Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mosque hysteria is shameful (and strategically idiotic)

Tolerance and cultural & religious pluralism usually goes hand in hand with great scientific cultures. I still haven't seen the recent film Agora (c'mon Amherst Cinema - get it here), about the destruction of the ancient Library of Alexandria, but the central message is on tolerance. Since this blog focuses on science in the Muslim world, the issue of intolerance in Pakistan (against different religious minorities, but its treatment of Ahmadiyya sect is particularly shameful), Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc. comes up.

So it is shameful to see the mosque hysteria in the US. Yes, it has become an emotionally charged issue and not everyone who opposes the Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero is a bigot. But bigots do also exist everywhere - and one hopes that the narrative of the bigots does not become mainstream. Enter the Republican Party and the mid-term elections. They have clearly decided to make this a political issue and have blurred the distinction between Muslims in general (about 1.4 billion worldwide) and Al-Qaeeda (estimated to be a few thousand). Thus, people like Newt Gingrich are successfully creating the narrative promoted by Al-Qaeeda itself (check out this article: Sheikh your Newtie - The Gingrich-Bin Laden Alliance).

Yes, much of this is tied to domestic US politics. But it is foolish to think that this is how the rest of the world (especially the Muslim world) will see it. Not only is this an assault on idea of religious freedom in the US, but this will have consequences for US foreign policy as well. However, there are also a number of people and publications, that are standing up to this shameful opposition and they need to acknowledged as well - and it is great that there is some high profile support (Harry Reid, of course, excluded) for the right to build the Islamic Center near Ground Zero.

First check out this rant by Keith Olberman on yesterday's Countdown:


Plus, today's NYT came out with a strong editorial today: The Constitution and the Mosque
Like President George W. Bush before him, President Obama warned against linking all followers of Islam to terrorists. “Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam — it is a gross distortion of Islam,” he rightly said. It is our tolerance of others, he said, “that quintessentially American creed,” that stands in contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001.
We wish he hadn’t diluted the message the next day, telling reporters that he wasn’t commenting on “the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding.”
He would have done better if he had explained the wisdom of going ahead with the project, which developers said is intended to bring Muslims and non-Muslims together. In addition to a place of worship, it would have a pool and performing arts center. They also have said they want the board to include members from other faiths — a promise they should take care to keep.
...
Mr. Obama and all people of conscience need to push back hard. Defending all Americans’ right to worship — and their right to build places to worship — is fundamental to who we are.
Similarly, William Dalrymple - also in NYT - brings up an interesting point regarding the mosque opposition:
The problem with such claims goes far beyond the fate of a mosque in downtown Manhattan. They show a dangerously inadequate understanding of the many divisions, complexities and nuances within the Islamic world — a failure that hugely hampers Western efforts to fight violent Islamic extremism and to reconcile Americans with peaceful adherents of the world’s second-largest religion.
Most of us are perfectly capable of making distinctions within the Christian world. The fact that someone is a Boston Roman Catholic doesn’t mean he’s in league with Irish Republican Army bomb makers, just as not all Orthodox Christians have ties to Serbian war criminals or Southern Baptists to the murderers of abortion doctors.
Yet many of our leaders have a tendency to see the Islamic world as a single, terrifying monolith. Had the George W. Bush administration been more aware of the irreconcilable differences between the Salafist jihadists of Al Qaeda and the secular Baathists of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the United States might never have blundered into a disastrous war, and instead kept its focus on rebuilding post-Taliban Afghanistan while the hearts and minds of the Afghans were still open to persuasion.
I appreciate his point about diversity amongst Muslims. I have recently returned from Malaysia - and I have been absolutely astonished/fascinated by the cultural/political/social face of Islam there. And this is after growing up in Pakistan and having visited countries like Turkey and Egypt - alongside having an experience with the Muslim diaspora in the US. So it is indeed comical that someone would even think of treating all of the Muslims as a monolithic entity.

Rest of Dalrymple's article deals with sufism and the recent attacks on sufi shrines in Pakistan. Check out his full article here.

But then of course, the best commentary on the issue is provided by Jon Stewart (sorry for those who can't watch it). Here is an excellent piece from yesterday's Daily Show:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Mosque-Erade
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Let's hope that sense (and the sensible side) prevails on this issue. There was a time when Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps in the US. Or a time of racial segregation, before the Civil Rights Movement . Or McCarthyism. The bad thing is that these things have happened in the past - and at the time many people were convinced that this was a good idea. The good thing is that many Americans also stood up against these steps and ultimately changed the tide. I'm pretty sure, the mosque and other anti-Muslim hysteria being drummed up by the Republican party will also die out and many years now we will look at this episode in an embarrassing light. Constitutionally and domestically, the US will get back on track. But what about the damage to the US reputation of freedom-of-religion - especially in the Muslim world? That may turn out to be a more permanent mark.

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Bonus: A Salon piece dissecting an interview by a CNN anchor on the mosque issue.

7 comments:

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

This is ridiculous:

Had the George W. Bush administration been more aware of the irreconcilable differences between the Salafist jihadists of Al Qaeda and the secular Baathists of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the United States might never have blundered into a disastrous war, and instead kept its focus on rebuilding post-Taliban Afghanistan while the hearts and minds of the Afghans were still open to persuasion.

