The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, September 10, 2010

Mosques, Community Centers, and Book Burnings

So, tomorrow is September 11, 2010. The pastor of a small church in Florida is threatening to burn Korans, and everyone is fighting over whether the Islamic equivalent to a YMCA (and yes, that's what it is, if you're going to start screaming that it's an "Extremist Mosque" then go look it up...somewhere other than Sean Hannity's website) should be built in New York.

There is one similarity between them: in both cases, people are doing something perfectly legal, and in both cases we have to worry about how ideologues, the frightened, and the angry are going to act. In New York, we have to worry about whether people who don't grasp that Al Qeada is a fringe group within Islam will commit acts of violence and/or vandalism, and the Florida pastor is running the risk of giving yet more cause to uninformed people in the Middle East who - through the manipulations of their own media and political figures - may think that the Koran burning is a normal part of American and/or Christian life and not the act of a half-wit fringe group.

The reality is that both of these events would have passed by completely un-noticed were it not for media and political attention. In getting worked up over either of them, people are allowing themselves to be manipulated or else giving in to a gut-level emotional reaction without stopping to consider what being a citizen of this country actually means. To be fair, the manipulators (politicians, ideologues, and media fixtures) are very good at it, and most folks don't realize that it's happening not because of a lack of their own intelligence but because the manipulators are very good at their jobs.

Let's start with the "Ground Zero Mosque." It's not at Ground Zero - now some folks will point out that it is in a location where the building was damaged by debris from the attacks, which is true. However, Ground Zero is a specifically designated place, and this falls outside of it. You could call it "the Building Damaged by Aircraft Debris Mosque", but that doesn't have the same ring, and more importantly for the people who are making hay with it, it doesn't have the same "shut off thinking by getting people angry" emotional charge. It's also not a Mosque, but that's true on a technical distinction between what is and what is not a mosque that many Christians don't make regarding what is and what is not a church, so while it's technically not a mosque, I'm not going to argue too much about that, as it's close enough.

There are alot of other claims going around - "They're going to let a mosque be built, but not a church be rebuilt", "the Imam refused offers to buy him out and give addition financial incentives if he just re-locates somewhere else", "the Imam receives money from the Kingdom Foundation, which is run by a guy who funds extremist groups around the world!" And so on. For the first two points - as someone who has been involved in building planning for several years now, neither of these things seems sinister. In New York, there are different authorities who have control over the permits in different areas (the same is true in many cities in my own state) - the area where the Islamic Center/Mosque is going to be built is not under the Port authority, who actually does have permitting responsibilities for the area where an Eastern Orthodox Church once stood, and with different agencies comes different permitting processes, regulations to follow, etc., which means that something that would be permitted by one agency may not be permitted by another. This is perfectly normal, if frustrating if you happen to be the person trying to get permits. Also, once the permitting process has been started, it's normal for the project proponent, regardless of the project, to not accept offers to be bought out - I have seen it many, many times, and they tend to dig their heels in more when project get political. So, these things that people seem to think are suspicious are actually a normal part of getting things built - sad, but true.

The guy, often referred to as "the Extremist" (not Joe Satriani) who is behind the Kingdom Foundation who funds some of this Imam's activities is Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. He is also one of the major shareholders of Newscorp, the organization that owns FOX News. So, if you are going to claim that this Imam must be an evil anti-American extremist because he accepts funding from Al-Waleed bin Talal, then it follows that Bill O'Reilly is also an evil Anti-American extremist*.

There are numerous other things that people have brought up to try to show the alleged evils of the Imam behind the construction, but following them up routinely brings me to the same sorts of things once I find the source: either the statements are misconstruals of perfectly normal practices that all construction projects have the potential to entail, or they are distortions of statements actually made (sometimes through quote-mining, sometimes through very loose paraphrasing), or they are statements made by people with a political agenda that don't actually accuse the Imam of anything but are clearly intended to get people thinking that he's done something (in other words, they're lies carefully worked to avoid a libel suit). In other words, every time I have actually followed anything to the source, it turns out to either be mundane, or insulting but normal within the context of American life. The same is true for those who wish to paint him as the most wonderful guy in the world. In other words, whether you regard this Imam as a demon or an angel, you are looking at a media image and not what the guy has actually said or done.

Now, does this guy hold views that I, personally, would find abhorrent regarding issues of individual rights, women's rights, social roles, etc.? Probably. He is an Imam, after all. You know who else holds views that I find abhorrent? The Pope. The Prophet of the Mormon Church. Franklin Graham (Billy Graham's son). Pat Robertson. And the list could go on for many pages. Would I object to them building a church near Ground Zero, or in any other location? Not if they obtained permits and went about it in a legal manner.

