Thoughts on the non-mosque mosque

Todd Henderson —  22 August 2010

I’ve resisted posting about this, since everything that could be said has been said. But I can’t abide the views expressed everywhere, even among my friends and colleagues, that I’m a bigot or ignorant or anti-Muslim or xenophobic for thinking the proposed Park51 project (nee Cordoba House) should be voluntarily moved by its backers.I don’t hate or fear or care about Muslims as Muslims. My grandfather was from Lebanon, and I grew up in an around people from the Middle East my whole life. My wife is pregnant and our doctor is a practicing Muslim, fasting as I type for Ramadan. There are two mosques within one mile of my house, and the home of the Nation of Islam is literally around the corner. I’ve never thought for two seconds about these facts, giving them the time I pay to the religion or cultural facilities of Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Mormons, and so on, all of which also have a presence in Hyde Park. I do not practice religion, but if that is your thing, go for it. People probably think I’m nuts for my Steelers fandom. To each his own.

But I am strongly opposed to the construction of Park51, and I’ve given it a lot of thought. Not because my friend Chris Ingrassia was murdered a few blocks away and not because I think Muslims should be forbidden from practicing their religion in Lower Manhattan or anywhere else for that matter. (As supporters have said, there are currently mosques near Ground Zero, and there are as many mosques in Manhattan as Catholic Churches.) What irritates me is the bad manners and intransigence on the part of the sponsors. If they are trying to build better relations with non-Muslim Americans, and for now let’s assume that is true, do they think this is working? Clearly not, since nearly 7 out of 10 people think the proposed facility should be moved. (How far away, I don’t know — far enough so 7 out of 10 people don’t care.)

And the stakes are rising. There were marches today for and against, the issue has become national, and the sides are digging in. Oh, and the sides here are Muslim and non-Muslim, precisely the opposite of the goal of the backers of the planned facility. When one tries to be nice, is told they are not being nice, and persists in their course, they are simply rude and insensitive. Which is ironic, since they are trying to increase tolerance and mutual respect, which, is after all supposed to be “mutual.” Their plan is, as one friend said, “we are building this bridge to you whether you like it or not!” Durable bridges are not built this way.

So we are left wondering whether the backers are deliberately provoking this fight or are just completely obtuse. The former is possible. One motive is publicity, especially abroad, in the hopes of a financial windfall. The backers have raised little to date, and this story is likely to play well among well-heeled Saudi sheiks. Another is simply to show the muscle of Islam, which is, thanks to 9/11, now in the news more than ever. There are certainly stories on the Internet about the true beliefs of the sponsors, but I don’t know what to believe. Maybe the imam is a Sufi mystic pacifist; maybe he is a closet jihadist. I know it doesn’t matter. His beliefs are irrelevant to the lack of wisdom in his plan.

Another possible reason to persist is to try to make this a test case for religious tolerance. But does America need this lesson? No. This country was founded on this basis and is the most religiously tolerant one on earth. There are thousands of mosques and very little bigotry against Muslims or any other practicing creed. There was shockingly little backlash against Muslims after 9/11, and few people really care about others’ faiths. We are, in addition, spending billions per month and thousands of young lives to help Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as we did in Kosovo. We don’t need to show our bona fides to anyone on this subject, and it would be the height of arrogance and stupidity if the backers of the project thought that they were the ones to teach it to us.

The mosque or community center or whatever it is should be moved. It should be moved as a common courtesy. Moving it will not make America less religiously tolerant and it won’t make us more anti-Muslim. In fact, the opposite is true. Showing Americans that these particular Muslims understand our sensitivities will help build the bridge the imam claims he is trying to build. Calling opposition to the project “beyond Islamophobia” and showing a “hate of Muslims,” as the wife of the imam sponsor of the project has, may get the center built, but at what cost?

Moving a few steps in the direction of the vast majority of Americans will not be a loss of face for Islam, but a gesture of incredible goodwill. (One I’m sure lots of politicians, most notably the president, are likely to appreciate.) In addition, backers should be worried that the center will be used for propaganda purposes — “we took down the WTC and built a mosque in its place!” (they won’t say “community center” in the recruiting video, I’m sure). If and when it is, their intent will be irrelevant. All America will see is an insult that could have easily been avoided had cooler heads and wiser people prevailed.

9 responses to Thoughts on the non-mosque mosque

  1. 
    Jason Lawrence 24 August 2010 at 4:24 pm

    M. Todd,

    Congrats on yet another child. I hope that you and the family are well.

    And if anyone would understand your Steelers fandom, it would be a Cubs fan…the only difference is your team wins championships.

    But I think that you’re wrong about one thing–that religious tolerance in America will go on, unhindered if Park 51 is moved. (And my question–if this place were strictly a community center without an actual place of worship, would most Americans still be uneasy? I think yes–but people are just latching on to the actual ‘mosque’ component of it to hide this unhelpful and cognitive-dissonance-causing fact.)

