Religion & Philosophy

The shameless cynicism of zeroing in on the Ground Zero Islamic center

At AlterNet, Joshua Holland deftly turns the expression “Ground Zero” on its head.

When the horror of nuclear warfare was unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the term “Ground Zero” entered our lexicon. The expression has come to mean the epicenter of a catastrophic event. . . . the point from which damage spreads. [While] it’s not an apt analog for the physical destruction that resulted from the attacks on the World Trade Center. . . . it is an appropriate metaphor for the . . . bigotry against Muslim Americans that has radiated out from Ground Zero and spread across the United States.

Ironically, not long after 9/11, you could walk the streets of Manhattan and still see Islams praying in a storefront mosque with a vendor outside selling Islamic ware, as well as Middle-Eastern food vendors playing tapes or CDs of muezzins. No inhibitions; no harassment.

It’s true that recently, though, things have begun to turn ugly, as Holland reports: “In May, an Arab man was brutally beaten in broad daylight in New York by four young men.” But it’s in the heartland where violence against Muslims has been spreading in the last couple of years. He writes:

A mosque in Miami, Florida, was sprayed with gunfire last year. Mosques have been vandalized or set aflame in Brownstown, Michigan; Nashville, Tennessee; Arlington, Texas . . . Taylor, South Carolina; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Eugene, Oregon; Cape Girardeau, Missouri; Tempe, Arizona; and in both Northern and Southern California. A mosque in a suburb of Chicago has been vandalized four times in recent years.

The perpetrators of these hate crimes are. . . . being whipped into a frenzy by cynical fearmongers on the Right [who] have started referring to the Park 51 project as “the Obamosque.” [These fearmongers] see fear and loathing of Islam as a potent social issue.

But, continues Holland . . .

It’s an extraordinarily dangerous game, not only for the American Muslim community but for U.S. national security as well. Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who has interrogated several dangerous terrorists [said] ‘from a national security perspective, our leaders need to understand that no one is likely to be happier with the opposition to building a mosque than Osama Bin Laden. His next video script has just written itself.’

Frank Rich of the New York Times echoed this in his most recent column.

Here’s what’s been lost in all the screaming. The prime movers in the campaign against the “ground zero mosque” just happen to be among the last cheerleaders for America’s nine-year war in Afghanistan. The wrecking ball they’re wielding is not merely pounding Park51 [but] has also rendered Gen. David Petraeus’s last-ditch counterinsurgency strategy for fighting the war inoperative. How do you win Muslim hearts and minds in Kandahar when you are calling Muslims every filthy name in the book in New York?

Compromising America’s interests (ostensibly anyway when it comes to Afghanistan) in this manner might be too subtle for most of the public to notice. But, when it comes to a recent move by Republican Congresspersons, it seems, at first glance, as if their constituents might find it downright un-American. On July 29 Raymond Hernandez reported for the New York Times:

House Republicans . . . blocked a Democratic plan to provide billions of dollars for medical treatment to rescue workers and residents of New York City who suffered illnesses from the toxic dust and debris at ground zero. . . . Republican opponents of the legislation expressed concern over the $7.4 billion cost of the program. . . . Democrats accused Republicans of being callous and vowed to bring the bill back for another vote in the fall.

Huh? Do Republicans actually think they’ve managed to incite concern over the deficit to the point that it would trump coming to the relief of American heroes? In fact, there may be something else going on here.

Try hatred for the 9/11 widows. Not only are some of them loudmouths who questioned the 9/11 Commission, according to this line of thinking, but others were driving around Staten Island in SUVs like welfare queens in Cadillacs with money they received from the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund. Sorry, rescuers. Your well-being takes a backseat to the more pressing business of preventing people from getting something for nothing. (Okay, for a dead family member. Details, details.)

Besides that, Republican politicians who count on their constituents to voice no objections to blocking the plan are a symptom of the heartland’s underlying resentment of New York City. To what other phenomenon can one attribute the curious lack of ongoing cries from Americans to bring us the head of bin Laden?