Some people are going to be upset with of this construction because it's an Islamic center, and Al Qeada is an Islamic group. But the simple fact of the matter is that there is a very real distinction between Al Qaeda - an organization - and Islam - a religion**. Al Qaeda is an Islamic organization, to be certain. I'm not going to be one of those people who claims that they're not true Muslims, because as far as an honest assessment can be made, they are. But it should be kept in mind that in the 1930s, and possibly still today (I find alot of contradictory information) the Ku Klux Klan was a Christian organization, but it wasn't Christianity. In the 1930s, the Ku Klux Klan used political rhetoric and Biblical citations to justify it's agenda, and it's leadership was definitely Christian, and it was accepted, applauded, or at best ignored by many Protestant Christian churches in the United States in pretty much precisely the same way that Al Qeada is by many Middle Eastern mosques today. And yet we all know that the KKK is not and never was the face of mainstream Christianity, it was a fringe group (if a widely accepted or even supported one).

If you bother to do some reading outside of the headlines and more sensationalistic outlets, it quickly becomes apparent that much the same can be said of Al Qeada. Indeed, Al Qeada, for all of their "anti-Imperialist" rhetoric, has shown itself to be just as (or perhaps even more) interested in killing other Muslims as in striking Europe and the United States - hardly the actions of the mainstream of a religion. Hell, the justification for suicide bombing had to be developed by Ayman al-Zawahiri using references to Medieval Christian martyrologies and then quote-mining the Koran***.

So, really, I see no legitimate reason to oppose the construction of this Islamic center if I'm not also going to oppose the construction of any other religious structure. I would not oppose the construction of a Catholic church next to an elementary school, or a Southern Baptist church in a Selma, Alabama, or a synagogue near a Palestinian-American neighborhood either.

I have, however, heard one legitimate reason for not building it, and this is where it ties back to our friend in Florida. The reason is this: given that there has been such a furor whipped up over it, constructing it will likely result in further conflict, probably result in vandalism, and may result in violence. But let's be clear - this is a concern about the actions of people other than those who want to build the place. This is a concern about the actions of people who are able and willing to commit criminal acts because they fail to grasp that living in a society where both speech and religion are free means that you don't have a right to not be offended. This is a concern about the actions of people who fail to make a distinction between a religion and individuals within that religion.

By the same token, I don't really care if some imbecile in Florida wants to burn books. If the media wasn't paying him so much attention, just as with the Islamic Center/Mosque, then this wouldn't be any more noteworthy than any of the huge number of other things that imbeciles do every single day. I don't consider the Koran holy - that would require me believing that there was some mystical being who decreed things holy - and so when I first heard of this guy, I gave it the same eye roll that I gave when I heard that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that there were no homosexuals in Iran. It was an idiot spouting off, something that everyone has the right to do when within the borders of the United States.

Since then, though, this has gathered so much media attention that it has become a legitimate concern that groups such as Al Qeada can use it as a recruiting tool ("evidence that 'the West' is against Islam, and not terrorism!") and that others with an axe to grind or media to sell in the Middle East may use it as a way to raise emotions and fan the ol' flames o' hatred, creating volatility where non exist.

But, again, let's be clear. The problem isn't that somebody has decided to legally burn something that he legally obtained. His actions and words show him to be a bigot and an idiot, but in the United States, we have the right to be bigots and idiots (even if I wish my fellow countrymen would exercise that right less often). The problem is that other people will use this to their advantage, and yet another group of people will fail to grasp that this guy is not representative of the U.S.A., the West in general, or even Christianity, and will engage in violent acts in response. What's more, this is a problem that arises from the fact that there are people in the world who fail to see the difference between the destruction of a symbol, and a violent attack against a religion's believers (a problem that is in no way unique to Islam).

"Gee, Mr. Armstrong, is there a point to this rant?"

Yeah. Over the past month, I have watched people, many of whom I respect and who are generally very smart and articulate people, reduce themselves to ranting madmen over the alleged evil of either the construction of the Islamic Center/Mosque, or the idiot with the book burning. But in both cases, this has been little more than giving in to emotion without reflection, or worse, allowing one's self to be manipulated by those with an agenda at worst.

We have the ability to be better than this. If you oppose the Islamic Center, then think about why you oppose it. If it's simply because the 9/11 hijackers were Muslim, then you are being inconsistent if you don't also oppose Catholic churches having daycare centers - let's face it, most priests don't abuse children, and most Muslims don't care for ramming airplanes into buildings. If you have some other reason for opposing it, then you may have a good point, or you may not, but at least you're not just giving in to a knee-jerk reaction.

If you are going to oppose the guy burning the Koran, then stop and consider that he now has power only because you have paid attention to him.

I can't fault anyone for having an immediate emotional response. But I can fault many people for not considering their position carefully and acting in accordance with their own stated principles.

*Wait a minute...this is starting to make some sense...

**This also holds for those who argue that being in favor of or opposed to the actions of the Israeli government means being in favor of or opposed to Judaism. There is a great distinction between Israel - a nation state - and Judaism - a religion and ethnic group.

***It should, of course, be noted that suicide attacks have occurred throughout history. They are usually justified via legalistic interpretations of either religion or tradition after the fact.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My thoughts exactly. Thank you.