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Getting It Right On Park 51

2010 August 31

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.

15 Responses
  1. Zeke N permalink
    August 26, 2010

    Before you judge 1.5 billion people to be part of ‘violent cult,’ you should look at their actions as individuals, not the ancient texts to which they are devoted. I like that you point out that all monotheistic religious foundations are full of distasteful and violent commands. But, in your piece, I don’t think you did enough to drive this point home. The United States its self could and should be seen as a ‘cite of an act of religious warfare;’ how do you think Native Americans feel about ‘in god we trust?’ If something as old as the Qur’an can be judged by today’s morality, then so can the actions of our ‘founding fathers.’ Should ‘ground zero’ really be seen primarily as the cite where nearly 3000 americans died, or the cite from which the ‘new world’ was born, causing the unjust deaths of millions?

    I don’t mean to disrespect the memories of those who were killed on September 11th, 2001. Indeed, they were brutally murdered. But, if you want to talk about violence, talk about violence. Do you really think most of it is motivated by religious texts? Isn’t it more frequently money? The term ‘structural violence’ was first used, I believe, by Latin American priests who had grown discontent with the inequality between the rich and the poor. They advocated for a new framework of Christianity, liberation theology, which would create a ‘preferential option for the poor.’ The philosophy is well described by Tracy Kidder in Strength in What Remains, a story of a survivor of the 1994 genocide in Burundi and Rwanda (another example of violence nearly 2000 times greater than that of 9/11). Kidder writes, “[Structural Violence], that is, of a quotidian kind, the physical and psychological violence of poverty… Hunger and disease and untimely death. Exclusion from the means to a better life, especially exclusion from secondary school and college. And examples of what the peasant majority was being excluded from–portly men in suits, foreign development workers and their privileged Burundian and Rwandan counterparts riding through dirt towns in SUVs… The plight of many young men who were prime recruits for armies and militias” contributed greatly to the genocide. Therefore, should it not be the CEOs of multinational corporations and presidents of ‘developed’ nations that are the leaders of ‘violent cults.’

    If people like liberation theologians can do the wonderful things they do while being driven by a text as morally reprehensible as the Bible, should muslims really be viewed as members of a violent cult? I urge you to think about the actions of the individuals who are planning to build this place of worship. What are their motivations? Are they looking to make the world a more violent place? Or, instead, could they be viewed as a charitable organization?

  2. Matthew Hunte permalink
    August 26, 2010

    I am not interested in romanticizing Islam nor am I interested in playing the game of equivocation, which I find very suspect. (It’s nice to know that the WTC was built on the graves of slaves and that corporations have done nasty things too but so what?) Once the owners are obeying all the local laws, they should be allowed to build whatever they want on private property, wherever it is. Ultimately, no one has a right not to be offended.

  3. Zeke N permalink
    August 26, 2010

    Agreed. The reason why its important to acknowledge that the WTC “was built on the graves of slaves and that corporations have done nasty things” is because of the label “violant cult.” My point is that violence is a real thing… an action. If we are going to make judgements about people and violence, we should talk about actions. Everyone has the right to be offended. Everyone has the right to build property. But, I’m not talking about rights. I’m talking about labels and jugement. I think its wrong to imply that all Muslims are somehow linked to violence (in a ‘violent cult’) because of a book they like, that happens to be very old, says some bad stuff. We’re more violent from benefiting from and supporting Structural Violence.

  4. Zeke N permalink
    August 26, 2010

    build *on property

  5. Zeke N permalink
    August 26, 2010

    because *-of a book they like…

  6. Matthew Hunte permalink
    August 26, 2010

    This is a valid point, even before examining whether the vast majority of Muslims accept those troublesome tenets in any meaningful way. It’s obvious that most of their fellow monotheists have little interest in acting on the ‘sinister’ impulses of their own cults. Yes, it only takes a couple of fanatics to wreak havoc but it isn’t particularly useful, or accurate, to substitute Islamism for Islam within the context of terrorism.

    To use a recently acquired Thomas B. Macaulay quote : “To punish a man because he has committed a crime, or because he is believed, though unjustly, to have committed a crime, is not persecution. To punish a man, because we infer from the nature of some doctrine which he holds, or from the conduct of other persons who hold the same doctrines with him, that he will commit a crime, is persecution, and is, in every case, foolish and wicked.”

    One problem for the contemporary left is that their own theoretical framework leaves much to be exploited : Toni Morrison in her Nobel Lecture declared “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence.” As Jonathan Rauch argues convincingly, this is not only a dubious but pernicious idea : http://www.jonathanrauch.com/jrauch_articles/in_defense_of_prejudice/

  7. August 27, 2010

    Some quick contentions:

    1. In Got We Trust, for what it’s worth, did not motivate, nor was cited as a justification for, the European colonization of North America. It wasn’t around until the mid 19th century and didn’t become the national motto until still a century later — see: McCartheyism.

