Friday, August 20, 2010
The Big Picture: We Should All Be Strongly Supporting the Mosque Near Ground Zero
The Park51 Mosque, approved by the appropriate regulatory commission in New York City several weeks ago, has attracted nationwide controversy due to its allegedly provocative nature. Many liberal defenders of the mosque have, in typical halting, self-doubting, weak-willed fashion, tried to argue that the mosque is not really "at" Ground Zero, but rather several blocks away, one among hundreds of buildings in the region, so this shouldn't be such a big deal. I think this is a very misguided argument because it is so defensive, with "it isn't a big deal" carrying the connotation that the mosque is something to be grudgingly tolerated, and the implication that if the mosque were actually more prominent at Ground Zero, that would be a bad thing. This argument will not be persuasive because it is very clear that the opposition is not actually being driven by those who would be fine with mosques everywhere in America except within sight of Ground Zero. Far from it. As the New York Times and many others have reported, this is part of a national movement to prevent mosques from being built everywhere in America. It is driven by prejudiced people who feel that Islam is a "cult" that does not deserve First Amendment protection, because they view Muslims as a dangerous, un-American Other that we need to fear, similar to how these people view Latinos, blacks, and Americans with descent from Asia, with the commonality being darker skin, different religion, different language. These people are white supremacists, or at the least are exploiting the belief in white supremacy for political gain, and they will not be satisfied until at the very least all these "Others" have been put back in their place, un-equal with self-proclaimed "Real Americans". Denying Muslims the right to build mosques, detaining people because they look like immigrants - this is about showing that white people are still superior, still in charge. Many are disturbed not only that these Others are asserting their equality and even supremacy (represented by President Obama), but are more generally disturbed that at the number of non-whites, non-English speakers, non-Christians and want to forcefully "encourage" those Others to leave. I think that the depth and breadth of these white supremacist anxieties has been enhanced by the anxiety of the Great Recession for working and lower-middle class whites. It has also been strengthened by the reinvigorated right-wing populist sense that Democratic government means liberals and "uppity" minorities, from the big cities and the universities and the banks too, empowering themselves and helping out all these Others, at the expense of "Real Americans". So that's where I think the anti-mosque criticism is coming from. Those who oppose the mosque but don't consider themselves anti-Muslim, anti-diversity, white supremacists should take a hard look at whose cause they are serving. Not only are they serving the white supremacists, but they are also enabling the weakening and undermining of America in a number of important ways, rather than embracing the Ground Zero Mosque as a positive good for America.
Building the mosque will be of great benefit to our national security, while preventing its building will make us less safe and threaten our troops. By building this mosque at the site where these extremists killed 3,000 innocent people, we would be sending an enormously powerful signal that Al Qaeda was wrong about America. Al Qaeda attracts recruits and sympathizers on the notion that America hates Islams and wants to oppress and kill Muslims, that we are a latter-day Crusades state. The invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, compounded by hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and the torture at Abu Ghraib and Bagram, greatly strengthened Al Qaeda's message. Nothing will undo the horrendous human cost, nor the destructive blow to our image. Still, building a mosque would present a very different side of America and be a paradigm-shattering shock to Muslims around the world who have looked at Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and military bases in Saudi Arabia, our support for oppressive dictators elsewhere in the Muslim world, and concluded that America is anti-Muslim. Building the mosque will at the least put some in doubt in the minds of many who would sympathize with the extremist anti-Americanism of Al Qaeda, and just the seeds of doubt help stop suicide bombers, who need to feel absolutely certain they are right to carry out their work.
Building the mosque will strengthen the hand of moderate Muslims, who get a chance to show that those who believe in democracy and human rights are not brainwashed saps, and that multiculturalism and an embrace of freedom are compatible with Islam. One of the greatest flaws in the whole neoconservative policy is that it unified Muslims in opposition to America and in opposition to anything we said we stood for, like democracy and human rights. It will greatly strengthen our national security if we put a dent in this unity, and stoke a debate between moderate and radical Muslims. In contrast, when opponents constantly say that the liberal Muslims building this mosque are "radical Islamic extremists" they are not only engaging in the deeply prejudiced racism of saying that all Muslims are the same as the most evil people in their ranks (do Christians really want that kind of racism applied to them, considering the despicable people who called themselves Christians?). They are also playing right into Al Qaeda's hands - Bin Laden's greatest dream is that Al Qaeda becomes the standard-bearer for all Muslims, that his perverted extremist version of Islam becomes orthodoxy. The last thing we want to do is to insist that all Muslims are radical extremists and our sworn enemies. More moderate Muslims will then see that America does hate all Muslims, just as Al Qaeda is saying, and move toward the Al Qaeda camp. So opposing the building of this mosque will strengthen those who hate Americans and that will have real and devastating consequences for American soldiers and aid workers in Muslim countries, and possibly American civilians at home. Those who oppose the mosque are putting their own political ambitions and their own white supremacist anxieties ahead of keeping Americans safe. Of course this is not surprising coming from a Republican Party that has intentionally undermined economic recovery to suit its own political ambitions and ideological dogma.
Building this mosque at Ground Zero is, as Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama have said, of vital importance to reaffirming the First Amendment and the principles of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom of congregation upon which this nation was founded. Yes America was founded in large part by the greedy and land-hungry, the slaveowners and the takers of indigenous land for power and profit. But the part of the American tradition that created all that is good about this country, all that is free and democratic, comes from the people who came here because they were oppressed everywhere else for who they were and what they believed. We should not only defend the rights of Muslims and everyone else to freedom of religion and expression and congregation. We should be celebrating the building of the mosque at Ground Zero because it means that America is still the nation that draws its vitality from those who come here from everywhere, "yearning to breathe free" as it says on the Statue of Liberty. Furthermore, multiculturalism and the unencumbered, unrestricted expression of beliefs and values is the lifeblood of our culture and enriches us all. Refusing to build this mosque would strike a blow against the very elements that have given us what freedom, democracy, and vitality we have.
Finally, I feel particularly strongly about the importance of building this mosque because I am Jewish. I think that Jews, and really all people who have ever been or could ever be part of a religious minority, would be incredibly shortsighted if they opposed this mosque. As a Jew think it might not be the best idea to let the prejudices of a majority trample on the basic rights of a religious minority. Preventing the mosque at Ground Zero would greatly strengthen those who want to ban mosques everywhere in America. First of all, this would be deeply oppressive for Muslim-Americans. But what about Jewish-Americans, or Hindu-Americans, or Catholic-Americans, or Protestants of different denominations? Do we really want to go down the road of undermining First Amendment rights of different religious affiliations from the majority? As the famous quote from the Nazi era says, "First they came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up, because I wasn't a Communist ... then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up, because I wasn't a Jew ... then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up, because I wasn't a Catholic ... finally when they came for the Protestants, there was no one left to speak up for me."