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Mosque debate: Behind America’s anxiety over Islam


09 4 10

 

 

Controversy over the New York and other mosques underlines the struggle to balance values of religious tolerance with fears, real and imagined, in an age of terrorism. By Harry Bruinius

 

(New York, September 3, 2010) – As the maelstrom over the proposed Islamic center near ground zero rages a short distance away, Shahid Farooqi, a devout Pakistani immigrant, is handing out book bags and school supplies to hundreds of needy children and their parents for the start of the school year.

 


It’s Ramadan, the most holy month on the Islamic calendar, and Mr. Farooqi is volunteering his time with the Islamic Circle of North America, a grass-roots organization devoted to establishing a place for Muslims in America.

 

The charitable giveaway is the religious group’s first event here at an undeveloped lot in Midwood, a neighborhood in Brooklyn often referred to as “Little Pakistan,” where it plans to build a youth center. Farooqi and others are dressed in classic American volunteer attire – yellow T-shirts emblazoned with a logo – but the men also wear topi skullcaps and the women observe hijab, covering their hair and necks with scarves. The volunteers are well aware that a 15-minute subway ride away, hundreds of protesters, many carrying US flags, are marching through the streets of Manhattan near the site of a much larger proposed community center, chanting, “No mosque here! No mosque here!”

 

John Watts, right, protests the proposed siting of a Muslim center in Manhattan while two people nearby support it.

John Watts, right, protests the proposed siting of a Muslim center in Manhattan while two people nearby support it.

“When you have certain beliefs, of course not everyone is going to be happy with you,” says Farooqi, a history teacher who lives in Queens with his wife and four children. “But regardless of people finding and putting labels on us, still, we have to do good work, and we have to face those challenges … and we believe that once we continue doing this, we’re going to make our home here, in this society….”

 

In many ways, Farooqi’s experience of making a home in New York represents a profound trajectory in American religious history: New groups have immigrated to the US over the centuries, bringing unfamiliar religious practices, and a host of new religious ideas has sprung up from within the fertile soil that freedom brings. And these have always sparked unease and even public resistance from those who hold more established ways of understanding God.

 

New York firefighters were among those who came out in late August to protest the building of a Muslim center near ground zero. Hundreds rallied on both sides of the issue.

New York firefighters were among those who came out in late August to protest the building of a Muslim center near ground zero. Hundreds rallied on both sides of the issue.

Today, however, the vortex of discord sweeping over the country has exposed a deep-seated mistrust, if not outright phobia, of Muslims trying to establish a place in America. While this may be a predictable historical pattern as Islam becomes more visible in American communities, it has also laid bare a country struggling to balance its deeply held values of religious freedom and tolerance with its fears, real and imagined, in an era of terrorism.

 

Trauma and anger still linger over the World Trade Center’s unprecedented destruction.

 

Muslims pray before the breaking of the daily Ramadan fast at the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Jamaica, N.Y. The Shiite religious center is a school and place of worship for many people of Pakistani descent.

Muslims pray before the breaking of the daily Ramadan fast at the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Jamaica, N.Y. The Shiite religious center is a school and place of worship for many people of Pakistani descent.

Families still publicly grieve the loss of their loved ones. Incidents like the Fort Hood, Texas, shooting and the thwarted Times Square bombing in New York City reinforce fears of home-grown terrorism. “The symbolism is so fraught with meaning,” says Douglas Hicks, a religious scholar at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies in Virginia. “There is no more symbolically loaded space in America today than ground zero. Then you mix in religion, and the ‘T’ word – terrorism – and you get this explosive, unholy mix.”

 

From the start of the controversy this May, the symbolism of a “mosque” invading a “sacred” American space has dominated the visceral reactions of many opponents. Critics call the proposed center a “slap in the face” and a “monument to terrorism” and an act of “arrogance and insensitivity.” Indeed, the debate has centered on what President Obama called the “wisdom” of building such a center so close to what people feel is sacred ground. Build it, but not here, has been a common refrain.

 

Rehanhen Nasreen, left, shops at a fabric store in Brooklyn.

Rehanhen Nasreen, left, shops at a fabric store in Brooklyn.