    2. The “Founding fathers” were not motivated by religious fervor; indeed, they were barely religious. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams were deists; Thomas Paine rather more vitriolic in his critique of religion than yours truly.

    3. The puritans who repressed, flogged and burned women, banned theater and other secular forms of entertainment, &c. (in short, made early Massachusetts Bay look, civically, a bit like many Muslim states — see: a great number of them) are indeed to be considered a great source of shame in American history, and a Center for Puritan Culture would indeed be inappropriate in Salem.

    4. I briefly address liberation theology and its contradictions here: http://thebusysignal.com/2010/03/31/resist-not-evil-conservatism-in-the-sermon-on-the-mount/

    5. I am constantly writing and inveighing against imperialism and wealth and the havoc that wreaks on the lives of the world’s poor. Deriding Islam in no way is a substitute for that critique; indeed, they are part and parcel.

    6. Describing the Qu’ran as “a book [Muslims] like, that happens to be very old, [that] says some bad stuff” is at least the writing of an obscurantist, certainly dead wrong, and, I would argue, not worthy of your considerable intellect, Zeke. Let’s get real here: it is not the Odyssey or something — this is the book Muslims believe, by doctrine and inescapably, to be the final and perfect revelation of God. These are divine commandments in a religion whose very name, Islam, directs Muslims to submit to their ultimate righteousness. I urge you to read it and see, at the end, if your assessment that it “says some bad stuff” survives intact. No, it is positively filled with sanctions for and orders to violence, repression, barbarism, dominance, imperialism, subordination and forced conversion. A cursory Google search yields this: http://www.thereligionofpeace.com/Quran/023-violence.htm

  8. Zeke N permalink
    August 27, 2010

    Response to contentions:
    1) Good point. But religion was cited.
    – “…to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…” – declaration of independence
    – Westward expansion being the destiny given by god – Manroe Doctrine
    2) While the popular founding fathers were not particularly religious, there were many racist religious nut cases. (Also, as I recall, Jefferson really liked the Qu’ran).
    3) Agree.
    4) To be addressed below
    5) Good.
    6) Do you have any muslim friends? I have one who was an intern with me at Partners in Health, volunteering her time to help poor people. I wonder how she would describe her relationship to the religion. I don’t think she would interpret the religious writings literally. After all, her faith motivates her as a medical student. She wants to be a doctor for the poor, not a terrorist. Is she part of a violent cult?

    I think religion is stupid. But, in general, I judge people based on what they do, not why they do it (This obviously doesn’t apply in situations like hate crimes). If someone wants to work to make the world a better place, to fight structural violence, they are my ally, no matter what silly beliefs they have.

    Liberation Theology is kind of dumb because of its source: the bible. But, what it is advocating for is, in my view, pretty awesome. If you want to see a secular interpretation of liberation theology, read Pathologies of Power by Dr. Paul Farmer. He makes a moral case for why we all have an obligation to act in solidarity with the poor. This doesn’t just mean writing and talking on their behalf, it means doing things, taking action. Action should be the basis for judgement–good and bad.

  9. Zeke N permalink
    August 27, 2010

    So, to tie it all together, are these people building a violent facility? Are they trying to make the world a more or less violent place? Does it matter why?

  10. August 27, 2010

    “This obviously doesn’t apply in situations like hate crimes” is illustrative.

  11. Zeke N permalink
    August 27, 2010

    It matters if you’re doing something terrible. Not if you’re doing something good. It is relevant that religion motivated the murdurs of nearly 3000 people. If those same religious people, with violent intentions, wanted to build a place of worship, it would be terrible and dangerous. But, if different people who get different things from a cryptic ancient document want to build a building and work for peace…. not only do I have no problem with what they’re doing, I think it could be good. I don’t know much about them, though.

