August 19, 2010
A mosque and community centre planned two blocks from the 9/11 attacks in lower Manhattan is one giant step closer to becoming a reality, after New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission recently voted unanimously against granting historic protection to the site’s pre-existing building.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself a Jew, has been a vocal proponent. Rights groups and religious leaders around the country have defended the project, known as Park51. Even US President Barack Obama has chimed in, pointing out that in the American context Park51 has a right to go forth.
It is encouraging to see the American values of freedom of worship and equality guiding the reasoning of these well-placed voices.
Unfortunately, a majority of Americans are in no mood to extend those basic rights to Muslims. A CNN/Opinion Research poll shows that 70 per cent of Americans disapprove of the project. It has spawned a national controversy replete with vocal protests, and touched off a wider debate on the nature of Islam.
OK, let’s face it. A mosque planned near Ground Zero was bound to stir controversy. Americans, after all, still vividly recall that September morning when Muslims crashed two planes into the World Trade Center towers, killing 3,000.
But the debate would be far less protracted if Muslims had concertedly used the time since 9/11 to redeem Islam’s global image. Instead, the Islamic world’s crisis of extremism has swelled, with little outcry from moderates, severely tarnishing perceptions of the faith. From Spain to England to where I write this in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, barbarous acts targeting innocent civilians continue to be committed in the name of Islam. America itself has been the target of numerous attacks, some hatched by American-born Muslims. (In May a Pakistani-American tried blowing up Times Square, and earlier this month 14 Somali-Americans were charged with trying to join the Al-Qaeda-linked terror group Al-Shabaab.)
You can’t expect to win mass popular support for mosques under such conditions. Not in New York and not just about anywhere else in the non-Muslim world.
The dispute over the Ground Zero mosque should thus serve as a wake-up call: that unless these acts subside, unless the moderate Muslim majority does more to rid the community of these diabolical elements, unless Muslims living in non-Muslim countries show a greater commitment to the core values of those countries than to the imposition of Islamic law, the road ahead will not get easier.
It isn’t fair to conflate the majority of Muslims with terror and intolerance, and it isn’t only Muslims who should combat Islamaphobia. The international media have a role to play, and non-Muslims should be more mindful of the fluidity and diversity of Islam.
But that’s not going to happen unless moderate Muslims adopt a less dualistic, more pro-active approach to global injustices. When, for instance, so-called moderate Muslims take to the streets of Kuala Lumpur to burn Israeli and American flags following a confrontation off the coast of Gaza in which the facts were (and remain) murky but fail to speak up weeks later when Muslim terrorists blow up two night spots in one of Africa’s safest and friendliest cities during the finals of the world’s most unifying sporting event, Muslim claims of moderation will be met with suspicion.
The Muslim world can insist on the nature and true meaning of Islam all it wants. But in a modern, humanistic world governed by reason, a faith’s value will be judged not by the claims of the faithful but by the sum of their actions. A violent minority with a global reach will not be discounted. Nor will a silent majority.
Obama was right to remind Americans of their “capacity to show not merely tolerance, but to show respect towards those who are different from us,” and that “that way of life, that quintessentially American creed, stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us on that September morning.”
But Park51’s opponents are claiming allegiance to that creed by cleverly if perhaps disingenuously arguing that the issue is not a matter of rights but taste and motives. Republican Rep Peter King said: “While the Muslim community has the right to build the mosque, they are abusing that right by needlessly offending so many people who have suffered so much.”
I’m not wholly convinced of King’s logic. Yes, public opinion is strongly opposed to Park51, and if construction proceeds but strong opposition persists, Park51 will burn rather than build bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims; yet it also carries the potential to be a unifying force.
For the sad truth is that Muslims will forever be associated with 9/11. But the terrorists who struck that day are just one face of Islam. A modern progressive institution near Ground Zero could serve as a powerful and necessary reminder to Americans of Islam’s more tolerant strains.
Doubts abound as to whether that’s the type of institution about to be constructed in the shadows of Ground Zero. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a main player behind Park51, has reportedly said that the US was an accessory to 9/11 (as has a certain former prime minister of Malaysia). Feisal has openly called for Islamic law and has not ruled out aspects of it that restrict freedom of speech in the US, according to Robert Spencer, a commentator on Islam and terrorism.
But America has always been that grand experiment, a bustling marketplace of ideas, the big, messy democracy where fear and resistance often gives way to progress in one form or other. I don’t see how prohibiting the mosque’s construction is going to dispel Islamaphobia, just as racial segregation did nothing to deliver whites from their irrational fear of blacks.
Of course, one of America’s great strengths has been its ability to absorb people of all walks of life into the nation’s fabric. I am reminded of this in Malaysia. I am reminded of it here in sub-Saharan Africa. And now, as that virtue comes under threat, I am reminded of it in America, where a conservative Tea Party movement aims to “protect” the country from socialists, Muslims, immigrants and just about everything else in the world that isn’t white and Christian. This doesn’t strengthen America; quite the contrary.
Marginalising the American Muslim community will have the same pernicious effect, and that’s precisely what banning the Ground Zero project will serve to do.
Furore over Park51 is an opportunity for Americans and Muslims to move forward together. But for that to happen Americans will need to conquer their fears and refuse to be manipulated by politicians looking to exploit the mosque controversy ahead of mid-term elections in November. And Muslims will need to absorb and constructively act upon the knowledge that attitudes towards mosques, minarets, veils and the faith itself is to a large extent in their hands.
* A version of this entry ran on MalaysianInsider.com