As Charles Smith, a drywall hanger and painter from Queens who attended the recent protests against the Muslim center, puts it: “I keep hearing, yes, they have a constitutional right, they have a right to build it there. But they don’t have to be offensive. If it’s offending 70 percent of people in the United States, say, ‘No, it’s offensive to them, so we’ll go somewhere else.’ ”

 

Still, the controversy has kicked up sentiment that runs much deeper than the appropriate location of a mosque. Rightly or wrongly, more and more people have been willing to equate Islam itself with an oppressive, terrorist ideology, incompatible with American norms and laws. While the visible presence of Islam so close to ground zero has fomented the most anger, ricocheting from Manhattan to the megaphone of the Internet to the midterm elections, other proposed mosques – near far less hallowed ground – have also encountered sometimes violent opposition in townships from Tennessee to Wisconsin to California.

 

Rabaka Rahman, right, waits with her daughter, Shamia, for free school supplies being distributed by a Muslim group in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Rabaka Rahman, right, waits with her daughter, Shamia, for free school supplies being distributed by a Muslim group in Brooklyn, N.Y.

A recent Gallup poll found that 43 percent of Americans admitted to feeling at least “a little” prejudice against Muslims, and the Pew Research Center has reported that 35 percent feel Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other faiths. Even so, Pew also found the estimated 2.4 million Muslims living in America to be solidly middle class and mainstream, with incomes and education levels mirroring the general public – unlike their more prevalent working-class counterparts in Western Europe. This is one reason, observers say, there are very few radical mosques in the US.

 

As the controversy over the proposed Islamic center rages on, however, some Muslim groups worry about increased discrimination and violence. “The fear is that Muslims cannot take their place in American life without harassment or subjugation or being seen as being involved with some conspiracy theory,” says Ahmed Rehab of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Though the council does not have exact figures yet, Mr. Rehab says, anecdotally the number of civil rights complaints filed through the council has risen since the “ground zero mosque” began making headlines.

 

Already, the number of Muslim workplace discrimination complaints filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been going up – 53 percent in the past three years. In New York, meanwhile, authorities recently charged Michael Enright with attempted second-degree murder and hate crimes for stabbing a Bangladeshi cabdriver after he learned he was Muslim.

 

Behind the explosive, unholy mix of religion, politics, and tolerance run deep crosscurrents of American social history. Controversy over religious differences sprung up almost immediately with the first settlers, and the American experience with such conflict has helped shape the deep values of religious freedom and tolerance in this country today.

 

Even in Colonial times, Rhode Island sprang up as an early “baptist” community after Puritan leaders in Massachusetts banished Roger Williams for his version of the Christian faith. Mormons fled to the West and built a thriving community in Utah after an angry mob in Illinois murdered their leader Joseph Smith. Sporadic acts of vandalism plague synagogues to this day.

 

“Throughout our American history there’s been a series of moments when the sense of some kind of established status quo felt [it was] being invaded,” says William Lawrence, dean of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “It was true in the late 19th century when the perceived Protestant status quo saw immigrants coming from Roman Catholic countries and upsetting the balance of the culture. The Catholic invasion from Ireland, Italy, and other central European countries was somehow going to alter the Protestant identity of the nation. That was the fear.”

 

The US today again stands on the verge of profound demographic changes. Protestants now make up barely 51 percent of Americans, according to Pew, and the internal diversity and fragmentation of this group almost makes the term meaningless. At the same time, as Latin and Asian populations expand their presence, making non-Protestant and non-Western religious practices even more visible, cultural unease, too, is only expected to increase.

 

“We’ve all seen an increase in anxiety in general – with the economic downturn as well as the terrorism threat,” says Professor Hicks, who studies the intersection of religion and economics. “So you see people who are more stressed out because of their financial situation, more people with family stresses and cultural anxieties towards anyone who looks different or who appears to be threatening.”

 

Politically, a new rallying cry against sharia, or Islamic law, has begun to galvanize opposition to the presence of any new mosque around the country, if not Muslims themselves.

 

Former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who last month compared the effort to build the Islamic center to Nazis posting signs next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., has been outspoken in denouncing “creeping sharia” in the US. He has argued that “radical Islamists” are attempting to use American values of tolerance and freedom of religion to implement sharia law by stealth, which for him includes the practices of honor killings, physical mutilations, and spousal rape.

