Sunday, September 5, 2010

The "Ground Zero Mosque": a Teacheable Moment?

The New Middle East is a blog intended not only to offer analysis but to suggest solutions to the problems of the Middle East as well. In that spirit, I examine one of the latest issues to bedevil American politics and create much controversy and acrimony, the so-called “Ground-Zero Mosque.”

This posting makes two fundamental points. First, by not confronting the controversy, the US encourages distorted stereotypes that the US is engaged in a “war on Islam.” Second, this controversy offers the possibility to confront head on the misunderstandings that exist in the US about Islam and Americans of the Muslim faith. For Muslims outside the US, such an approach can clarify how Islam is treated in the US. In other words, the controversy surrounding the lower Manhattan Islamic center can become a “teachable moment.”

First, let’s clarify some issues. There is no “Ground-Zero Mosque.” The 13 floor Islamic Center that is proposed in lower Manhattan will be a multi-use building. It will include a conference center, auditorium, swimming pool and a prayer area. It will not be a mosque. Second, it is not at Ground Zero, but two blocks away. Third, the builders of the community center are within their constitutional rights to derive benefits from their property and to enjoy one of our most cherished protections, namely freedom of religion.

Apart from these facts, Park 51, the group that seeks to build the proposed Islamic community center, has been accused of being “insensitive” to the feelings of Americans who lost loved ones during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and non-Muslim Americans generally. Here the controversy takes on a particularly troubling tone. The assumption underlying the “insensitivity” argument is that the attack on the United States was an attack by Islam. In other words, because the attackers were Muslim, 9/11 represents, in a larger sense, an attack by Muslims on the US.

It is clear, from numerous eye witness accounts, that the leader of the 9/11 terrorists, Muhammad Atta, was someone who enjoyed spending time in bars, drinking and playing video games. This is hardly the behavior of someone whose motivations for attacking the World Trade Center were religious in nature. If his hostile act was motivated by religious feelings, one would think that he would have spent time engaged in reading holy texts and religious reflection. Instead, his behavior points to the fallacy of seeing the 9/11 attacks as linked to Islam. It underscores the manner in which some Middle Easterners have attempted to use Islam in extremist ways to create hostility towards the West. What is really at work is the attempt to legitimize terrorist acts that are political in nature, by tying them in a perverse way to religion.

Most radical Islamists have no more than a superficial understanding of Islam. This became clear to me many years ago when I first began analyzing radical Islamist movements while analyzing trial proceedings of members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. When asked by a judge, himself thoroughly conversant in Islamic (as well as civil) law, as to why they had engaged in acts of violence, the accused tried to justify their atcs by invoking Islam. However, when the judge asked them to explain how what they did related to Islam, all they could provide was slogans. It was apparent that their efforts to justify their behavior in religious terms was not only superficial but wrong.

An American parallel to these extremist groups is the Ku Klux Klan. Just because the Klan has used the burning cross as its symbol, does not make it a Christian organization. This is also true of many other radical groups in the United States, such as the Posse Comitatus and the Aryan Nation. Efforts to evoke a bogus “tradition” to support their ideology and behavior is not supported by the historical record. Whether the Klan or al-Qa’ida, what we are really seeing is an “invented religion” that is not recognizable by the overwhelming majority of orthodox believers.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Islamic community center controversy is how it plays out in Muslim majority countries throughout the world. Many of this countries are our close allies, such as Turkey, Indonesia (the world’s largest Muslim country), Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Arab Gulf states. How can the US win over public opinion in these countries when it appears to their citizens that restrictions exist on the ability of Muslims to practice their faith in the US? If political authorities were to prevent the Islamic community center from being built, this would enable anti-American elements to accuse the government of supporting “attacks on Islam” and working against the country’s national interests. This who seek to manipulate the controversy for political ends do not realize the damage they are doing to US foreign policy in the Middle East.

