Thursday, 16 September 2010

The "WTC Mosque" And Phoney Outrage

Well, this is the third big religious controversy of the past few weeks, so I should really do the hat-trick and, let's face it, just about everyone and their dog has had their say, but few of them were Quakers. It raises three main questions in my mind, and I will outline them briefly below.

Firstly, what is the actual nature of the proposed centre? Let's get one thing straight - it is not a mosque, and it is not at the WTC site, but two full blocks away, and it is not visible from the WTC site. It is a cultural centre, featuring eating and sporting facilities, alongside a library, seminar rooms and conference facilities, though it will have prayer rooms on the uppermost levels. Mosques don't generally have basketball courts and swimming pools, and if the presence of prayer rooms makes it a mosque, then the WTC was a mosque too, as it contained Islamic prayer rooms.

The funding of the centre, and the nature of the leader behind the project have been brought into the question. The foundation principally funding the project is run by the same Saudi businessman who is a major shareholder in News International, owner of Fox News and numerous other right wing outlets in the US, and throughout the world, who are leading the outcry against this building. Apparently, he is acceptable as a shareholder in Murdoch's empire, but not as a philanthropic funder of cultural centres.

The imam who has been accused of extremism, is the very same man consulted by both the Bush and Obama administrations, and by the FBI, on countering extremism and on cultural sensitivity towards Islamic groups and nations. Widely considered one of the most moderate imams in the US, he is acceptable to governments of both parties, and to law enforcement agencies, but is clearly not acceptable to right wing ideologues.

Secondly, should the centre be built where it is proposed, or at all? Personally, I would rather that no new churches, mosques or temples were built anywhere, and that the money was spent on secular education, rational discussion, and scientific research instead. However, rightly or wrongly, many people choose to embrace theistic religions, and they continue to have the right to build their places of worship without unnecessary interference or discrimination, and without distinction between religions. That is the mark of a free and fair society, and is the only way to truly safeguard the freedom of, and from, religion in our societies. Hopefully, one day, we will have no need of most of them, but for now we have to guarantee equality.

The argument against the specific location seems to be that it is in some way disrespectful to those killed in the September 11th attacks. Those who died included approximately 60 innocent Muslims who either worked at the WTC, or were passengers on the aircraft. There were no objections raised when an Islamic prayer service was held at the actual WTC site in memory of those victims, as required by Islamic practice, shortly after the attacks. There were Islamic prayer rooms within the buildings destroyed, despite the previous attack on the WTC in the 1990s. Are these individuals not disrespected by the hatred being shown towards their fellow American Muslims?

I do not attribute sanctity to a place in this manner; humans have died horribly in almost every square mile of this planets surface at some point or other, and often on a larger scale than this. Yet, if you call for such respect, then you have to honour all the victims, not just those you happen to like, or identify with. Critics of the centre will, no doubt, point to the religion of the attackers, but do we then ban churches from Oklahoma City, because Tim McVeigh happened to be a Christian with a persecution complex? Al-Qaeda attacked the WTC, in the name of a twisted and perverse interpretation of their religion; they did not act in the name of all Muslims, nor pretended to, and certainly not in the name of American Muslims. I'm no great admirer of Islam, but I would not think for one moment that the attack represented all Islam, a tortuously fractured and diverse religion, as is Christianity.

Furthermore, if this site is to be regarded as sacred, why then is it not disrespectful for the strip clubs, fast food joints and tacky discount stores to operate within a similar distance of it, and much more visibly than this centre will?

This area of Manhattan has a large Muslim population, who were directly impacted by the attacks and their aftermath, just as much as any other American. It is a neighbourhood that already has several mosques. It is a population eager for understanding and openness with their fellow Americans. What place in America would be more suitable for a centre whose intended purpose includes building bridges, promoting reconciliation and resisting extremism?

Thirdly, why has this controversy come to the boil in the last couple of months? This centre at Park 51 was first publicly proposed more than a year ago, and virtually no disquiet was expressed at that time. Indeed, it was broadly welcomed, and there was even an appearance on a Fox News show last autumn (I'm sure you can still find the clips on YouTube somewhere), where the host was warmly supportive of the centre and had a friendly interview with the imam's wife, a modern American lady, whose appearance tells you much about how liberal this imam is. She was very careful to explain that this was not a mosque, but that it was a cultural centre designed to promote understanding, and to combat any potential extremism amongst the Muslim community.

So what changed? Why did the right wing media and blogosphere

That these charges are demonstrably false does not, of course, matter to Republican and conservative demagogues, nor does the harm that this has done to the unity of the nation, and to America's image abroad, with potential consequences for Americans, and other western citizens, in the Islamic world. Their narrow self-interest and any potential electoral advantage to be gained is all that matters.

America was founded, not as a Christian nation, as the right wing there love to assert, but as a nation that guaranteed freedom of religion, and freedom from it, and which has secular values at the very heart of its constitution. It goes against the very raison d'etre of the country to oppose this centre, and to stir up hatred and division in the manner of the current Fox News agenda. The WTC site should be a memorial to tolerance, unity, and to the folly of hatred, not a symbol of division and intolerance. Until the world is ready to move on from supernatural superstition and tribalism, then tolerance and equality continue to be our best defence against the hatred and intolerance so often promoted and committed in the name of theistic religion.

Ironically, the last Republican President, George W Bush, whatever his actions abroad, seemed to have an instinctive understanding of this in the domestic sphere, and demonstrated that in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, in a manner which seems alien to his political successors.

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