 

And though sharia law has a multitude of interpretations within a wide spectrum of Muslim traditions – like any other widespread global faith – a growing number of Americans are identifying the word with the chilling practices of the Taliban, and as representative of all of Islam. One of the most common signs held up by protesters at ground zero has been a one-word sharia in bloodlike letters.

 

The lack of an informed distinction between the sharia law of radical groups like the Taliban and the religious practices of the vast majority of the world’s 1.57 billion Muslims, say observers, only leads to further unease in today’s volatile times. “We see a public that is still ignorant of the tenets of the Islamic faith, as practiced by the majority of Muslims,” says Robin Lauermann, professor of politics at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. “It is reinforced by sound bites and stereotypes rather than meaningful education about the faith.”

 

For Farooqi, whose faith does not permit him to shake hands with an unmarried woman, sharia law is more about the five pillars of Islam, which includes almsgiving and helping the poor. “I am a follower of Muhammad, the messenger, peace be upon him. So for me, I want to follow his footsteps, I want to help the poor, because he helped,” he says. “This is the basic duty of any human….”

 

 

Article Courtesy: The Christian Science Monitor:

http://www.csmonitor.com/layout/set/print/content/view/print/322533

 

  • ISRAR HASAN

    What necessitates the setup of a mosque and Islamic center at two blocks away from Ground Zero can, by no justification, be other than a provocation. Ground Zero, a monument of 9/11, demands respect and honor from all class of citizens, just like any church, synagogue, mosque or temple. Freedom of religion does not mean hurting the feelings of our neighbors. Insistence on construction of the mosque near Ground Zero can be rightful under American Constitution; it is never rightful under the Islamic traditions. Instances are many and they are spread throughout the pages of Islamic history. The traditions of Islam, as set by the Prophet and his companions, call for overall peace and understanding in human society in preference to group or community interests. That is how his leadership was willingly accepted in the multi-religious, multi-ethnic society in Medina. He would not even hesitate in making compromises for the larger cause of peace and settlement. Thus he agreed to drop the suffix ”messenger of Allah” in his name when negotiating the most ignoble peace Treaty at Hudebiya with his arch enemy, Quraish of Makka. We must avoid doing things which do not promote tension-free relationship amongst Muslims, Christians and others, which is the need of the hour, in the United States at this time.
    The mosque within the projected Community Center, if built near Ground Zero, will never build the confidence and understanding between Muslims of America and Christian America. The administrators of the mosque need review their plan and opinion if they really want display the spirit of Islam. Better to have no mosque or Islamic center not built on piety and tolerance. ISRAR HASAN

  • Asif Sheriff

    Amen! Israr Hasan.

  • John Watts

    The real reason NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to see the mega 15 story arab islamic mosque built by ground zero is because Bloomberg’s financila and telecommunications empire is now in the midst of a great expansion in the Middle East, in Arab countries dominated by islam.

    Mike Bloomberg, although a jew, is making billions of dollars in the arab islamic world with his company, Bloomberg LLC, whose offices, or tentacles, reach to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qutar and other regions in the Middle East.

    It is a two way street. Bloomberg wants and needs billions dollars more in his pocket and the arab world need Bloomberg’s financial stock market video systems that are tied to many of the world’s stock markets, which provide up to the minute stock and bond price quotes and changes in currency rates and so on. Bloomberg has the monopoly on this system that banks, financial companies, stock brokerage firms and government agencies that regukate interest rates and other things related to the world financial system depend upon.

    The arab world has little choice but to deal with Bloomberg’s company. He has them in a hole. They cannot expand without his financial srvices harware, databases, software, etc. In addition, Bloomberg has purchased cable TV stations, radio stations and internet provider companies to further expand his grip on the world market.

    By doing all he can to help establish the 15 story mega mosque at ground zero, Bloomberg is under the mistaken impression that the arab islamic world has accepted him as a friend but many of them never forget he is a jew first and foremost. He is a businessman who is jewish and he is an American businessman and major politician in New York City who has purchased the support and devotion and loyalty of democratic and republician politicians in New York City and New York State and in some cirlces in Washington D.C. and across America and the world.

    Bloomberg will make the arab world feel obligated to him if he can get this mega mosque built, despite the protest and feelings of thousands of 9-11 families and millions of people worldwide.

