Muslim citizenship at Ground Zero
Muslim citizenship at Ground Zero
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[Clarion, September 2010]
The plan to construct a Muslim community center (Park51 or Cordoba House), which will include a mosque space in lower Manhattan (two blocks from the site of World Trade Center), has generated a new wave of Islamophobia. At a recent rally against the project, one of the protestors carried a sign that read, “Everything I need to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11.” The Islam depicted in these rallies can be called “Ground Zero Islam” – a religion defined solely on the basis of terrorist attacks, which lives in the imagination of those who willfully reject Islam’s history and place in American culture.
The single most important fallacy propagated by the community center’s opponents is the assumption that all Muslims, including American Muslims, are collectively responsible for the terrorist acts of 9/11. It is this projection of malevolent foreignness that allows some American citizens to demand that other citizens give up their constitutional rights to freedom of religion and to private property. cultural citizenship The debate about Park51 represents a soon-to-vanish moment in our nation’s history, when Islam is perceived as a foreign entity shamelessly forcing its way across our political, cultural and psychic borders. When you remove the election-year grandstanding from the debate, the real popular sentiment that remains is seen in the characteristic mood of the protestors. While at times expressed in extreme and even overtly racist fashion, the protestors’ objections find their most coherent and reasonable form in the statement, “They have the right to build it, but it is insensitive.” That is, emotionally they object, while legally they acknowledge the right.
What does this say about the status of Islam and Muslims in the United States? It tells us that while Muslims may hold legal citizenship in America today, they lack cultural citizenship. The “insensitivity” claim implicitly poses the question: “Are they us [Americans, victims] or them [terrorists]?” And answers with a resounding, “Not ‘us’!”
Some protestors say this directly: Muslims should not build so close to Ground Zero because “they are the ones who took down the twin towers.” But if that is the case, shouldn’t law enforcement be called in to arrest them?
The protestors know very well that the American Muslims building Park51 are citizens who have not committed any crime. In the eyes of the law – and from the standpoint of the facts – they are as far from the crime of 9/11 as any other American. Why, then, should they be seen as responsible? The answer is because they are Muslim. It seems that Muslims are accepted into American law and protected by it as legal citizens, but they are not (yet?) accepted into the American nation and thus remain unprotected by its sentiment and public opinion. Their legal citizenship is complete, but their cultural citizenship is still undergoing a painful birth.
Is Islam an American religion, or is it in essence a religion of foreign terrorists? The extent to which all Muslims are seen as dangerously foreign is reflected in public opinion surveys. In a recent Time Magazine poll, 28% of respondents said that Muslims should be barred from serving on the US Supreme Court, while 32% said that Muslims should not be allowed to run for president. There is no serious movement to amend the Constitution along these lines, but such sentiments express the distance Muslims have yet to travel to gain full cultural citizenship.
Islam is in fact an American religion, even if is not necessarily perceived as such (except for the fact that 20% of Americans believe that their president is a Muslim). While the bulk of the 6 million Muslims living in this country belong to post-1965 waves of immigration, a significant part of the Muslim community has been in America for more than a century. In the case of African American Muslims, that history can be traced back to the days of slavery. Who can say that a mosque in Harlem is not American?
If a project like Park51, or a mosque on Staten Island, were proposed by a figure like Muhammad Ali or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, black Muslims who have come to be seen as iconic Americans, one can be sure there would still be opponents. One wonders whether they would use the same arguments. Islam has become an integral part of the American religious landscape – particularly in New York City, where approximately 600,000 Muslims live and about 10% of public school children are Muslim.
Muslim New Yorkers make up a true cross-section of the city – and nothing makes this more sharply, painfully clear than the list of Muslim New Yorkers killed on 9/11: an accountant, a police cadet, a waiter at Windows on the World, a commodities trader, a lab technician, a systems administrator at Cantor Fitzgerald, are among the dozens of Muslims who lost their lives. Sweeping statements about how “the 9/11 families” feel about Park51 treat Muslim New Yorkers, and their families, as non-existent. living & wor king Muslims have long lived and worked in the neighborhood around the World Trade Center. They were an integral part of “Little Syria,” an immigrant community dating back to the 1880s that grew up around Washington Street. Today in the streets around the WTC site, one finds halal food vendors on every corner. Even the protestors at a recent rally against Park51/Cordoba House, carrying signs with the word “shariah” dripping blood (or the slogan “Stop shariah before it stops you”), were standing next to a street vendor – some enjoying shariah-compliant shish kabob.
