Gingrich sees only a “deliberate insult”, a reminder of a period when Muslim conquerors ruled Spain. Like Mr bin Laden, Mr Gingrich is apparently still relitigating the victories and defeats of religious wars fought in Europe and the Middle East centuries ago. He should rejoin the modern world, before he does real harm.

(Source: The Economist, August 5, 2010)

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