    If you look around the country, Park 51 isn’t the only “mosque” that is drawing vehement, bigoted and intolerant opposition (but not to say those are the only types of opposition–I find yours to be rather benign). See, Murfreesboro TN. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/22/AR2010082202895.html

    To me, it’s a question of to what extent pure, visceral, emotional reaction is a valid reason for belief and then seeking to influence public–or in these cases very private–policy based on those emotional beliefs. I come down on this in a decidedly Vulcan way, especially looking far away from NYC and to Murfreesboro, in an area of this country that is no stranger to treating people who don’t look or act “white” rather poorly.

    I think you’re right, in the short-term, the location is fueling fires and pissing people off. But I think that it’s not just good, but right to piss off people who are ultimately going to reason based upon emotions instead of…well, reason. As Richard Cohen pointed out in the Washington Post today, the one blemish on Eisenhower’s presidency is that he treaded slowly (until he was forced to act in Little Rock) on Civil Rights because of the fear of backlash in the South. To the extent that there are now durable racial bridges in the South, they were built, in good part, with the military, legislative, and judicial might of the federal government, the emotions of those offended be damned.

    Here I think the center’s backers (and those of us observing) should take a similar approach to the emotions/sensitivities of those opposed–to hell with them. One of two things will happen. Either those opposed will be forced to square their emotions with reality and through cognitive dissonance realize their emotions have no substantive basis for their desired outcome and accept the existence of Park 51. Or they’ll flip out and reveal their true heart (and some people like Gingrich and Liz Cheney have done a good job of that already).

    With that said–I’m with you on the total diffidence towards organized religion, as an Agnostic who thinks Sundays are best spent with the Bears, NFL Red Zone and appropriate food and beverages. I just differ on whether the emotions of others should be given the deference you would have the Park 51 supporters give them.

  2. 

    Rishad,

    Thanks for your comment. I have nothing at all against the Muslims I’ve met and I believe the vast majority are decent people.

    My point about Muslim v. Non-Muslim was simply that it is sad this issue is polarizing people into camps, which are premised on religious faith. I put this blame on the people who provoked this fight and persist despite the backlash, but we can disagree about this.

    About Islam, it has some work to do to rehabilitate it’s image. The news is filled daily with horrific stories of madmen killing in the name of the faith — today, e.g., the attack in Somalia. There is something wrong when people are beheaded for having sex, where film directors are killed for their art, where cartoonists and authors are killed or threatened with death for offending an alleged prophet, where women are forced to wear medieval costumes, where people blow themselves up in cares, and on and on. These people are not representative of all Muslims, but the faith needs to solve this series problem before it can blame non-Muslims for not appreciating it’s nuances.

    But I have to go . . . I’m literally in the hospital where my Muslim doctor is about to deliver our child.

  3. 

    Dear Professor Henderson,

    My response to your post (your comments are in quotes, and my responses are below):

    “Oh, and the sides here are Muslim and non-Muslim”

    Surely not, Prof. Henderson. The sides here are certainly not Muslim and non-Muslim, but people who think the mosque should and should not be built. That’s a rather significant distinction your post seems to gloss over.

    “We don’t need to show our bona fides to anyone on this subject”

    Well, Prof. Henderson, I do believe that the U.S. is generally a very tolerant country (in most ways), and that is precisely why I and many others are so saddened by this opposition. But if you take the position that there is nothing to worry about in the U.S. as far as religious tolerance goes, the two of us would have to agree to disagree. The fact is that, for a variety of historical and political reasons that are rather obvious, the U.S. finds itself in a place where a significant number of its population (I don’t see any reason to quibble about numbers, lets say it’s a clear minority) is very uncomfortable with Islam, to put it mildly. Attitudes might range from a simple unfamiliarity to outright bigotry (again, assume in only a small section of the population.)

    The fallacy in your post is to assume that simply because your views on this topic comfortably co-exist with your attitude of “to each his own”, so do the views of the 7 out of 10 other Americans whose sentiments you cite. And this inspite of the crass politicised opposition to the mosque, which you clearly want no part of.

    Also, I think you place a little too much faith in this figure of 7 out of 10. There are reports that suggest that even the phrasing of the question brings the figures up and down quite a bit. But that’s an aside.

    There’s a more significant contradiction implicit in your post. With your discussion about the hurt this is causing and the goodwill a decision to relocate would engender, you appear to recognize the magnitude of the problem (the tension between Americans and Islam, assuming Islam to be a monolithic entity for a second). Nonetheless, you seem to believe that there is no need to view this as a particularly critical fight for religious tolerance. These two aspects of your post don’t go well together.

    One more thing, Professor, and I bring up the personal angle since you have done so already. I’m rather like you, so far as my attitude about religion is concerned. I’m rather uninterested in religion myself, but am happy to let others live and worship as they please. But I am Muslim by birth, and to an extent identify myself as Muslim in a broad cultural sense. The truth is that I am hurt by the fact that the mere presence of a mosque (without anything further) is considered offensive, and that such offence is considered reasonable.

