We are going to get to the topic of the Islamic building in New York City a little bit later on, but I want to start off with a bit of a broader view. Right now, we are in a dangerous place in the United States. Rhetoric about Islam has reached a fever pitch of hysteria. It comes from all sides, from the media, from opportunistic politicians, and from religious leaders. It is a discourse of demonization and fear that plays off of insecurities and ignorance. This extremism poses a real threat not only to the millions of Muslim citizens of the United States, but it poses a threat to the soul of our nation and to world security.
Next weekend the bizarre pastor of a fringe church in Gainesville, Florida will be holding “Burn a Qur’an Day.” Next weekend a rally will be held in New York City to protest the plans to build an Islamic Cultural Center. Originally, Newt Gingrich was to headline this event, but Gingrich pulled out because he didn't want to be associated with it. However, one of the guests of honor who will be there is Geert Wilders, a Dutch neo-fascist politician who spreads anti-Islamic hatred. Wilders has proposed a series of laws in The Netherlands that amount to the ethnic cleansing of Muslims. He is so controversial and extreme that for most of 2009 he was banned from visiting the United Kingdom because he was deemed “a threat to the fundamental interests of society.” You’ll be able to catch him next weekend in New York.
In the United States, extremism has gone beyond talk. On August 25, a man asked a taxi driver in New York City if he was Muslim before repeatedly stabbing him. Last week a mosque in Tennessee was the target of arson and vandalism. Since September 11, 2001, there have been well over two hundred instances of hate crimes in the United States targeting mosques or other buildings associated with Islam. That’s a rate of one every two weeks. These hate crimes have ranged from simple vandalism and graffiti to arson, pipe bombs, and strafing an Islamic center that houses a preschool with sniper fire.
A little history is in order. Let’s begin with Muhammad. During the month of Ramadan each year Muhammad went to the mountains outside of Mecca to fast and pray. In the year 610 he had a religious experience, heard the voice of Allah, and began to receive the recitation, known as the Qur’an. Two years later he began to preach the message he had received. Within a century, the Umayyad Dynasty, which stretched from present day Spain and Portugal in the West to present day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of India in the East had embraced Islam.
For the next 800 years much of present-day Spain existed under Moorish rule. No governing system is perfect, but under Muslim rule religious minorities were treated as dhimmis, as protected subjects. There was, if not equality, a broad tolerance of non-Muslims. The lines of empire ebbed and flowed, and Christianity began to reassert itself on the Iberian Peninsula during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. We all know what happened in 1492, right? Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. That’s the big news on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. On the other side of the Atlantic, in Spain, 1492 is the year that the Catholic monarchy, which had just recently wrested control of Spain back from the Moors, instituted the Inquisition. In fact, it was in 1492 that an edict was issued that required all Jews and Muslims to either convert to Catholicism or leave Spain by the end of the year or face the Inquisition.
Historians believe that the crews of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria included quite a few people, among them some Jews and possibly some Muslims, who elected to take their chances on the high seas rather than face the torture chambers of the Inquisition.
It is possible that Muslims first came to the New World on the ships of Spanish explorers. It is certain that Muslims came to the Americas as enslaved persons from the African continent; it is estimated that 20% of the slaves who came to America were Muslim. The earliest Arab Muslims who came to the United States in any significant number came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The first wave of these immigrants were young men from present day Lebanon and Syria who came because of limited economic opportunities in their homelands. They settled in Dearborn, Michigan, Detroit, and Toledo, Ohio.
Through the twentieth century, American Muslims faced much of the same discrimination faced by other ethnic minorities. The racist housing covenants of the 1940s-60s in Leawood and Mission Hills discriminated not only against Jews and African-Americans, but also against Arabs, Turks, and other non-whites.
Over the past half century, Muslim immigrants to the United States have come from every corner of the globe: Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and more. Today, there are about 8 million Muslims in the United States. The typical American Muslim is middle to upper-middle class, earns an above-average income, and has generally had a positive experience with our nation’s unique blending of consumer-capitalism, religious liberty, and broad pluralism.
Given the reality that American Muslims are typical of the American experience, how do we account for the widespread virulent Islamophobia that we see in our national discourse?
The easy answer is that controversies like we see in New York City play well in the media and are deeply attractive to cynical politicians. As my colleague John Cullinan put it in a sermon he recently delivered,
[This whole debate is] noise. [It is] sound and fury signifying, ultimately, nothing. A distraction. A method of scoring cheap political points during an election season. A chance for those who seek power to say something that resonates with the frightened and the small-minded, without having to make a promise they cannot possibly keep (for what can our politicians do in this situation except give sound bites). A chance to whore for attention until the next noisemaking toy arrives, until we all forget and move on to the next manufactured controversy. It’s America’s favorite game: Political Football. It’s a game that everyone eventually loses.However, I think there is something deeper at play. Do not be tempted into thinking this is solely about the building in New York City. There is a much deeper, much more widespread Islamophobia at play here. It is not just New York City. We must also account for arson at a mosque in Tennessee and self-professed “Tea Partiers” marching against a mosque in Southern California that is planning a building expansion. We must account for the nonstop rumoring about President Obama’s religious beliefs. We must account for the hysterical and delusional ravings about America being "Islamicized" or "Islamified," about there being some secret plot for some Ayatollah to seize power and turn the United States into an Islamic theocracy.
Again, the politically cynical answer is that this entire discourse is a distraction. It is a way to keep people focused on an imaginary boogeyman. If you can rile up fear and outrage about gays or Latinos or Communists or Muslims — whichever tried and true scapegoat is the flavor of the month — you can diminish people’s outrage about their economic vulnerability, their lack of access to affordable health care, or the quality of the schools to which they send their children.
