By Josh Hendrickson
“Islam is EVIL and everyone who aids and abets Islam is EVIL. Practicing Muslims are EVIL. … The only thing Muslims have ever accomplished is establishing Islam as a VICIOUS WORLDWIDE CRIMINAL SYNDICATE to enslave 22% of the world’s population against their cumulative will.” (Egghead, 8/15&16/2010)
The above quote is one among many comments taken verbatim from Pamela Geller’s popular right-wing blog Atlasshrugs, and is not an unusual example of what passes for discourse on the Internet today. Search any current hot-button topic, and one can easily find as much choice hatred as one can stomach. Prejudice exists everywhere, in all human beings, and vitriol is not limited to one side of the political aisle.
Nor is Islamophobia new to America. But in recent months, the tenor of the bigotry has changed, and its temperature has increased. What makes this intensification of hatred new and unusual is its irony, in that its inspiration is founded not in a new attack but an attempt to heal old wounds.
Since 9/11, there have been numerous calls, chiefly from conservative pundits, for moderate voices in Islam to speak up against the radicals in their faith. Although many such voices have answered those calls, the mainstream media has muted those moderate responses even as it cried aloud that no one was answering. It may be that honest moderate voices were never in fact welcome, for now, when a clear answer has been put forth and augmented with action, what comes back in response is not acceptance and gratitude but rejection and accusations of malice.
The answer and action in question is the proposed Park 51 Islamic Center in New York City. This project, which was greenlighted by the city in August, will be built on the site of an old Burlington Coat Factory, and will sport an auditorium seating 500, a swimming pool, a library, and a small mosque. The project’s director, Feisal Abdul Rauf, a Kuwaiti-born naturalized American citizen, is an Imam in the moderate, mystical branch of Islam known as Sufism. His stated intention in building the center is to provide “a platform … to strengthen the voice of the moderates … it’s my duty as an American Muslim to stand between you, the American non-Muslim, and the radicals who are trying to kill you.”
This would seem a straightforward response to the call for moderate Islam. Yet both Rauf and his proposed center are under attack. Rauf himself has been deemed “Radical Rauf” by blogger Geller, and other conservative pundits have reflexively taken to referring to him as a radical, although there appears to be no evidence linking Rauf to any extremist Muslims or organizations.
While the personal attacks on Imam Rauf are limited to the farthest fringe of the right wing, Rauf’s proposed center itself has also come under attack on a broader scale, chiefly for three of its aspects: its location, its name, and its purpose.
While the center’s purpose would seem clear—to serve as a means of creating interfaith dialogue and strengthening relations between moderate Islam and mainstream American society—there are those who believe that any mosque, no matter its intentions, must be a nefarious thing. Nonie Darwish, the president of Former Muslims United, has said, in a New York Times Upfront article, “A mosque is not just a place for worship. It’s a place where war was started, where commandments to do jihad start, where incitements against non-Muslims occur. It’s a place where ammunition was stored.” Darwish’s claims appear to be based upon history, and in that context may well be true—but it is difficult to see how they might apply to an American Islamic Center run by a Sufi Imam.
Park 51 was originally named the Cordoba Center. “Cordoba” is a commonplace name in Islamic culture, a reference to the Spanish city which in medieval times was the capital of the Islamic empire’s outpost in Europe. In those days, the height of Islam’s triumph, Cordoba was an egalitarian center of civilization, noted for its nigh-unique tolerance of Christians and Jews. However, some people consider it a reference to Islamic conquest, and in deference to those criticisms, Imam Rauf changed the name. This demonstrates Rauf’s sensitivity to his critics, and his desire to build bridges rather than burn them.
Unfortunately, the bridge-burners’ greatest criticism of Park 51 concerns its very location, and it is here that their concerns are the most legitimately heartfelt—and, ultimately, unfounded. Park 51’s site is located two blocks from the World Trade Center, which has earned the Islamic Center the inaccurate moniker “the Ground Zero Mosque.” According to Rauf, building Park 51 near the WTC is “the right thing to do … America needs it and the Muslim world needs it … if 9/11 happens there again, I want to be the first to die.”
Rauf’s intentions, however noble, do not seem to stir the 51 percent of Americans who oppose Park 51, according to PewResearch. Their emotions are inflamed by the mere proximity of an Islamic Center to the place where nearly 3,000 Americans died at the hands of radical Islamists. This is the reason most often cited for opposing to the center: it is thought insensitive, inappropriate, and inconsiderate of the victims of 9/11 to build the center so near to Ground Zero.
Although this emotion is understandable, it is not universal. Donna Marsh O’Connor lost her daughter Vanessa, who was pregnant at the time, to the terrorist attacks. Yet O’Connor, who is a member of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, has not joined the chorus of voices raised in offense at the thought of an Islamic Center close to the place where her daughter was killed. “We’re a family who is forever changed, certainly forever scarred, but we’re not the victims of 9/11,” she said. “Our daughter was the victim of 9/11 and we don’t want to see our nation fold.” She acknowledged the hurt emotions inspired by the center’s location, but insisted, “we don’t change fundamentally what our nation is about because it will hurt people … this is what America has always been—a place where people come to escape religious persecution.”
Those who oppose the center seem to miss this point. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution promotes freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression; it does not, and cannot, guarantee a right not to be offended, not to have your feelings hurt. It rightly insists that the plans of Imam Rauf and the words of divisive bloggers have an equal right to coexist in America.
Although the Constitution holds the upper ground, laws and rights may ultimately be weaker than hurt feelings. It may be that there is a large contingent of the right wing in this country that does not want to be healed of the wounds caused by 9/11. They call for “moderate Islam” to speak up, but may not actually wish to hear those words, and indeed may only hear them as threats in disguise. In the end, they may actively promote fundamentalist Christianity in direct opposition to what they see as an Islamist threat. The efforts of an Imam Rauf cannot be taken at face value by this contingent; they can only be seen as Jihad brought to our shores.
President Obama, in comments made on August 13, 2010 in a Boston Globe article, said unequivocally, “I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.” However, the very next day, the President equivocated: “I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.”
Although most interpretations of those statements judge the President to be waffling, I think it a subtle warning: Barack Obama is smart enough to know that the “wisdom” here is not a reflection on Imam Rauf’s intentions, but rather on the consequences of building a “mosque” (for that is how its enemies will forever see it, with all of its foreign, negative connotations) so near to Ground Zero. For it is not difficult, in today’s charged political climate, to imagine some person, their emotions riled and their thoughts deranged by the poisonous idea that “Islam is EVIL,” committing mass murder within or even destroying the “Ground Zero Mosque” in the name of their “LORD YESHUA-JESUS THE CHRIST.” Imam Rauf’s wish, in the case of 9/11, to “be the first to die” may well come true … but the terrorists who murder him may well not be Islamists.
Everyone knows that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It is noble and generous of Imam Rauf to want to heal wounds, to protect America from Muslim extremists. But who will protect Imam Rauf from America?
Hendrickson , 40, is a first-year student at RCC. He attends classes on the Riverside campus.