The controversy over Park51 has long since passed the realm of tragedy and now is well into farce. This story has displaced far more pressing issues like the floods in Pakistan, the lingering environmental disaster in the Gulf, and of course the economic crisis which will still be the primary issue driving the November elections.
Part of the problem is how few muslim American voices there are in the debate. A few have come out against the project, like Asra Nomani and Zuhdi Jasser, but as a writer to TPM pointed out, the pundit class barely qualifies as representative of mainstream opinion. I’ve certainly done my own best to lend my perspective, on the radio as well as here on the blog. Here’s my final take on the subject, as an attempt to explain my own support for Park51 as well as my frustrations over the meta narrative.
Just to review, Park51 is a planned community center complex intended to serve the public needs of lower Manhattan. There is a mosque planned as part of the complex, which is located two blocks north of the site of the 9-11 attacks. The complex will include a swimming pool, an auditorium, art exhibition space, retail shops, and many other amenities and facilities that would be open to use by everyone, muslim and non-muslim alike, in the same manner as a YMCA or other community resource. The mosque aspect is just one portion of the plan, and would not be a towering structure with minarets and loudspeakers playing azaan, but would simply be dedicated prayer space for muslim observances, akin to a chapel in a hospital. That mosque is a critical element of the plan, as there is a severe shortage of prayer space in lower Manhattan. The developer of the project, Sharif el Gamal (SoHo Properties), has even publicly pledged to have non-muslims included on the board of directors.
The labeling of the project as the “Ground Zero Mosque” by Islamophobic blogger Pamela Gellar was admittedly an act of branding genius. But though she sowed the seed, she is hardly responsible for the fertile ground for hatemongering and bigotry that provided it nourishment to grow into the media monster we have right now. There’s no escaping the political dimension of this story. Republicans have largely demagogued the issue, exploiting it for partisan gain (though a small coterie of former Bush Administration officials and politically-conservative muslims have been trying to change this from the inside). The Democrats, meanwhile, preferred to stay silent on the issue, fearing it would be used against them in the upcoming elections if they were seen publically embracing muslims’ civil rights. I’m not sure whether their silence is more shameful or not than Senator Reid’s outright statement that the mosque should be built someplace else. Even the ADL abandoned its very founding principles and came out in opposition to the project. President Obama did do the right thing by strongly affirming the principle of religious freedom, though he later clarified that he wasn’t taking an explicit position on the “wisdom” of the specific project or not – which is still better than former president Bush’s flat refusal to comment at all, even on the issue of liberties.
My general take on the debate is that it really does boil down to an issue not just of religious freedom but also a means of putting into practice the very American values which Al Qaeda seeks to deny. A mosque in NYC, near to the site of 9-11, is not a “monument to the attackers” (a pernicious claim, which puts collective responsibility for the terrorist attacks on all Muslim Americans) but actually a repudiation of the Al Qaeda ideology. What they want is to make Muslim Americans reject American identity and follow their call to jihad – explicitly, as Anwar al Awlaki has repeatedly stated, and even succeeded (ref the cases of Fort Hood and Times Square). An American mosque, built for American Muslims, is literally the antithesis of what the enemy most desires.
The bigotry unleashed by this whole affair plays perfectly into our enemies’ hands.
That said, the majority of public opposition to the mosque stems from misunderstanding, not bigotry. The topic of 9-11 is an emotional one, and it is hard to have a rational debate when raw emotion is at play. I find it impossible to believe that 30% of the American public could be bigots at heart (the same percentage, coincidentally, of people who oppose the project as who believe Obama was born in Kenya and is a crypto-muslim). However, you can be a decent person and still hold some racist or bigoted views. In fact that percentage of people who carry such baggage probably approaches 100%, myself included.
When you combine the emotional impact of 9-11, the undercurrent of prejudice against Islam borne of fear of the unknown/centuries of Orientalism marking it as the quintessential Other, and then layer onto that the background signal of racial intolerance that is America’s original sin and persists to this day, then you are basically confronted with a pretty skewed playing field, against which the idealized rhetoric of universal rights and freedoms has a disadvantage. It’s to the credit of our national character however that we are actually having a debate. That suggests to me that these concepts can survive exposure to these obstacles. Were this another country, such as one Newt Gingrich feels should be the benchmark for our behavior, there would be no debate at all.
The question for Muslim Americans should not be whether Park51 gets built or not, but how to express our identity in ways that facilitate our acceptance by our fellow citizens without sacrificing our values or compromising on our beliefs.
American Muslims are mostly an optimistic bunch. We can concede there are prejudices at work against us here, but that’s part of the mix I described above. We have to be pragmatic and remember that every group before us, the Jews, the Catholics, etc had to face pretty much the same gauntlet prior to acceptance. I think the danger is that American Muslims will perceive unequal treatment and withdraw from civic engagement. The question isn’t why we are facing this hostility but rather whether that hostility makes our attempts at assimilation moot. That’s a debate we don’t want to be having, but is being forced upon us. I hope that as a community of communities, Muslim Americans don’t become disheartened and lose that essential optimism that really makes us American. Unfortunately, with precisely half of the American political landscape opposed to us, it’s going to be a tough fight ahead to stay optimistic.
Of course, the Muslim American community didn’t ask to be included in Park51?s project, but we have been dragged into it forcibly. In some ways it would be a relief if the issue went away. However, if the project does fail, then I think that the message that will be sent is that bigotry and fear of Muslims is not just permitted, it is effective. This may result in short term relief for Muslim Americans, but surely longer term pain. To be honest I don’t know what I prefer in that regard.
If the project is going to fail, maybe it is better it fail now than later. Certainly the Muslim American community will take a hit either way. If I sound cynical it’s only because I think that there’s a failure of leadership here and that has done as much damage to Muslim American aspirations as the most committed Islamophobes profiting from exploiting 9-11 passions.
Still, I subscribe to the view that the center’s existence would be a powerful symbol and repudiation of the ideology of Al Qaeda. So despite my misgivings about the cost to the Muslim American community, on a broader scale, I think it is good for America that the project succeed. This is why I still count myself a supporter of Park51.
Many thanks to Scott Payne for interviewing me about Park51 at his blog, The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, which provided me the framework for articulating my thoughts above. Go check out the interview there, and my own blog archives, for more of my ruminations on the topic.
Now, let’s change the subject. According to the UN, the floods in Pakistan have affected more people than the 2004 Tsunami, the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti… combined. But the response to those tragedies was far more immediate and sustained than the anemic response to this one. What can you do? Find out by joining the Pakistan Flood Action NOW group on Facebook and following @floodaction on Twitter. In Ramadan, our focus must be to act in service of humanity, and this is the tragedy of the hour that demands our attention.