August 30, 2010 - By now people not only all over the United States but also all around the world know about the Ground Zero Mosque. The rhetoric is getting ugly.
On August 16 Newt Gingrich said the following on national TV:
Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There's no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center. (1)
One week later a passenger stabbed a New York City cab driver after the latter identified himself as a Muslim.
Are these events connected? The situation has its ironies. The passenger had a history of mental illness, and made no mention of the Ground Zero Mosque. And it is reported that the cab driver was opposed to the mosque. Still, the cab driver did say he was concerned that the furious emotion released in the mosque debate may have contributed to the incident. We should share his concern.
American Muslims are not Nazis and the idea must not be planted in people's minds that they are anything of the kind. Most, like this cab driver, are good citizens. The U.S. has, in fact, a good record of assimilating its Muslim population when compared to Europe.
However, the debate over the Ground Zero Mosque seems to have triggered something frightening. Clearly, the wounds of 9/11 are still raw. One can sense hateful feelings coming from both sides. Unfortunately, what should be a conversation about ideas, or even a political debate, has become instead a screaming match.
No doubt there are people who hate Muslims and who are using this mosque as an excuse to vent that hatred. Those who, like me, oppose the building of this mosque on its proposed location have a moral obligation to distance ourselves from such sentiments. People are individuals and must always be treated as individuals. American Muslims, who pray in mosques all over this country, did not attack us on 9/11. We must not treat this country's Muslims as if they were the enemy, and must certainly not compare them to Nazis.
As true as this is, there is more to it. The pro-mosque side has also contributed to the hatred, and this has not been sufficiently recognized. That side has generally been unable to distinguish between those motivated by hate and those who are acting out of good conscience and asking legitimate questions - and the anti-mosque side does include such people. When the mosque supporters label their adversaries collectively as bigots and "Islamophobes," they descend to the level of Newt Gingrich, smearing those who disagree with them instead of dealing with the issues. And by trying to suppress those issues and the questions they raise, the supporters are pushing the opponents into a corner from which the only response left is the release of pent-up emotion. And that is exactly what we are seeing.
The distasteful forms the mosque controversy has taken on both sides demonstrate one sad fact: It is impossible today to have a rational conversation about Islam. And that may be the real meaning of the mosque story.
I orignally supported this mosque. And if someone like Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi of the Italian Muslim Association were behind it, I would still be an enthusiastic supporter. But the imam behind the mosque is no Sheikh Palazzi. It is Sheikh Feisal Abdul Rauf.
In my previous article I mentioned some reasons for opposing the project based on what I learned about Sheikh Rauf. Like many Muslim leaders he is a dissembler, saying contradictory things to different audiences so that he can appeal to all of them. This makes it hard if not impossible to know what he really believes. All we have to go on is his word.
Rauf has called himself a "supporter of Israel." But here is what he says about Israel in his book, What's Right About Islam (p. 169):
The creation of a religious nation-state that has contributed to a painful global conflict was the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Up until then, Jews lived all over the Muslim world, from Morocco in the West to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan in the East, from Turkey and the Balkans to Yemen in the southwest corner of Arabian peninsula. Major Jewish communities existed in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, the centers of Islamic culture during various parts of Islamic history. Having lived in these areas for many centuries, they looked, spoke and ate — even sang — like the rest of the people around them, except that their liturgical rites were those of Judaism rather than Christianity or Islam. The creation of Israel, and the manner of its creation, began a most unfortunate schism between Jews and Muslims, who until then throughout most of their history had experienced a deeply intimate kinship with each other. (4)
This image of Jews "singing" in Muslim lands reminds me of those apologists for slavery who love to talk about how good it was for black folks down on the plantation. The fact is that Jews living in the Muslim world were second class at best. Spain is often held up as the shining example of Muslim tolerance, but Spanish Jews under Muslim rule were degraded and massacred and eventually driven out under the threat of death if they refused to convert. One of those exiles was Maimonides. Yet the way people like Rauf tell it, Jews should be grateful to Muslims because they did not burn Jews at the stake as Christians did.
So according to Rauf, Israel should never have been created. Palestinian Jews should have been content to live under the power of the Mufti, who allied himself with Hitler. This is not what one expects to hear from a "supporter of Israel."
How "moderate" is Rauf really? In a 2005 radio interview Rauf made the following comments (the reference contains a link to the audio of the entire interview so readers can judge the context for themselves)(2).
Here is Rauf justifying terrorism:
Collateral damage is a nice thing to put on a paper but when the collateral damage is your own uncle or cousin, what passions do these arouse? How do you negotiate? How do you tell people whose homes have been destroyed, whose lives have been destroyed, that this does not justify your actions of terrorism. It's hard. Yes, it is true that it does not justify the acts of bombing innocent civilians, that does not solve the problem, but after 50 years of, in many cases, oppression, of US support of authoritarian regimes that have violated human rights in the most heinous of ways, how else do people get attention?
Of course one can sympathize with those 19 rich Saudis, recruited by Osama bin Laden and his organization, who had no other way to "get attention" but to murder 3,000 innocent people.
But what makes people, in my opinion, commit suicide for political reasons have their origins in politics and political objectives and worldly objectives rather than other-worldly objectives. But the psychology of human beings and the brittleness of the human condition and how many of us have thought about taking our own lives, we may be jilted, had a bad relationship, you know, didn't get tenure at the university, failed an important course, there's a host of reason why people feel so depressed with themselves that they are willing to contemplate ending their own lives. And if you can access those individuals and deploy them for your own worldly objectives, this is exactly what has happened in much of the Muslim world.
So that's it! A bunch of jilted lovers driven to attack people in parks and restaurants with bombs loaded with shrapnel and ball bearings.