Many analysts argue that the controversy is all about the coming November congressional elections. While there is truth ins this assertion, the problem of Muslim minorities in Western countries is much larger one. It is clear that the US economic crisis and the changing demographics. Paralleling ethnic and racial conflict in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, much of the controversy today is based on fear. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (like myself) are a declining ethnic demographic as we move to a majority Latino and East Asian society. We will not solve our economic woes and reverse the changing ethnic and religious makeup of the US through conflict. As the examples drawn from our earlier history show, only dialogue and education can create meaningful solutions.

How then can the controversy become a teachable moment? One way would be to create a presidential council on interfaith dialogue in the US. This would include clergy of all the major faiths in the US to meet on a regular basis and make recommendations to the President and Congress on how to promote religious tolerance and to confront problems that reflect religious tensions. Another efforts could entail a series of national town meetings - broadcast around the world - in which President Obama brings together clerics from major faiths to discuss the basic tenets of our country’s different religions, to emphasize the many ways in which they share values and beliefs, and how different religious groups are cooperating to solve economic, social and cultural problems throughout the country.

Many Americans have little understanding of Islam, which is understandable given the relative lack of study of Islam in our educational system. Many Americans think Islam is a political ideology. Others think it is a religion that has borrowed from Judaism and Christianity, the other great Abrahamic faiths, and thus is not a true religion at all. But even a superficial study of Islam indicates that it views itself as completing God’s prophetic message that began with Judaism and Christianity.

Throughout Muslim countries, one finds the names Musa (Moses), Aisa (Jesus), Ishaq (Isaac), Ibrahim (Abraham), Mariam (Mary) and Yusif (Joseph), reflecting that the prophets of Judaism and Christianity are also those of Islam. In the Qur’an, Christ has the power to make the dead living, a power not ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad, who is considered the last (seal) of God’s prophets. That the prophets of Judaism and Christianity are also considered prophets b y Islam explains why the Qur’an reads in many places like the Torah and the Bible. But unlike Christ, Muhammad was someone who was chosen, for reasons known only to God, to bring the final part of his prophetic message to mankind.

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States. Millions of Muslims contribute on a daily basis to making the United States a better country. To give an example, this past year, Hany Mawla, an American of Egyptian heritage, left his law firm to become the first Muslim (and youngest) Superior Court judge in the State of New Jersey. A graduate of Rutgers University’s Department of Political Science, where I had the pleasure to work with him, Judge Mawla was formerly the president of the State of New Jersey Arab-American Heritage Commission. Under his leadership the commission worked with other heritage commissions, such as State of New Jersey Holocaust and Amistad commissions, to develop educational curricula that help promote greater understanding between Islam, Judaism and Christianity and between Caucasians and African Americans in New Jersey.

In a larger context, the hostility towards Islam in certain quarters in their country continues a tradition extending back to the 19th century when the Irish Italians, East Europeans, Slavs, Jews and Chinese all found themselves facing discrimination after emigrating to the United States. The anti-immigrant activities of the American or "Know Nothing" Party and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 were only the opening salvos of a "culture war" that has been going on up to the present. In the 1960 presidential election, John Kennedy, as a Roman Catholic, had to assure American voters that he would not follow orders from the Pope. At that time, Paul Blanchard' s book, American Freedom and Catholic Power, was still popular in many Protestant circles.

Islam has been part of the US' cultural fabric since the early days of the Republic. John Adams praised the Prophet Muhammad in his writings. The famous author, Washington Irving, wrote the best selling Mahomet and his Successors, in 1850, which followed his equally popular, Tales of the Alhambra, about the famous mosque in Muslim Spain. The first American mosque was built in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1934, even though Muslim communities existed well before that. As Islam becomes known to more non-Muslim Americans, we can expect that it will enter the cultural mainstream and that Muslims, from a variety of national backgrounds will, like other immigrant groups before them no longer be viewed in hostile terms.

The question at the end of the day is the following: wouldn’t the United States be better off as a society were it to try and tackle the misunderstanding and lack of knowledge surrounding Islam, rather than trying to politicize it? Islam is only going to grow as a religion in the United States. It is time to confront that fact rather than sweep it under the carpet.

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