Imagine if a small town in the Midwest had been struck? Republican politicians would have made locating bin Laden a priority come hell or high water. They find 9/11 useful when they seek to stir up hatred for — never mind Islamists — garden-variety Muslims. In fact, they may well be aware that some Americans are secretly glad that those urban elites in New York City got theirs that sunny day in New York.

First posted at Focal Points.

10 replies »

  1. The good thing about all this is that Americans have gotten really predictable. If you want to know what we’ll do, ask yourself what would be the dumbest thing we could do. A stupid public is easily manipulated…

  2. You know, I struggle with this one.

    Logically, I agree, and everyone in America should as well. As progressives understand, Islam is not the same as terror. And as true conservatives should argue, it’s a dangerous first step when the government gets into telling places of worship where they can and can’t build.

    Having said that, at a visceral level, this doesn’t feel right. There are a billion acres of usable space in the U.S. Why there? The only answer that makes sense to me is that there is a long tradition of building places of worship on top of the temples of the vanquished, e.g., Israel, India. Neither the original owners or the new ones ever mistake or forget the message being sent.

    All in all, I think I side with the conservatives on this one, although I am as far as I can get on the political spectrum from Fox news. At some point pragmatism must overrule principle (as France has done in banning burkhas in schools.)

    (I also found myself agreeing with Elizabeth Hasselback today in her positions on gay marraige, abortion and the N-word, although thank god she started spouting gibberish about state’s rights and I was able to break free of her insidious spell. What in the world is happening? Is Darth Cheney using some sort of mind control on me?)

  3. I lost a comment to “error connecting to the database”, but let me just say that Holland is absolutely correct, though maybe not for the reasons he thinks.

    Islam did not attack the US on 9/11. Islam is just the latest in a string of banners under which nationalism in various countries (some Arab some not) has united. Once upon a time it was just anti-colonial nationalism. Then it tried on the garb of Marxism for a little while. It settled on Islam because religion is the easiest way to bind disparate causes into a movement. It’s why the British courted the Russian Orthodox Church in her attempt to overthrow the Bolsheviks shortly after the revolution. As the secret, archived telegrams state, it was the best way to transcend the divisions and strike the nationalist chord. (Didn’t work, but that’s a different story.)

    So what is really a story of imperialism and the backlash against it gets painted in religious tones. Rather than explain why US hegemony is a necessary expenditure of blood and treasure, just dress it up as being attacked by militant, viscous and hateful Islam…and be sure to gloss over that Islam has the best record of religious tolerance among the three Abrahamic faiths.

    Had the areas now Muslim remained under the Orthodox Church, the tension would still be there and the violence probably would too. Don’t forget that the two Christian churches have never gotten along, and the people in the lands that were Orthodox and are now Muslim have been dealing with Western expansion/imperialism (generally with Christian overtones) for a long time.

    But by all means, America, blame it on Islam. We wouldn’t want anyone to hurt themselves thinking.

    • See, my take on all this is SO much more elemental. Dawkins is right. Sam Harris is right. But from a legal perspective, protesters have not a leg to stand on. Furthermore, the only words that need to come out of ANY politician’s mouth are “I’ve read the 1st Amendment and you should, too.” Now, SHOULD a group exercise their rights in a way that offend or trouble another group? Well, let me put it this way. Exercising our rights instead of our responsibilities is as American as it gets.

      What’s the over/under, do you suppose, on the number of Americans who a) think the Muslims building that community center are being insensitive, and at the same time b) fly their Confederate flags?

      I hate to muddy the waters, but I get so damned frustrated by the ever-escalating noise levels in our public “discourse” that some days I can’t stand it.

  4. “Should, shouldn’t” – done much CBT?

    But I digress. In America (cue Sousa) we the people have the right to be assholes as long as we don’t break any laws. We can exhibit poor taste, questionable judgment and complete insensitivity, and lo! Everyone who disagrees can be an asshole about it, too, as long as THEY don’t break any laws. Huzzah! Huzzah! Enough already. Jesus, people. It’s TWO BLOCKS AWAY. That’s at least a mile and a half in flyover distance. And if the local strippers don’t mind, who are we to judge?

