by M. Junaid Levesque-Alam
American leaders are always trying to assess Osama bin Laden’s level of influence over Muslims.
They should look at his influence over their own countrymen.
The aversion to a proposed Muslim center near Ground Zero shows that it is Americans, not Muslims, whose thinking the terrorist leader has most successfully recast to his advantage.
The detractors strengthen and draw strength from bin Laden; their hot prejudice bolsters his assertion that America despises Islam and betrays an acceptance of his claim that he embodies the faith.
At first, the proposal to build the 12-story facility two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center aroused scant disapproval. It was even welcomed as an opportunity to reaffirm America as a land of tolerance and reclaim Islam as a religion of moderation.
The group behind the project, Cordoba House, pitched the facility (which would include restaurants, bookstores, art exhibits, a pool, an auditorium, and a prayer space) as a means of bridging divides between faiths. Its board of directors draws from various faiths, and its mission statement promotes intercivilizational understanding.
New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, threw his support behind the project and hailed religious freedom as part of “what is great about America.” The local Community Board gave the plan its blessings in a 29-1 vote. Several Jewish and Christian leaders associated with interfaith groups also voiced their support.
But as the news spread, the mood soured.
National conservative leaders railed against the idea. Sarah Palin decried it as a “stab in the heart”; Newt Gingrich lambasted it as “grotesque”; and New York State Republicans quickly followed suit.
They were not alone. Two surveys, one national and one in New York state, showed majority public opposition to the Muslim initiative (reduced to a “mosque” among lazy media outlets). Even the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group nominally opposed to discrimination, soon announced its opposition.
What does this extraordinary rejection of American rights tell us about bin Laden’s influence over American minds?
Nothing, if the surface explanation is to be believed. The proposed facility, we are told with feigned regret, would cause distress to the families of Sept. 11 victims.
This was the first line of defense offered by indignant conservatives. It was also emphasized by the ADL, which sought to distance itself from “appeals to bigotry” by homing in on this notion that an Islamic center would “cause some victims more pain.” ADL head Abe Foxman elaborated by referencing the Nazi holocaust, saying that survivors are “entitled to feelings that are irrational.”
It is an embarrassing line. First, not all Sept. 11 families have allowed grief and anger over the acts of 19 people to stain their view of a quarter of humanity. (In fact, some of those killed in the office buildings and among rescuers were themselves Muslim.) Second, the purpose of the Constitution – indeed, all law – is to establish a body of rules that transcends the whims and passions of the mob and the traumatized.
But let us for a moment apply the anti-Cordoba rationale elsewhere. Are women traumatized by rape entitled to enforce male-free zones? Are Southern blacks traumatized by the legacy of slavery and segregation entitled to uproot white churches and communities? Are children traumatized by bullying entitled to ban everyone bigger than them?
It is one thing to be “entitled” to “feelings that are irrational”; it is quite another to assert that the grip of irrationality should be allowed to choke the rationality out of everyone else.
But the anti-Cordoba crowd has adopted its argument for a reason: it has resigned from the rationality-based community.
Gingrich, for one, averred that the Cordoba group’s peacefulness was proof of its evil intent: “Some radical Islamists use terrorism as a tactic to impose sharia, but others use non-violent methods – a cultural, political, and legal jihad that seeks the same totalitarian goal even while claiming to repudiate violence.”
Palin, in her Facebook screed, declaimed that to tolerate the Islamic site is itself “intolerable”; she then castigated Cordoba’s imam for supporting “terrorism” such as the Gaza aid convoy sent to relieve a population terrorized by Israel.
Rick Lazio, New York’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, declared that this most conspicuous project was a “security” threat; he made his remarks at a press conference alongside a woman from “9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America” who thundered about the conspiracy to Islamicize a country of more than 200 million Christians.
In order to disguise their own prejudice, politicians have simply dressed their hate in the garb of the traumatized.
The glee with which all these figures pack every Muslim into the terrorist box is matched only by their myopia. Bin Laden’s message to Muslims has always been that America despises Muslims because of their faith. Palin and her accomplices, who reject peaceful Islamic overtures and malign the Muslims behind them, seem eager to validate the terrorist sales pitch.
The most instructive example is Ilario Pantano, a former Marine who murdered two captured insurgents in Fallujah by pumping bullets from two rifle magazines into their bodies. These days, he is busy pumping up anti-Muslim hatred and inveighing against the proposed site to boost his chances at a congressional seat – in North Carolina.
“Uniformly, there was disgust and disdain in the room for the [Cordoba] idea,” he observed after riling up “an enthusiastic crowd of hog farmers and military veterans.”