  12. Brian Dorsam permalink
    August 27, 2010

    I suspect the author has no personal qualms with those building the center (which has literally every right to be built and on the ground proposed). Perhaps he does, though I doubt that those issues would stem from a suspicion of terrorist sympathies or anything of the kind. I also suspect that the author has no personal issues with kind, intelligent Muslims who know their Darwin and Einstein (of which I suppose, Zeke, your med-student friend is one). Nor do I. Thankfully, there are many such Muslims and Christians and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists, etc. However, they carry with them, unintentionally if not unknowingly, a kind of justification for religious violence, I admit it is difficult to say. If rational people like Zeke’s friend cannot shed their ties to a tyrannical, genocidal, sexist, racist and violent text and dismiss it as the silly and often dangerous garbage that it is, who can? Atheists (like myself, as I’m sure one by now has comfortably assumed) are weak missionaries. Changes can most effectively be made and spread from those within the faith that doubt the validity of their ancient texts, which clearly many do. If people are reading these tired old tomes and picking out the parts they like and dismissing those horrific parts, shouldn’t this be an indication that its divinity should be challenged entirely? If not, where does one believe one is getting the moral and judgmental faculties that are taking issue with the text? Certainly not the text itself! We have to start looking elsewhere for the source of our morality (and I say this rather cheekily because quite frankly many have and have found a wonderful amount of fruit in Darwinism) and start condemning these books of dictatorial, oppressive nonsense as such. Sidestepping commands to violence like those the author cited (many more the likes of which can be found in the Qu’ran’s very angry companion, the Hadith) is just that, and it is very telling of our intellectual movement away from such bile. While I have no doubt that Park 51 is intended to be a place of peace and community, and while I firmly believe that its right to construction is a non-issue, I do find it a bit of a shame whenever a new place of worship is erected, because it will inevitably lend credence to some homophobic, misogynistic old cult or other. The problem is not (often) with the people, who could surely do better for themselves, but with the books they not only read but believe and abide by. I wish that our religious friends (most of whom we’d count among the religious benign) would see their intellect and morality for what they really are (products of a long and beautiful history of evolution by natural selection) and see these moronic (at best) books in just the same way.

  13. Zeke N permalink
    August 29, 2010

    Brian,
    I generally agree with what you’re saying. I don’t think Jesse has personal qualms with those people, either. I just don’t like the ‘violent’ label.

    See, I think religion is stupid, too. But, I don’t think we get anywhere from demonizing religious people, especially not respectful, peace-loving ones.

    To beat a dead horse a bit, I just want to address something else you said: I know my Darwin and my Einstein, but most American’s don’t. Certainly most Haitians don’t. I think we shouldn’t have ‘personal issues’ with them for it. I’m 19. I was taught about Darwin in 4th grade. Can I judge an impoverished 19 year old boy who lives in a village in rural Pakistan for not having the same education? I think what you’re bringing up is that you can’t relate to a privileged religious person who doesn’t believe in science, and, if they do believe in science, you wonder why they are religious. Did I get that right? I’m on the same page. But, if we have ‘personal issues’ with people we can’t relate to, we’re not going to make progress on a lot of really important issues.

    I have personal issues with people who willingly benefit from violence–something our society seems to encourage.

    I think we all want to give that Pakistani boy the opportunity to be on the same page as his American counterparts. I think we want to stop ignorant, violent Americans from committing hate crimes (as Jesse wrote about in this piece). If we want to do that, we shouldn’t call Muslims violent. Its not true. If we seek progress, we shouldn’t demonize people who have very different backgrounds. It doesn’t get us anywhere.

  14. Brian Dorsam permalink
    August 29, 2010

    To continue your thoughts, Zeke, I think we need to confront the differences between a religion and its followers. As you say, one cannot identify a person’s moral character by identifying his or her religion. Thankfully so, because the world would be a much more terrifying place if more of us took religion at its word. My allegation is not that Muslims are violent, but that Islam is violent (not wholly, of course, but undeniably largely – and let it be emphatically clear that this claim leaves other religions completely off the table). The extent to which a Muslim is not violent is the extent to which that person is not a Muslim. This is not to invalidate anyone’s belief and certainly not a call for stricter scriptural adherence, but in fact an acknowledgment of the superiority of human morality over religious morality. You are entirely correct – to say ‘Muslims are violent’ because Islam is violent would be a dangerous inaccuracy (one committed daily in regard to Park 51). And you are right to bring up our hypothetical Pakistani brother. I have no personal issue with him until he takes personal issue with me because his religion demands it. The issues we would have otherwise would be ideological issues, and these issues, while of dire importance, can only be resolved, or at least better understood, through informed, intelligent discourse. In lieu of this ability, we may only judge his actions when he takes them. It is of the utmost importance to remember that this is, above all, a war of ideas. To mistake an idea for an action, or one’s holy book for one’s character, can be, as we have long seen, fatal. This, as you emphasize, is not a mistake we can afford to make because it doesn’t simply get us nowhere, it undoes progress.

  15. Zeke N permalink
    August 30, 2010

    I think we’re on the same page. There is an excellent Frontline episode I just watched. It starts with this thing about the Taliban and then focuses on education in Pakistan. Its on Netflix if any of you have that.

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