Getting It Right On Park 51
That a construction project should be the biggest news story in the wealthiest country on Earth at a time when truly severe crises beset our world says something about our political culture. And it says something about my character that I feel compelled to comment about it. With apologies, then, to those who are as sophisticated as I wish the country and I were, here goes.
“Congress,” goes the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and, in so doing, ends the debate about whether the construction of The Community Center at Park 51 ought to be allowed to proceed. No public authority has the right to block the erection of a Muslim cultural center that includes a place to pray (which, to the disadvantage of the building’s defenders, muddies the distinctions between Park 51 and a mosque) and a public memorial to the victims of the September 11th massacre, financed privately, nearby (but not in view of) Ground Zero.
So it is not in order to advocate for the project’s preemption that I confess to taking offense at the plan, notwithstanding what uncomfortable bedfellows it makes of me and those horrid, vulgar protestors who, several days ago, shouted down that very nice man for all the world to see. Those people owe their ire and the entire publicity of this non-issue to Pamela Geller and her organization Stop Islamization of America, which wishes to outlaw being a Muslim – it may seem I exaggerate, but I swear it is the truth, as Allah himself would verify, were He not a figment of the human imagination. Shouting at that carpenter – whom news reports identify as Kenny – despite the fact that he is not a Muslim, reveals the character of that protest: undemocratic, anti-intellectual, racist, disingenuous and without mooring. 21-year old Michael Enright of Brewster stabbed New York cabbie Ahmed Sharif, 43, of Queens, apparently for affirming, upon being asked, his Islamic faith just two days after that protest; anyone who claims the two incidents are unrelated is either stupid or lying.
But a center for Islamic culture near Ground Zero ought to raise the eyebrows of serious thinkers as well, and the left, by and large, has continued its obnoxious trend of defending Islam from the neo-conservatives so they won’t have to side with the same, hurling the accusations of anti-Mulsim bigotry, all the while neglecting to mention that Islam is itself bigoted, through and through.
The central tenet of Islam is that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his one true prophet. All we, therefore, who do not bow down in submission (which is, after all, what Islam means) are inferior and have, by our unbelief, earned not only the scorn and contempt of the faithful, but also violent destruction at the hands thereof. The Qur’an is not the least uncertain about this matter:
[8.12] When your Lord revealed to the angels: I am with you, therefore make firm those who believe. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.
[9.5] So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
The tip of the iceberg, that, by way of scriptural approval of and indeed demand for violent religious imperialism and worldwide theocracy. Those on the left who caution that we distinguish “radical Muslims” from the rest of the lot would do well to account for these texts and admit that radicalized Islam is not a corruption but a distillation of the religious doctrine. It is not true that al-Qa’ida are murderers who happen to be Islamic; these people are murderers because they are so very Islamic. Therefore, if we are building a center for the appreciation of Islamic culture near the site of an act of religious warfare, then we are appreciating that warfare itself, since it is germane to the religion.
To be clear, warfare is not germane to Arabic culture or Middle Eastern culture, and if the point is encouraging understanding and respect as a step toward peace, then a center that acknowledges the enormous contributions of Arabs and/or Middle Easterners is appropriate and proper and good. Just because the unsophisticated conflate distinct groups like Muslims, Middle Easterners and Arabs doesn’t mean that we must as well; to the contrary, it demands that we insist upon those distinctions. It won’t do to make comparisons between a religion and a national origin or an ethnic identity; belief and affirmation provide the foundation for religions and not the others, and beliefs and affirmations can be odious, offensive, bigoted and violent.
Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich went on Fox News and declared his opposition to the project, noting that “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.” Apart from how gauche it is to compare anyone to Nazis, what about what he said was so wrong? Nazism demanded crimes against Jews, and Nazis perpetrated those crimes; not all Japanese people are admirers of Hirohito, but a shrine to Japanese imperialism would be inappropriate next to Pearl Harbor. Wouldn’t it? It is also true, though a Christian supremacist like Gingrich would never say it, that a church in the land of the crusades is also offensive, lest you think I wish to ignore Christianity’s barbarism and violence.
Whatever Gingrich’s problems and however unsavory the anxiety ratchet his words manipulate, the real failed analogies have come from the left. Sherry Wolf, speaking on MSNBC, proclaimed: “nobody in their right mind would have suggested that we tear down the Catholic churches anywhere near schools.” The Daily Show’s John Oliver made a similar comment about Catholic churches next to playgrounds. What the parallel neglects, though, is that pedophilic priests neither are compelled to their crimes by the Bible nor cite excerpts of it to justify the righteousness of their acts. With September 11th and Islam, the opposite is the case.
For the same reason Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) missed the mark in his simile: “The justification to ban the mosque is no more rational than banning a soccer field in the same place because all the suicide bombers loved to play soccer.” At the risk of redundancy, the analogy would only be complete if the rules of soccer dictated that the players become suicide bombers and if suicide bombers pointed to FIFA regulations as justification for their slaughter of civilians.
Rep. Paul goes the way of much of the rest of the anti-war movement in describing September 11th as an instance of blowback to too great a degree. Of course, as Janeane Garofalo noted on Real Time with Bill Maher, it is true that the United States, by trampling arrogantly on land that others find sacred, highlights itself as a potential recipient of aggression. On the same occasion, she noted, also rightly, that if all the bombers objected to were American sexual licentiousness, &c., then places like Brazil would be targeted much more heavily. But this claim makes al-Qa’ida out to be a group of anti-imperialist freedom fighters, rather than Wahabbist zealots, out for a second Caliphate in which all the world is subject to the same law as Afghanistan was under the Taliban (women as chattel, art and music outlawed, &c.). Whatever the role of blowback in 9/11, Islam was not irrelevant to the attackers’ motives.
At least Paul sees the issue for what it is: a distraction from the real issues. “It has been said, ‘Nero fiddled while Rome burned.’ Are we not overly preoccupied with this controversy, now being used in various ways by grandstanding politicians? It looks to me like the politicians are ‘fiddling while the economy burns.’” And he recognizes it as a backdoor advocacy campaign: “The fact that so much attention has been given the mosque debate, raises the question of just why and driven by whom? In my opinion it has come from the neo-conservatives who demand continual war in the Middle East and Central Asia and are compelled to constantly justify it.”
I can’t say I see eye-to-eye with Paul on the latter point; the neo-conservatives, it seems to me, must know how safe their wars are under the stewardship of the ultra-hawkish Obama Administration. The recent TIME Magazine poll showing a full fifth of the nation believes the President to be a Muslim is more illuminating here. If conservatives can encourage that myth, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did recently, and inflame anti-Muslim/Arab/Middle Eastern rage, as Glen Beck and Sarah Palin consistently do, then they continue the trend of radical right-wing anger at the Administration that defined the third act of the McCain/Palin campaign and last summer’s town hall meetings.
Beck, a Mormon (second m intentional), has no grounds to register an objection to the Mosque as a building for the preservation of wacky ideas held by wacky people, especially having called Islam a “beautiful religion” which is being “hijacked” by the sorts of people who committed the 9/11 massacre. Those on the right are merely playing a divisive sort of identity politics that attempts to activate a specific sort of bigotry in opposition to the President and his agenda on grounds which are suspicious and fearful rather than political and principled.
It is possible, though, to hold simultaneously two principled positions: that 1) Islam, like its sister monotheistic religions, is a sinister, violent cult whose warfare ought not to be commemorated near the site of a massacre it has wrought; and that 2) all citizens in a liberal democracy are allowed to belong to any kind of ridiculous cult they choose, and no one must, on those grounds, trample upon their right to raise a building.