With what eagerness can Pakistanis, Iraqis, or Afghans fight alongside Americans, knowing that these soldiers and their countrymen view Muslims with “disgust and disdain”? With what success can America enlist the help of Muslims anywhere in fighting extremists when it shuns even those Muslims who are American citizens trying to bridge the divide?
Prejudice also permeates the view of some Americans who claim to distinguish between the Muslim mainstream and the fringe.
Consider the words of Richard Land, president of what the Southern Baptist Convention calls its “Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission”:
I believe that putting a mosque at Ground Zero, or very close to Ground Zero, is unacceptable. … Even though the vast majority of Muslims reject that ideology and condemned their actions on Sept. 11, 2001, it still remains a fact that the people who perpetrated the 9/11 attack were Muslims and proclaimed they were doing what they were doing in the name of Islam. Given that fact, I believe that it is inappropriate for a mosque to be at Ground Zero.
So even if the “vast majority of Muslims” reject the ideology of the terrorists, this “liberty” commission nonetheless deems it “unacceptable” for Muslims to practice their religion or extend a hand of dialogue at Ground Zero because “it still remains a fact” that the perpetrators “proclaimed they were doing what they were doing in the name of Islam.”
We again see an almost aching inclination to fill out bin Laden’s script. The message to Muslims is clear: “No matter what you do, or what you say, you will never be one of us and you will always be one of them.”
Land’s fantastic insight – that something becomes toxic simply because someone “proclaims” to act in its name – has curious consequences. Accordingly, Muslim extremists are justified in loathing all Americans because of the torture, abuse, and civilian killings carried out by some American soldiers and approved by some of their political masters. Yes, perhaps the “vast majority of Americans reject” these actions – but it “still remains a fact” that the perpetrators “proclaimed they were doing what they were doing in the name of” America.
Believing bin Laden
The craving to affirm bin Laden’s view that America hates Muslims constitutes a foolish blunder, but what underlies it is worse: acceptance of bin Laden’s assertion that his perversion of Islamic teachings is the widely accepted, genuine article.
For while Osama and his acolytes have had some success (and a lot of help) in convincing Muslims that the United States despises Islam, his group has spectacularly failed to persuade Muslims that they should obliterate their diverse Islamic traditions and replace them with the dogma of the rigid Wahhabist sect.
In Iraq, where al-Qaeda achieved success by its own nihilistic definition of the term, it has nonetheless alienated every segment of the population. Even Sunni Arabs, who had long ruled Iraq and had good reason to fear a Shi’ite government, formed an alliance with their own occupiers and turned their back on al-Qaeda, such was their level of revulsion over the group’s alien “Islamic” practices.
In Pakistan, where resentment over American interventionism runs high, public support for al-Qaeda’s enablers, the Taliban, runs in the single digits. The “Islamist” group has lashed out by shedding Muslim blood at mosques, shrines, shopping centers, and government buildings.
But all of this is irrelevant to leaders of the anti-Cordoba crowd. In an exercise of unparalleled self-absorption, conservatives loudly insist that all Muslims share the views of a tiny terrorist movement that has taken the lives of far more Muslims than Americans.
Gingrich and his gaggle are so eager to will into existence bin Laden’s vision of a monolithic, radicalized Islam that they will grasp at anything – a link on someone’s wife’s uncle’s mosque’s Web site, a stance against the latest Israeli atrocity, an unwillingness to attack the Koran – as evidence of Muslim “extremism.”
What al-Qaeda has failed to achieve despite countless terrorist attacks against Muslims across the world, conservatives aim to establish as fact with loud insults and wild accusations.
The danger behind this madness is clear: as the saying goes, perception is reality. The more the country comes to believe in paranoid lies about Muslims, the more easily it will slip into the kind of brutal religious war bin Laden desires. An anti-mosque fever is already sweeping the country as some take the anti-Cordoba logic to its natural conclusion: “If Muslims are too dangerous to be praying at Ground Zero, why should they be allowed to pray in my neighborhood, either?”
Perhaps conservatives are more interested in inventing Islamic extremism than quelling it because prejudice is the easiest path to power. But it is more likely that in their zeal to slander another civilization they have simply forgotten the lessons of their own.
Socrates believed that “when men do wrong it is only because they do not know better,” and that the aim “is not to choose the right but to become the sort of person who cannot choose the wrong.” (1)
Having bought into bin Laden’s worldview, the modern conservative has become the sort of person who cannot help but choose the wrong.
(1) G.M.A Grube, Plato: Five Dialogues , p. 4-5, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1981.
This article first appeared on Antiwar.com.