There's almost nothing there that makes sense or fits the facts. Punditry for a mosque or whatever is one thing, asserting such nonsense is quite another. We don't know why GWB's administration wanted to invade Iraq, but it is pretty clear it wasn't due to a misunderstanding. We don't know why they neglected Afghanistan, but it is clear they are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.

I will also point out that this particular paper, the NYT, apologized to its readers for its role in securing public support/consent for the Iraq war. It didn't look like they were misunderstanding anything back then either, they were just siding with power and aiding the administration's effort. An Islamic center or whatever couldn't have fixed that problem, because the sheer lack of integrity evident in their reporting was not caused by lack of information but at the very least a willingness to bend and comply. The proposed center cannot insert backbones into people who have willingly had theirs removed.
It looks like what NYC really needs is a public school for spin avoidance and a public center for exposing obscurantism in punditry.

And, here's the thing if people want to take a truly principled stance: do not argue that this particular set of Muslims have compatible values to Western ones, argue that even if they didn't they still have the right to build their building. This will probably fail to be convincing much in the same way freedom of speech arguments fail for public billboards.

I have no opinion as to what should be done with that plot of land given the public sentiment. If it were up to me I'd just apply the regular zoning and permit criteria and make sure that the local law enforcement protected the building against violent action. Obviously it isn't as simple as that, though.

Salman Hameed said...

Bulent,

I actually agree with you on the Iraq comment. At the same time the lack of understanding amongst the general population did help in getting the backing for a particular political agenda - and in convincing people that there was a link between 9/11 plotters and Saddam Hussain.

"And, here's the thing if people want to take a truly principled stance: do not argue that this particular set of Muslims have compatible values to Western ones, argue that even if they didn't they still have the right to build their building. This will probably fail to be convincing much in the same way freedom of speech arguments fail for public billboards. "

I think we are not even close to this level of discussion.

But I do think that this is an issue (or at least has now become an issue) of global strategic importance. From that perspective, I think the decision should be pretty straight forward.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Yeah, I realize the discussion is not even close to that level, but it ought to be and it can be. I do think justifying muddled thinking and PR efforts for whatever lofty aim is a dangerous application of ends justify the means.

Now, if I were to get manipulative -- but no less principled -- I'd point out that allowing that building to be built in some form regardless of the ideology of its owners is as American as having the National Socialist Party of America holding their rally in Skokie, IL. We know this is not a hard principle for Americans to understand because they have understood it in the past and -- imho not too unjustifiably -- many took pride in it. If the group isn't breaking any laws, it can exist and do its thing, own and operate building etc. under the protection of the law.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Oh I should point out that just I went and looked at pictures of what the thing is supposed to look like. It looks like a rectangular building with lots of glass. Is that so? Given all the fuss I expected a domed thing with minarets, perhaps verses from the Koran in decorative Arabic calligraphy and such visible at the front and that the City was called to interfere and prevent its building on those grounds (ie the billboard example).

Salman Hameed said...

"Given all the fuss I expected a domed thing with minarets, perhaps verses from the Koran in decorative Arabic calligraphy and such visible at the front and that the City was called to interfere and prevent its building on those grounds (ie the billboard example)."

Yup - no visible signs or anything like that. All this fuss is for short-term political gains - and this is the reason why this is crazy.

Kate said...

Hi, Salman -
I know I’m a bit late in my comments, but just wanted to add my two cents about this – as an NYC resident, I am repeatedly being surprised and saddened by what I am reading, seeing and hearing in terms of “anti-mosque” sentiment. I suppose on the positive side, it shows that I’m still an optimist about humanity. But on the negative side, I am finding it very hard to NOT tear my hair out in frustration. (I have read a good book – “Us and Them: The Science of Identity” – that reminds me that the Us vs. Them mentality is deeply, deeply ingrained, and can be based on pretty much anything, including race, religion, sports team, and even shirt color.)

Imam Rauf has been such a rock star to me (yes: rock star) for so many years for his work in interfaith understanding that I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t realize he’s amazing, and that his proposed project would be a wonderful addition to this incredibly diverse city. Especially since the responses so clearly demonstrate the need for improved communication and relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims. I am trying to tell myself that – as with the Religious Right – the loudest folks who get the media coverage do NOT speak for everyone. But I still find the poll results disappointing. (63% opposition in NYC? Really??? Jeez – did they include any Muslims in that poll?)

And now – although I hate to say it – I’m even starting to think that they should reconsider the location – even though I think that would mean a victory for fear/hatred/religious intolerance. I just don’t know how it’s going to turn for the better otherwise. New Yorkers are very attached to their 9/11 experiences and sentiments, and the amazing unity we experienced in the few days and weeks immediately following 9/11 has definitely vanished, especially with the wars. There has been a lot of Us vs. Them, in all kinds of combinations. But Imam Rauf and Daisy Khan both seem to be more optimistic than I am, seeing this as an opportunity for increased communication and understanding. Bless them. I am still trying to figure out the best way I can make a difference without succumbing to the temptation to go to the protests and bonk people on the head. (I do understand that will not progress us further along the road to peace. The little Buddhist in my head is still trying to reason with the little demon who shares the space.) So I’m trying to think of alternatives, and to visualize ideas involving compassion, communication, respectful listening, education, and a sense of humor (with thanks again to Jon Stewart).

Suggestions are welcome.

Salman Hameed said...

Kate,

Yes, you are right. Now things have been blown so out of proportion that the Park 51 option is getting smaller and smaller. Perhaps, if they can wait out the primaries this fall, the political factor will most likely go away.