Smile Politely

The Burlington Coat Factory Mosque

By now, everyone has their favorite analogy for Park 51, the not-Mosque being planned at not-Ground Zero.

 “It’s like putting a KKK headquarters next to an MLK memorial!”

“No, it isn’t. It’s like putting a Catholic church next to a playground!”

“No, it’s a Japanese cultural center next Pearl Harbor.”

“It’s a church next to a civil rights bombing site.”

“It’s an NRA rally after Columbine.”

“You don’t believe in religious freedom!”

“You’re an apologist for terrorists!”

“You’re a moron!”

“You’re an idiot!”

 And so on and so forth, until the lunchroom is cleared and Facebook friends are unfriended.

Since so much misinformation has been spread about Park 51, it is important we be on the same page about the facts before I continue.  Namely :

  • It isn’t at Ground Zero. It is two blocks away from the edge of the Ground Zero and about 10 blocks away from where the actual towers stood.
  • It’s in an old Burlington Coat Factory building. It is not on “hallowed ground.” See here for a map and some photos of the area. In fact, maybe I should start calling it the Burlington Coat Factory Mosque, so as to differentiate it from some fictional Ground Zero Mosque.
  • It is not a Mosque. It is a cultural center, a bit like a YMCA, with a small mosque inside, but also a swimming pool, a fitness center and an auditorium.
  • It is not being built by extremists. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has long been a voice against violence within Islam, worked with the FBI on counter-terrorism, was friendly with the Bush administration and has worked with Christians and Jews on interfaith issues.
  • It is intended to be a statement against terrorism. Not to be confused with Newt Gingrich saying it is part of an effort “designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.”
  • There are already mosques near Ground Zero.
  • 9/11 survivors are not all against this. Many survivors are for the cultural center, as a way to bridge the cultural divide.
  • Around 60 Muslims died on 9/11. 61 if you include unborn children.

But I’m fascinated by the sheer number of analogies that have been used to describe this situation. They are not particularly illuminating as arguments (they are mostly just assertions, not arguments), but they do reveal a lot about people’s frameworks and prejudices.

For instance, the purpose of the “KKK next to MLK” analogy is to demonstrate how insensitive Park 51 is. While perfectly legal, it would be outrageously insensitive for an organization responsible for so much pain and suffering to put up its headquarters right next to a memorial honoring the victims of that oppression. That does a good job of demonstrating insensitivity, but for the analogy to work, it is necessary to associate moderate American Muslims with Klansmen.

The “Christian church next to a civil rights bombing” analogy makes the opposite case. We don’t confuse Christianity with the KKK and would not object to Christian churches near the site of a cross-burning. So why would we confuse Al Qaeda with Islam? Well, it depends on our framework. I would guess that fundamentalist Christians (who see Islam as competition) want to conflate Islam with its extremist elements. Pluralists (who see religions as more or less the same) are more likely to want there to be similarities among religions (who all have extremist elements).

The debate has taken a strange turn however.  Everyone now agrees that it isn’t about religious freedom (at least now that all legal avenues to shut down Park 51 have been defeated). The only recourse that reasonable opponents now have is to talk about the feelings of the 9/11 victims (or the subset that are against it).

This should sound oddly familiar to all of us old Chief Illiniwek debate warriors. After all, the main objection to the Chief was his insensitivity to Native Americans. This can roughly be translated to “the feelings” of Native Americans.  The problem is, feelings are based on something underneath. And what’s underneath is not all equally valid. After all, I doubt anyone would argue that we need to worry about Nazis being offended by the presence of Jews in their neighborhood or Klan members offended by the presence of African Americans.

But there I go, making another analogy. I’m not saying opponents of the Mosque are Nazis or Klansmen.  What I am saying is that if feelings are based on bigotry, then they have no place in public debate. And I have yet to hear an argument or an analogy in opposition to Park 51 that does not boil down to “Islam is the same thing as terrorism.”  There’s nothing to be offended by unless we are saying moderate American Muslims are the same thing as Al Queda.

And if we decide that the feelings of 9/11 victims are all that matters, where does that stop? Should we take the Muslim prayer room out of the Pentagon (another 9/11 attack site)? What happens if some victims become offended by the mere presence of Muslims in or around Ground Zero?  What about people who look like they might be Muslim?

I don’t think anyone particularly enjoys defending the excesses of Islam. Many strands of Islam are even more intolerant than many strands of Christianity. But this whole issue has become a pissing contest about whose religion causes the most violence. The only thing that is accomplished by such arguments is to make everyone smell like pee. We’ve spent the last ten years trying to convince Muslims around the world that we are at war with terrorists and fanatics, not with Islam. And yet, here we are, demonizing moderate Muslims when we should be embracing them, creating new enemies when we could be finding common ground.The irony is that fundamentalist Christians and Muslims both seem to be on the same page when it comes to how to treat others: Demonize those who are not part of your tribe as the enemy. We are letting the most intolerant people on both sides dictate the terms of our engagement with each other, and it will end badly for all of us if that continues. 

The bottom line is that opposition to this community center is deeply, deeply un-American. One of our country’s most important values, a value that we constantly struggle to live up to, is one of tolerance towards people who are different from the majority. That tolerance is becoming more and more frayed, as demagogues and agitators continue to dehumanize “the other,” be they Muslims or immigrants or homosexuals. It’s like we all say we believe in the Constitution, but only some of us actually know what that means.  Wait, that’s not an analogy.  I suppose it is just straight opinion.

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