A friend who is also a lawyer wrote this challenging question: do I think that everyone who is uncomfortable with the mosque/community center is racist or Islamophobic. Since my draft answer ended up being sort of long-winded, I figured I’d just post it.
Dear Friend –
Thanks for challenging me. I like that — our views are meant to be challenged. The answer is: I think folks may be uncomfortable with the community center for a large variety of reasons, many deeply personal, many non-racist. As I mentioned in a previous post, my father died in an ICU in Orlando and I haven’t been willing to visit Florida in the 13 years since. It’s painful and it’s irrational, but I get it.
While there are many personal reasons for differing reactions to the proposed community center, I think the people who are getting loud about it are largely political opportunists, with a smattering of bigots and Islamophobes.
We’re both trained as lawyers, which means we know how to cross examine and impeach a witness. Does an answer make sense? Is it consistent with the witness’s other answers? Here is what I see with respect to this current manufactured controversy:
- The Imam we are now supposed to suspect was sent by the Bush administration to promote religious tolerance around the world.
- The area near but not in Ground Zero has never before been hallowed. There is an existing mosque almost as close, as well as a large number of random, un-holy uses: a strip club; stores; restaurants; etc.
- The other 9/11 site — the Pentagon — contains a mosque. No one cares.
- No one has previously had much respect for the feelings of victims of tragedies. When the NRA hosted its convention in Denver after the Columbine massacre, it was the right wingers standing up for their constitutional right to do that, and explaining that the depraved actions of two boys could not be blamed on a larger group with whom they claimed affinity, that the pain of the Columbine families should not dictate where they held their convention. No one cares that there is still a gun store a mile from the high school. No one cares that there are Christian churches near the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.
- Those who question the presence of Saudi money do not seem to have a problem that the same Saudi guy owns a big chunk of News Corp, Fox’s parent company. If it’s bad for the Saudis to hurt our feelings architecturally, isn’t it worse for them to have the power to blast propaganda into our living rooms? And the people who are now complaining about the mosque never raised their voices about the Bush family’s close ties to these same people, and the fact that they were all secretly flown out of the country when the non-Saudi Americans were grounded and grieving.
None of the reasons we are hearing for the anger being directed at the community center holds up to cross-examination. That doesn’t make the objectors racists; it makes them opportunists. When the political identities were different (the Bush administration; NRA; Christian churches) there was no objection. When Sarah Palin hadn’t yet tweeted about it, there was no objection. That’s not racist, it’s political.
But another thing we lawyers are trained to do is to work with hypotheticals. So let’s take the hypothetical that you’re right, that this building is being built with evil intent and dirty money. I think by protesting we are missing an enormous opportunity, the opportunity that is being seized so eloquently by Michael Bloomberg, the opportunity that your examples of European bigotry cry out for. WE’RE BETTER THAN THEY ARE. This is our chance to say to the world: We can choose tolerance. We can embrace this community center. We can DEFINE this community center. It will become part of OUR message, not some intuited message of Moorish victory. And note, we have not heard from Al Qaeda that this is a “memorial to victory.” The only people saying that are Americans! We are shouting from the rooftops the precise message we profess to fear.
What if, from the beginning, we had all embraced the community center in the name of American patriotism. It would crush any alternative meaning. (Candidly, I keep imaging America as the Whos Down in Whoville, holding hands and singing songs, with the evil terrorist Grinch looking down from his perch, disappointed that he could not steal the true spirit of Christmas.)
When the world looks at us, do you want them to see the whiners on Fox and the screamers at Ground Zero? Or do you want them to see Michael Bloomberg saying:
Just as we fought communism by showing the world the power of free markets and free elections, so must we fight terrorism by showing the world the power of religious freedom and cultural tolerance. Freedom and tolerance will always defeat tyranny and terrorism – and that’s the great lesson of the 20th century, and we must not abandon it here in the 21st.
I encourage you to read his whole speech. And I challenge you not to burst with pride and patriotism when you do. But you also ask that moderate Muslims denounce terrorism. Many have, over and over. Here is what Imam Rauf had to say at a memorial to Daniel Pearl, who died at the hands of terrorists. It is generally a very moving tribute to religious harmony. But specifically, he said:
We are here especially to seek your forgiveness and of your family for what has been done in the name of Islam.
My views on how we should respond to this come from a deep pride in our country and a conviction that we are better than the rest of the world. We are a nation of immigrants. It’s our strength. We are a nation of people who can disagree with each other and live side by side. There’s no synagogue in Mecca because WE’RE BETTER THAN THEY ARE. Do the people making that comparison really want to measure our religious tolerance against that of the Saudis?
The common ground I hope we can find is that, while some people regard the community center as benign and others as suspicious, we all agree that “Freedom and tolerance will always defeat tyranny and terrorism – and that’s the great lesson of the 20th century, and we must not abandon it here in the 21st.”
I hope you don’t mind that I blogged in response to your question. Please feel free to use the comments to tell me how full of shit I am!