    My point is that persons on the other side of this debate – without any particular axe to grind – do believe that this is a fight worth having. Are you entirely sure it isn’t, Professor?

  4. 

    Todd, thanks for offering to check back with me in 10-years. This is precisely what we need, a coherent approach from those not addicted to 24-hour news cycles.

    Why is there such a shortage of wisdom in this country? I postulate that it is because our hypercommercialized existence has bombarded us with so many disconnected and unrelated commercial images that our long term cultural memory and attention span has been obliterated.

    Let’s look at this subject 100 years from now. Will that narrative say that bin Laden delivered a strong military blow to the financial center of the US in 2001, vociferous Islamic opponents of bin Laden tried to build a mosque nearby in defiance of the intolerance promoted by that madman, but were shouted down by a confused mob?

    Probably.

    Because our wisdom has been obliterated.

    And modernism isn’t worth waging a jihad for. Deng Xiao Peng was famously quoted as saying the French Revolution was an experiment. ALL of the world’s 10 largest banks are now Asian, and as we descend now to further debt deflation, that trend will intensify greatly. Get the most stable cash flows you can find.

    Looks like Confucianism is on the ascendancy to me. And even Lee Kuan Yew will say that it is a difficult prospect indeed to marry modernism and Confucianism.

    Learn to obey.

  5. 
    Todd Henderson 24 August 2010 at 7:12 am

    Matt,

    That bin Laden wants him dead means he is more liberal than bin Laden, but that is cold comfort to me. “Moderate” Muslim leaders still hold beliefs that are fundamentally incompatible with our modern, liberal way of life. For instance, that secularism and Islam are incompatible. Do you want to live under Shari’ah? I don’t. To be sure, there are millions of Muslim individuals who are OK living in the modern world, but everything I’ve read about Feisal Rauf, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual guide), and the other so-called moderates suggests they are not.

    If they build this, let’s agree to check back in 10 years. If this looks anything like the 92 Street Y, I’ll eat my hat.

  6. 

    A bit of context would help here.

    Osama bin Laden wants this fellow dead. He views him as an apostate, for trying to bring religions together. The developer is also trying to build bridges to Shia Islam, which, in bin Laden’s eyes, deserves a death sentence.

    This is not a mosque. It is a community center, open to all faiths, modeled on a nearby Jewish community center, which is also deeply disturbing to al-Qaeda. One small portion of the community center, like the Jewish Community Center, is set aside for worship.

    This man is acting in bold defiance of al Qaeda. This multi-faith community center built near the terror attacks is an overt repudiation of all that bin Laden represents, and is putting his life at risk.

    We need allies like this for our crusade against terror.

    Wise up.

  7. 

    Andrew,

    Republicans and Fox News single-handedly united 70% of the country on this issue? Really? That sounds as ridiculous as it does naive.

    Great article Todd. I agree with you 100%.

    And thanks for this site. It’s a new discovery and I love reading it. Keep up the great work guys!

  8. 
    Todd henderson 23 August 2010 at 6:20 am

    Andrew,

    I agree that the opposition has been stoked by politicians, and I’m no fan of them or that. But the opposition was strong before that. As for why I’m opposed to the siting but not my local mosque, I can’t tell you. It feels wrong. This may be irrational, just like lots of sensitivities we have. If these feelings are pervasive, e.g., I feel this way about all mosques or Muslims, then maybe this is a fight worth having. But I don’t. And, as I said, ther are hundreds of mosques in NYC and thousands in the US. This is not a test case of religious freedom. It is something that rubs people the wrong way for other reasons, we can’t doubt that if the center were built in midtown there would be no controversy, and we can’t doubt the backers chose the site they did precisely because of it’s proximity to the WTC. That choice upsets people. We could ask them to be less upset, but that seems much more difficult than moving the site. Right? Especially when the potential harm to the backers, e.g., loss of face, is not an important social value.

  9. 

    Pardon me, just a random guy passing through. But I can’t help noticing that you have no problem thinking of nefarious/ignorant/dumbass/greedy motivations on the part of the people who want to build this community center (whatever).

    To me, this sounds like a case of blaming the victim.

    You could just as easily say, “Let them build their whatever, and let’s forget about it”. As you point out it’s only a problem because it’s a controversy.

    And that controversy didn’t come from no where. It was fed and grown by the likes of FOX news, and some Republicans. Why? I can only guess, but if I where to guess I’d say this nails it:

    “I’ve never thought for two seconds about these facts…”

    Now you’re thinking about it. They’ve got you thinking about Muslims in your own neighborhood in a new, more negative, way. Driving a wedge. Why would they do that? Probably to energize their base for the September election, and maybe split off a few otherwise Democratic voters.

    Are the Islam/religious freedom types playing along, yeah – what else are you going to do? If you can’t stand up to these bullies in NYC, where can you stand up to them? Probably, there’s a more clever way, but I can’t think of it.