Denying Muslim Americans the right to build a community center is a dangerous exercise in de-nationalization and the revocation of citizenship rights. It goes against the idea of the inalienability of rights enshrined in our constitution. It is like attacking the brother of a serial killer and demanding that he must suffer because of the severity of the crimes committed by his brother. We might understand the emotions behind such a demand, but they are not a reliable guide to action. right s No matter how small the breach, once the door to the sacrifice of a group’s basic rights is opened, there is no doubt that soon it will appear normal to sacrifice more of those rights. Hannah Arendt, a past resident of this city, knew this fact well and wrote about it in the Origins of Totalitarianism. Commenting on statelessness (that is, the condition of being denied inalienable rights) she observed that, “once a number of stateless people were admitted to an otherwise normal country, statelessness spread like a contagious disease.”
The weakest link in the chain of basic rights is often the treatment of a nation’s most recent minorities. Today Islam, as a minority religion on the American cultural scene, appears to be the weakest link in the chain of religious freedom. If we treat it as normal to block the lawful construction of a mosque in one place, then we will have no basis to object to the blocking of mosque construction anywhere else.
This is not a distant, theoretical problem. It has already happened in New York, in the case of the Staten Island mosque. Recently a vacant Catholic convent on Staten Island was set to be sold to the Muslim community of Staten Island for use as a mosque. But once the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” controversy erupted, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who had previously been happy to dispose of the property, backed away from the deal and decided not to sell. Recognizing that they have a legal right and yet asking Muslims not to build their community center in this location is tantamount to telling them that they are citizens but not equals. That which is negotiable cannot be a right. We negotiate something we tolerate – this much or that much, this close or that far. As soon as we make a right negotiable, we have already altered its status: it becomes a charity, a favor, no matter how compassionate and generous it may be. The seemingly generous offer made by Governor Paterson is one such move that violates both the universality of the law and the secular bona fides of the state.
This country, initially conceived (depending on whom you ask) as a deistic, secular or Protestant country, has successfully become a country for Jews and Catholics and is fast becoming one for Hindus and Muslims. Its streets are rich with the smells of Mexican and Chinese cooking and its inhabitants pray in all manner of houses of worship. If the Muslims who live and work here have a right to this city, why should they not have an equal share in its spiritual landscape? It is unfortunate that in this controversy, Cordoba – a name that symbolizes peaceful coexistence – has been wrongly described as a symbol of conquest and triumphalism.
Newt Gingrich, for example, insists that “‘Cordoba House’ is a deliberately insulting term” and “a symbol of Islamic conquest,” because the city of Cordoba was at one time under Muslim rule. This can only be described as a deliberate distortion of the meanings American Muslims associate with Cordoba. As they became increasingly active in interfaith dialogue, American Muslims have come to appreciate the importance of Abraham as a common interfaith ancestor and the multicultural legacy of Islamic Spain. They remember Andalusia, not as a place of conquest, but as a site of peaceful coexistence of the three Abrahamic religions.
The name Cordoba House refers to the peaceful experience of Western Islam and establishes continuity between Muslim culture and the Western world. The statements and actions of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan, over a period of many years, make it clear that this is exactly why their project bears that name. Ironically, if unsurprisingly, it is the most liberal-minded and self-effacing Muslim group that finds itself accused of being radical and triumphalist. If the most apologetic, most self-critical Muslim Americans, those w ho have consistently gone the extra mile in ecumenical and interfaith activity, are treated as a radical group supporting terrorism, what must Muslims in general think of their efforts at dialogue and their prospects for inclusion?
Mucahit Bilici is an assistant professor of sociology at John Jay College. His research interests include cultural sociology, social theory, and American Islam.