    By the way, Sam, your historic reference is factually incorrect in this case. The people proposing to build this mosque/community center/victory monument/whatever are no more representative of the “conquerors” of the WTC than you are.

  5. My history is correct, although my comparison may not be well articulated. Obviously these are not the same people who did the conquering, but I think the symbolism will be the same for many Muslims and Christians.

    And Sam, you are exactly right. The problem is that most of the people on the anti-mosque side of the issue are almost certainly there for very nasty reasons. I am truly uncomfortable finding myself even in partial agreement with the evangelical fascists. But here’s the problem with Sam Harris’s and Chris Hitchen’s anti-religion arguments. A significant portion of the population seems to need it. Every single civilization, no matter how remote, has concocted some sort of religion. And in many, many, many civilizations people with nasty political agendas have figured out how to coopt it and use it to convince the ignorant masses to suport their positions. I just dont think you can get rid of it. Religion seems to be some sort of fundamental need, like sex or chocolate. Perhaps the best you can do is persecute the more pernicious strains.

    Maybe the Confederate flag will be my next post. As anyone who read my last novel knows (which would not be many people,) those things drive me apolectic. At least in my home state of S.C., there is a vague albeit illogical connection to heritage. But I have started seeing them sprout up in Indiana and there’s a huge one on a farm in Wisconsin. Don’t these people get that their great grandfathers died opposing that flag? It’s equivalent to flying the Rising Sun in Honolulu.

    • Sam: Haven’t read Hitchens. But I suppose it’s true that many people need religion. However, that doesn’t make Harris and Dawkins wrong. I guess you could go back to certain points in history and argue, were you so inclined, that people needed human sacrifice. And the same rationale would suggest that even today most cultures seem to need war. And various forms of negative out-grouping behavior. And so on.

      Still, your point is taken, and I have no delusions whatsoever that I’m going to see humanity evolve past all this in my lifetime. Given that, what we need is the most productive sorts of religion we can get – hence the concept of the “moderate” Christian and the “moderate” Muslim. Of course, if you’ve read Harris, you know what a number he does on that whole concept.

      Finally, when I lived in Western New York, I got used to seeing Confederate flags. Some days it was like being in Alabama, only without the heat and accents….

  6. Your history is correct, if overly simplified. Your analogy is dead wrong, as you well know, and the fact that it may seem “the same” for Muslims (which Muslims? Al Quaeda? They hate this imam and this form of Islam) and Christians only means that plenty of people will buy into the fuzzy, emotionally-charged false equivalency you propose. So Bin Laden, although he’d rather see this community center a smoking ruin, will pretend that it’s a triumphant gesture, even more Americans will let themselves be manipulated into rage and hey, maybe this time we”ll invade Iran! Or Pakistan! Is that the mentality we want to encourage? When you buy into it, that’s exactly what you’re doing.

    And in the end, Sam, for heaven’s sake – how far away is far enough? Since it’s not on the “victory site,” as you have to admit, tell me: is four blocks enough? Six? Shall we just outlaw any new mosques in New York for the foreseeable future? While we’re at it, how about Southern Baptist churches near the sites of lynchings? Or any Christian house of worship in the vicinity of a former concentration camp? After all, Nazis were Positive Christians.

    The idea that a plot of dirt, a patch of land, is sacred because people died there is a peculiarly toxic notion to me. Lives are sacred. Once they’re gone, there is nothing hallowed about the place they ended. Memory matters, because it keeps us (sometimes) from doing the same stupid things. But battlefields become farms become cities; Pictish shrines become Roman temples become Catholic churches, and we walk on the dead every day. We breathe them , in fact. We are them. We build on what they left us. The best way to honor the dead, as far I’m concerned, is to live and let live as well as we can, despite the noise.