It is one thing when we are distracted by Hollywood tabloids or even when we are distracted by political mudslinging. That is bad enough. But, the distraction that has come about from demonizing American Muslims may be more than a distraction; it is dangerous.
Of course, it is literally dangerous to the 8 million American Muslims who each stand a greater risk of being the victim of a hate crime. It is also dangerous to American soldiers overseas and imperils our own national security.
A few weeks ago I went to the annual awards banquet of the International Relations Council of Kansas City where Reza Aslan was the featured speaker. Dr. Aslan made a very important point. He said that the “War on Terror” is a war of ideas. In the end, it comes down to having the ability to say that my ideas are better than other ideas. He argued that the greatest weapon America wields in this war of ideas is the collective experience of 8 million American Muslims. In fact that is why people like Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf travel the world on behalf the US State Department delivering lectures that cast the United States in a positive light.
To prevail in this competition of ideas, you have to frame a broad narrative about the experiences of Muslims living in a liberal democracy. You have to say: look at the experience of Muslims in America. They practice their faith freely and without government coercion. They experience economic prosperity, security, and safety. Diversity is lifted up as something positive and enriching. Respect is a fundamental value of our society and disagreements are dealt with peacefully. It is a vision that is immensely appealing to Muslims all around the world.
How do you lose a competition of ideas? Send images around the world of Christian pastors burning Qur’ans and marching on mosques. Distribute clips of Darla Jaye telling her listeners that all terrorists are Muslims. Show the screaming heads of radio and cable news entertainment promoting anti-Islamic hysteria. Heck, send videos of American politicians lining up to condemn Islam. After all, the competing narrative says that Americans hate Islam and are on a global crusade to eradicate Islam. Iman Feisal Abdul Rauf is the leading Imam behind the plans to build an Islamic Cultural Center in New York City. And, it really does put him in a tough spot as he travels to places like Egypt and Jordan to address large audiences and tell them that the United States is not hostile to Islam.
With regards to the planned Islamic Cultural Center in Lower Manhattan, let me say that there are two parts of this equation. One part consists of reason and facts. The other part consists of emotions.
You can look up the facts for yourself, but the facts are worth repeating. The so-called Ground Zero Mosque is not a mosque and is not at Ground Zero. There are already dozens of mosques on the Island of Manhattan, including one four blocks away. This building will not be a mosque. Instead it will be a 13-story, $100 million dollar community center and will include a 500-seat auditorium, a theater, a performing arts center, a fitness center, a swimming pool, a basketball court, a childcare area, a bookstore, a culinary institute, a food court, an art gallery, a memorial to the victims of the September 11 attacks, and a space set aside for prayer.
And, it is not at Ground Zero. The common refrain repeats that it is not at Ground Zero; it is two blocks away. But even that is not entirely true. I cannot help but think that part the national discourse about this building is shaped by a broad cluelessness about the geography of New York City. David Foster Wallace, in his 9/11 essay “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” makes the point that many Americans don’t realize the radical scale of everything in New York. We see the totalizing image of the NYC skyline as it is famously depicted on so many television programs, but this view doesn’t capture the sheer scale of New York. The proposed site of Park51 is two blocks away as the crow flies, but it is five blocks by foot, and five blocks in NYC is a lot bigger than it sounds. Here in Middle America we are used to seeing horizons. Stand on a sidewalk in New York City, at the bottom of a canyon created by vertiginous buildings, and the idea of distance is warped. I’m no expert on New York City geography, but I had to snicker when I heard Adam and Darla on The Darla Jaye Show agreeing that Park51 should be built ten blocks away. That is such a Johnson County way of thinking; you’re only ten blocks from some new development taking place in some repurposed cow pasture. Tell a New Yorker that his favorite deli is moving ten blocks away and see what happens.
I say this lovingly: If there is anything larger than the scale of New York City, it is the size of the city in the mind of a New Yorker. (Think of the famous New Yorker cover depicting a New York understanding of the geography of the United States.) The idea that a person in Manhattan should care about what a person in Queens thinks of a building project is laughable, to say nothing of a person living in Kansas City. The project developers worked for several years to generate broad support and the project earned the overwhelming support of New York’s interfaith leaders, the city planning council, and Mayor Bloomberg. And that is good enough.
Currently, the area around the proposed Park51 project is underdeveloped. A lot of businesses have closed or moved out of the area and there are many vacant storefronts. In fact, Park51’s neighbors at the moment include a strip club and an off-track betting lounge. The project is being spearheaded by a Sufi Imam who has spent his distinguished career working to build bridges and improve relations between Islam and the West. Originally, the building was to be called Cordoba House. Cordoba is the city in Spain that was the center of a Muslim presence in the West marked, albeit imperfectly, by tolerance and cooperation between different faiths. I should also mention that dozens of Muslims were among the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. There were Muslim employees who perished in the Twin Towers. There were Muslim passengers on the highjacked planes. There were Muslim firemen and EMTs who died heroically in the rescue efforts. I should also mention that there is a room set aside for Islamic prayer in the Pentagon just a few yards from the spot where terrorists flew a plane into the Pentagon.
You probably already knew most of these things. These are facts, what reason tells us. But, we do not make decisions by facts alone. There is an emotional component to this debate. Emotions are powerful. Facts do not overrule them. I have found in talking to people and in listening to the conversations and arguments that emotions are like a truth serum. It is a referendum on people’s deep seated feelings about Islam and Islam’s place in the United States. Some people are uneasy about how they feel and try to stuff their own emotions. They attempt to justify the way they feel with theological and philosophical contortions.
Americans experience a wide range of emotions concerning the Park51 project. The emotions that we feel tell us something about ourselves.
Click here to see the humorous and sarcastic slideshow that went along with this sermon.