Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Mosque near Ground Zero?

A Mosque near Ground Zero?

One of the great temptations that bloggers face, as do commentators, pundits, public intellectuals, so-called experts, politicians, and many others, is to have clear opinions about everything that happens in the world. The mosque controversy is one more example of that. A wide range of observers all have clear interpretations of the events connected with the proposal to build a Muslim community center and mosque two blocks away from ground zero.

We have the expert who understands clearly that this is a debate within US Christianity about religious rights. Then we have another expert who sees the same events clearly as the rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiments promoted by a government that has been waging war on Muslim nations since 1991. Another commentator discerns one more wave in the rising tide of emotionalism and irrationality in the United States.

Resisting my inclination to provide another unambiguous interpretation of the series of events, I would like to stress the complexity of what we are seeing here. Obviously  there was an overwhelming anti-Muslim sentiment evident at the demonstration in New York City. But this anti-Muslim sentiment is not all of one piece; it is fueled by very different conditions and experiences.

For many Jews, Muslims represent enemies of Israel. Since Israel is the home for persecuted Jews, Muslims are a threat to Jewish security. For others, of course, the same experience -- the Holocaust -- leads to the opposite conclusion: Jews have for centuries been the victims of religious persecution. We do not want to continue against others -- in this case Muslims -- what has been done to us. Therefore we support the Muslim Mosque project.

According to various opinion polls, the anti-Muslim sentiment has greater resonance among older people. As we get older and feel less vigorous and less able to defend ourselves, to save ourselves when we fall, or retrieve things that fall under the couch, when our bodies become daily problems, we become more fearful. Thus we are more easily made afraid of any people who may seem to threaten us. Hence fear of Muslims among older persons.

For others, the opposition to Muslims is simply a different version of their racism and zenophobia. Muslims are different from us: they speak different languages, the women wear head scarves, they don’t go to church, instead they attend a mosque, etc. It is easy to lump them together with Mexican immigrants, with African immigrants, with all of the different versions of “those people” whom we do not trust and often fear. This comes to the surface in the fear of America being “Islamized” and protesters against the proposed mosque carrying signs with only one word --“Sharia.” There is no imminent sign of America being “taken over” by Islam or our constitution and laws being replaced by sharia. This protest is not about real dangers; it is a projection of shadowy and frightening `others.`

9/11 was a terrifying event, especially for New Yorkers, and especially for Manhattanites. It is easy to understand that some of them may be left with  PTSD which makes sufferers subject to states of fear, of rage and aggression. This Mosque project may well trigger these reactions.
Many Americans have feel humiliated by 9/11 as they have felt humiliated by the Vietnam war and, perhaps, by the unclear outcome of the war in Iraq and the continuing disaster in Afghanistan. They see 9/11 as a defeat, as damaging American pride. Building a mosque near Ground Zero is then felt to be rubbing in our humiliation. The Muslim Center near Ground Zero becomes a War Memorial for a Muslim military victory.




As everybody keeps saying, a lot of Americans are seething with anger -- anger that doesn’t have a clear target. Hence almost any event can trigger upset and irrational apprehensions. Some people latch on to the health reform, others to the mosque in lower Manhattan as a topic to release their anger. What are the different sources of this anger? Let’s be frank and admit that we do not know.





To some extent this demonstration was clearly orchestrated by some right-wing organizations. Their agitation against Muslims is part of the campaign against Obama. Rush Limbaugh regularly refers to Obama as our “Islamic president” and an astonishing 18% of Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim. So if you’re mudslinging against Muslims, some of the mud will stick to our President.

There are, no doubt, other sources of the strong sentiments against Muslims. Strong sentiments against unpopular groups are a fixture in American politics. Think of Japanese American internment, think of McCarthyism. Think of the uproar in the last twenty years about gays in the military or against gay marriage. Between the wars, going further back, it was anti-black racism and anti-Semitism and the strong sentiments against Catholics.

There is one more source of this upwelling of hatred and fear: we, as a nation, have not yet dealt yet with 9/11. None of our leaders has dared to raise questions about that event: what was the goal of this bombing? Are the accusations by Osama bin Laden and others against the US at least partly justified? Why do they hate us? Are we right to feel humiliated by the attacks of 9/11? What conclusions should we draw about ourselves, as Americans, from the Vietnam War and the wars in the Mid East? These are difficult questions and no simpleminded answer will suffice. But as long as we don’t ask them, we will continue to wallow in unexamined emotion, in anger, and in fear.


These are uncomfortable questions and politicians are not in the habit of making people uncomfortable. Every voter made uncomfortable is a voter lost.

Who will take leadership and begin this conversation?