Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Scolding from Our Mother of Exiles

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

                    --Martin Niemoller, 1946

For my new work commute, I get to drive right by the Statue of Liberty every day. Each time I make the drive, I marvel at Our Lady of the Harbor, standing majestically, arm upstretched, and I feel so lucky to be just where I am. In recent weeks, though, it wouldn't surprise me if she turned around, sternly placed her hands on her hips, and shook her head disapprovingly at the land she represents and the city she overlooks. As Americans all over the country debate the building of an Islamic mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan, she must wonder at our hypocrisy.

Time magazine is asking this week if America is "Islamophobic" (in short, yes), and every news pundit from NYC to Kabul is asking viewers to weigh in on the Lower Manhattan controversy. Those respondents who are opposed to the construction near Ground Zero seem mostly to argue that because it is so close to the site of the Twin Towers, the center would be an affront to the families and friends who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001. There are two main points of concern for me with regard to this sentiment. The first is simply that Muslims, as a group, are not responsible for the actions of a few fanatics, just as Christians, as a group, are not responsible for Jim Jones, David Koresh, or Timothy McVeigh. Most frighteningly, though, it is not only in Manhattan that American citizens seem to oppose the construction of mosques. A protest took place in Murfreesboro, Tennessee last month against the construction of a mosque in that city (which is approximately 900 hundred miles from Ground Zero). Protesters offered the following insights, which I found courtesy of ABC News online:

Stan Whiteway (apparently aptly named) stated, "They seem to be against everything I believe in, and so I don't want them necessarily in my neighborhood."

Mark Walker claimed, "We are fighting these people, for crying out loud, we should not be promoting this."

From the Associated Press, I found that Bob Shelton said, "They are not a religion. They are a political, militaristic group."

Really?? REALLY?? Yes. Really. People think and say these sorts of things in 2010. Yikes.

So, how far is far enough, Manhattan? Two block is too close to Ground Zero, but is four blocks ok? What about 10 blocks? Will Tennessee be ok? What if Murfreesboro says that if Manhattan can block the construction of a mosque, so can they? What if every town says they don't want a mosque within their city limits? What if they decide that synagogues are equally problematic? What if they decide that Catholic churches are undesirable as well? Martin Niemoller's words could easily be frighteningly prophetic. Although the mainstream news media seemed mostly to focus on the portion of Time's recent poll that revealed that 24% of Americans believe that President Obama is a Muslim, the more concerning numbers were the ones that revealed that 28% of respondents said they believe that Muslims should not be permitted to serve on the Supreme Court, and nearly one-third said that they don't believe that Muslims should be permitted to run for president. Nazi Germany, anyone? As someone who just wrote a thesis arguing that nation-states' first step in perpetrating genocide is depriving a certain group of citizenship status, these stats terrify me.

Perhaps the most interesting contradiction within this whole controversy is that of the 61% of Americans who oppose the Lower Manhattan mosque's construction, I'm willing to bet that a good many of them identify themselves as patriotic Americans, yet their very opposition to this project makes life so much harder for the men and women serving overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. These men and women in uniform work every single day on the mission of counterinsurgency, and a large part of completing that mission means both winning hearts and minds AND meeting with radical factions to attempt to bring them to the table of democracy. When Al-Jazeera broadcasts reports on the mosque in Manhattan and the staunch opposition to it that many Americans feel, how on earth will our servicemembers be able to convince the people of these regions that Americans are not there to destroy Islam or to discredit their faith? Furthermore, it seems to me that if our servicemembers can bring themselves to sit across the diplomatic table from radical fundamentalists in the name of bringing peace to the regions in which they serve, those of us back in the U.S. can find it in our hearts to accommodate a moderate Islamic cultural center whose goals are outreach and education. In other words, we have a responsibility to honor the service of these men and women and their willingness to put their lives on the line to bridge the gap between the U.S. and the Middle East. To do otherwise would be unpatriotic.

In short, these men and women could really use some help from us in mounting an ideological offense. The U.S. government and military both recognize our inability to physically prevent every attack. It only takes one person to bring havoc, grief, and pain into the lives of thousands, and we already know that our defense mechanisms will fall short in certain situations. Which is why we must use our offense effectively. We need to show the world -- particularly the Muslim world -- that we practice what we preach and that we truly do welcome diversity of thought and experience. That diversity is what has formed the core of our American identity. If we want to preserve our reputation as the "land of the free," we can't be thinking in the terms of "us" and "them" -- we're all "we."

The most insightful comments I heard on the Lower Manhattan mosque debate came from a caller to WNYC/NPR. The caller identified himself as Yasser, and he said that he is a proponent of building the mosque at the initial site in Lower Manhattan because, as a resident of Lower Manhattan and as a father, he wants his children to grow up with the understanding that there is no contradiction between being a New Yorker, being a Muslim, and being an American. When the interviewer asked him if the mosque could represent the unity of those identity markers if it were just a bit further from Ground Zero, Yasser added that telling Muslims that they could build the mosque further away would be a lot like telling African-Americans during the civil rights era that if they just sat in the middle of the bus, it would make things a whole lot easier. I tend to think that our Mother of Exiles, standing her watch in the harbor, waiting to welcome those huddled masses, would feel similarly.


  1. I used this today as an example of thoughtful and original interpretation of an issue. (Starting electronic discussion in IB!) This facet of the issue had not occurred to me, yet it is so important.

  2. Ha! I'm glad -- I put off my "real" responsibilities yesterday afternoon to write it, so I'm glad it was useful! :)

  3. My daughter Wendy forwarded your blog to me and told me she has a new perspective on this issue because of you. Thanks! Nick Stahl

  4. Well said! I find the entire argument against the mosque absurd. Some misguided feelings are making people act in the most un-American way possible, intolerant... sadly to say, it seeems to be coming a theme these days.