Sunday, August 22, 2010

Why no one will win over Park51

Reading about the pro- and counter-tests happening over the Park51 site, it's becoming clear to me that there is no upside to this battle. There are fair arguments and fair-minded people on both sides. Yes, it is about sensitivity-- but that cuts both ways.

There is no question that there are Islamists in the world-- including America-- who will see the mosque as a victory. At the same time, there is a very disturbing drumbeat coming out of the anti-mosque rhetoric which seems to tar all Muslims with the same brush-- and it's not terrorism, specifically, but rather of "extremism" and hatred or contempt of so-called "mainstream" Americans. There is a scary rhetorical sleight of hand happening here, rewriting people who support the mosque into becoming supporters of terrorism or Islamic supremacy over America.

Rather than addressing the facts about who Imam Rauf is, he is instead cast as the all-purpose Muslim bogeyman. He is not a person, he is a Muslim, and therefore "one of them"-- whoever "they" are. If there are issues with the Imam, his ideology, or his organization, then people should deal with those realities. But conflating a mosque with the worst elements of Islam because of where they are building it (or making your case for Rauf's extremism through an alleged lack of action  as opposed to evaluating what he actually has said or done) is simply not a fair or honest way of pursuing an argument.

And that's unfortunate, because I think that the emotions behind the mosque protesters are valid. I understand that the WTC site still contains a lot of real pain for New Yorkers and those who lost loved ones that day (not sure about other Americans around the country, though, many of whom seem to have just remembered that they're still mad about 9/11). I think their argument about showing sensitivity has a point, though I disagree with it. And I think it's only fair to acknowledge that they, too, have been unfairly demonized as hysterical hicks on the fringe (which, if nothing else, is ironic given the polls showing that the fringe is the majority). However, I do think that there's a categorical difference between being portrayed as intolerant and being accused of being anti-American or supporters of terrorism or Sharia. I personally think the first is far easier to shrug off, but maybe that's just me.

Honest people can disagree about whether the center should be built. But there's a way to do it respectfully, and there's the way of the mob. Right now, both groups are whipping themselves up, to no particular purpose. (If I seem overly alarmed by what I'm hearing from mosque opponents, maybe it's just because they seem a lot angrier.) The sad thing is that what's happening right now is just entrenching both sides, making them feel like their backs are against the wall and that they have no other options but to go for the jugular. People calling for compromise, such as David Patterson and Howard Dean, are getting nowhere. Why? Because now people seem to want a fight. A showdown.

Those against the mosque are comforted by their knowledge that they are a majority (and it's interesting that this issue has become nationalized, as if it were something that should have a referendum). By playing up the populism argument, they are trying to force Rauf & co to back down. Mosque supporters, on the other hand, know that the law is on their side and that no one has the power or authority to keep them from building. At this point no one will back down because now it's about principles. If the mosque gets built, opponents will claim it as a slap in the face against America and the will of the people, while supporters will cheer the accomplishments of tolerance and the rule of law. If the mosque doesn't get built, or gets moved, supporters will say it is a victory for fear, xenophobia and jingoism, while opponents will congratulate themselves on "standing up" to Islam.

Here's what I do know: far too many people are capitalizing off of this situation by appealing to people's anger, emotions, prejudices, and sense of entitlement (for the record, there is plenty of "PC" exploitation happening on both side of this issue). On even such basic issues as what the building should properly be called (who's biased? who's accurate?) or what Rauf was referring to by his use of Cordoba, there has been an adamant refusal to give "the other" any benefit of the doubt or to rise above the attack politics of the day. It's not quite Red State vs. Blue State, but it's about as nasty. And upsetting.

Whatever happens with the mosque, the real lessons here are about how a local issue has been manipulated by media, politicians and bloggers into a national shouting match pitting people against each other.

Which, honestly, is damned pathetic given Rauf's expressed intent: a community center.


CA said...

"There are fair arguments and fair-minded people on both sides."

What is the fair argument on the side of the opponents of this Islamic cultural center?

Friar Yid said...

I think that their feelings about sensitivity are valid. They may be self-centered, but that's feelings for you. I certainly don't think they're a compelling legal argument, and I'm appalled and frustrated at how they've been appropriated as a tool of Islamophobia, but I think there's a legitimate point at the core of their position that's worth acknowledging. I think the hysteria that has calcified around it has made it very hard to see, though.