    Michael Bloomberg is under the false impression that money can buy everything and we are all for sale and that our souls can be bought by him for a cheap price.

    Bloomberg does not really care about the rights of arabs or muslims or for the freedom of religion since he himself is a cold hearted business-minded atheist. He is having this mosque built to line his pockets with more gold and silver and what he wrongly assumes will be increased political power. But he will lose all his power and wealth in a single day soon in the future. He will lose it all in the twinkling of an eye.

  • http://icna.org Mohammad Ariff Saidin

    Why do some still FALSELY claim that Islam has to do do with 9/11. Is it just a pretext to wage war against Islam. Why NOT learn the truth that Islam has NOTHING to do with 9/11 instead of the FALSEHOOD that it does, especially since no criminal charges have been filed against Islam in that matter.

  • John Watts

    I have said this many times during the fews day I protested at site of the proposed mosque and I will say it again here.

    It is NOT Islam the 9-11 families are fighting against on Park Place in lower Manhattan.

    What the 9-11 families are fighting against is the outrageous issue of insensitivity to the fact that a mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, supports having a 15 story Mosque erected 2 very short blocks from the site of the worst mass murder in a single day in the history of the United States. Body parts of 9-11 victims and pieces of jet debris and debris from the towers covered Park Place on Sept. 11. I was there and saw it. I was there in the days after 9-11, right there on Park Place, standing on top of human ashes a foot deep on the street and on the sidewalk along Park Place.

    Had the 9-11 hijackers been Catholics and were inspired by the Catholic faith to carry out 9-11, then I would oppose a Catholic Church being built on Park Place, the site of the proposed mosque.

    Had the 9-11 hijackers been Jewish or Buddist or Hindu and had been inspired by a radical form of their respective religion, I would oppose a synagoue or a Buddist Shrine or a Hindu Temple being built on Park Place. And why would I be opposed? Because it is an outrage and extremely insensitive to the families of the victims and to the memories of those who perished so hideously on Sept. 11th. You are making the wounds deeper and wider for the families of this tragedy.

    One thing Americans feel is that we are hated by some nations of the world, for whatever social or political or economic reasons that may exist. For decades we have seen how arab islamic muslims have set the American flag on fire in public protests for one reason or another.

    Do you people remember that it was America who led the war for the liberation of Kuwait and that it was America and NATO who fought and bombed the Serbs so that Eastern European muslims could be freed from Serbian concentration camps and be liberated?
    Had it not been for America, Nazi Germany and the Axis Powers would have won World War Two and there might now be concentration camps all across the world.

    No, America is not perfect, far from it but what country is? We have our faults, as do other nations. We are not perfect. There is bad and good here, as in every other country.

    But I seriously doubt that if a group of Christian American terrorists hijacked jets and crashed them into office buildings in an arab country, I seriously doubt arab muslims would want to see a 15 story Christian Church be built within 2 miles from there, let alone 2 blocks.

    You would protest and say you would not want to see a christian church be built there. This is a truth. That would be your reaction. And why? Because you would say it is so insensitive to the victims’ families. And you would be right to say that and feel that.

    The man in the middle of all this is not really the Imam who wants the 15 story mosque. The man in the middle, the man behind the scenes, the man who is pulling the strings is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who will reap fortune after fortune from his business ventures in the Middle East as he expands his empire in the arab world.

    Bloomberg is using arab muslims and he is using this mosque debate to further increase his wealth and financial dominance in the world financial centers across the globe. The world press, the news media, should investigate the business dealings of Bloomberg LLC, particularly where it relates to Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. This is a serious conflict of interest.

    It is blatant conflict of interest. I say that because if Mike Bloomberg did not have any business investments in the Middle East, if he had nothing to gain, no fortunes to realize over there, then Bloomberg could care less about whether or not a mosque is built on Park Place. In fact, he’d probably not support it at all. But he has a billion reasons to make a mosque is built where so many of his countrymen died horrible deaths. A billion reasons, a billion dollars.

    The news media should also ask Bloomberg if he owns any stock in the major construction industru corporations that will build the 15 story mega mosque and if so, just how much will Bloomberg himself gain finanically. For Bloomberg, the world is not enough. He wants the universe.

  • Asif Sheriff

    John Watts…Relax!

    The mosque won’t be built @ Park51.