In these two excerpts Rauf presents the classic defense of anti-civilian terrorism, which is that terrorists act out of desperation and have no other options. The Al Qaeda operatives who destroyed the World Trade Center were not poor and desperate. Whatever statement they were trying to make, surely they could have found another way to make it. If we look at terrorist incidents around the world, we find that they are driven far more by hatred than by a lack of alternatives. Yasser Arafat had an alternative when he started the Second Intifada in 2000. The negotiations immediately preceding had almost been successful and should have continued. But there is nothing more difficult to relinquish than religiously inspired hatred.
On Israel and the two-state solution:
The differences, perhaps, may lie on whether the solution lies in the two-state solution or in a one-state solution. I believe that you had someone here recently who spoke about having a one land and two people's solution to Israel. And I personally - my own personal analysis tells me that a one-state solution is a more coherent one than a two-state solution. So if we address the underlying issue, if we figure out a way to create condominiums, to condominiamise Israel and Palestine so you have two peoples co-existing on one state, then we have a different paradigm which will allow us to move forward.
So here we have a "supporter of Israel" endorsing a plan that would require Israel's elimination. The history of Jews who lived in Arab countries is proof that Middle Eastern Jews need a country of their own as protection from persecution. Rauf wants Jews to go back to being a persecuted minority in the Arab world - this would be the inevitable effect of his proposal. But Jews should not worry. They can have a good time eating, drinking, and singing.
Is this the philosophy of a man who should lead the first major project we have seen on Ground Zero since the attack? Should a man who shows sympathy for terrorists become the head of the first major new achievement at the site of the worst terrorist attack in American history? The question answers itself.
Nothing will prevent this man from building his mosque and community center on one location if not on another. Whether he has the right to do it on this one is not the issue. The issue is the project's symbolic significance and whether it is appropriate. The argument that it isn't really "Ground Zero" because it's not literally on the footprint of the World Trade Center is disingenuous. It is close enough to be a true symbol of that event. The building that stood on that site was damaged by the landing gear that fell from one of the attacking planes. In a very real sense this is Ground Zero, and it is ground hallowed by history and by the lives of the people who died there. The nuns who built a convent on Auschwitz were not Nazis. They were just not sufficiently sensitive to the meaning of the location and the symbolism of what they did. The Pope had the grace to move the convent. If Rauf were a true peacemaker, truly more interested in building bridges than achieving notoriety, he would show similar grace here.
A final word about the debate and the depths to which it has descended. "Islamophobia" is one of the nicer words we have often heard from supporters of the mosque. The term is intellectually dishonest, and it is harmful. It means to equate criticism of Islam with hatred of Muslims. As I mentioned earlier, if we cannot separate the two, then we are doomed. People of good conscience and good will may have legitimate questions about Islam. What happened on 9/11 has forced those questions to the surface. Those questions need to be asked and they need to be debated. When atrocities are committed all over the world in the name of Islam, in virtually every single country that is a center of Islam, and when that violence starts spreading beyond the Muslim world, the argument that it's all the work of a tiny minority of "perverts" "hijacking" the religion will no longer fly. A "tiny minority" cannot have so much influence in so many places, including Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Somalia, Turkey, and Afghanistan. At some point one may be forgiven for asking whether Islam's values and theocratic tendencies might have something to do with the violence, the persecution of women and religious minorities, and the embrace of extremism.
We must be allowed to discuss such issues. For too long Westerners have wanted to create Islam in their own image, in the misguided belief that all religions must be the same. The evidence has been steadily mounting that Islam will not conform to the Western image. What that means, whether it's good or whether it's bad, must be allowed for consideration. That is what should really be the meaning of the mosque protest. The true mosque protest must be a stand for tolerance. It must be a response to those who scream "Islamophobe!" telling them that Muslims are not Islam: they are people and they cannot be equated with the religion. There are good Muslims and bad Muslims just as there are good Christians and bad Christians and good Jews and bad Jews. Criticizing Islam does not and should not mean condemning Muslims. It means the willingness to recognize tendencies towards intolerance, and to root out of ourselves any similar tendencies. The true mosque protest must bring tolerance out of the appearance of intolerance, and must expose the intolerance behind the pretense of tolerance.
This is very hard to do. It takes real discipline to separate ideas from people, and to refrain from judging all people according to the ideas held by some. Those who yell "Islamophobe!" damn criticism of Islam as if it were hatred of Muslims. They conflate the religion with the people. By doing so, they encourage their opponents to do the same. By prohibiting an honest discussion of Islam and calling it bigotry, they leave no room to those who would question Islam except to play the role of bigot. And the resulting danger is that too many may become willing to play that role.
Western doubts about Islam are not going to disappear. There is too much historic basis for them. If we try to suppress those doubts, they will explode with destructive consequences. The only way to avoid that is to permit a free and rational discussion of religion in this country, exploring its implications for politics and society. This should include Islam but not be limited to it. Islam may encompass the most intense, widespread, and violent forms of intolerance in the world today, but intolerance is certainly not exclusive to Islam. The eruption over the mosque is a sign that this conversation is needed. We can choose to ignore the sign, but then should not be surprised when the next battle turns even uglier.
(1) Barr, Andy. "New Gingrich Compares Mosque to Nazis." Politico.com, August 16, 2010.
(2) Emerson, Steven. "Rauf Lecture Reveals Radicalism." Investigative Project on Terrorism, August 23, 2010.
(3) New York Post Editorial Staff. "The Cabby Attack." New York Post, August 26, 2010.
(4) Rauf, Feisal Abdul. What's Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
Peace with Realism