August 30, 2010
A number of you have asked whether I would comment on the proposed Islamic Center to replace an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory store in the vicinity of Ground Zero. The opposition to this work is profoundly un-American in that it is opposed to freedom of religion. This is, as they say, a ‘no-brainer’.
That said, the phenomenon of the opposition itself is interesting. Clearly there is a widely supported antipathy to Islam being expressed. We are also hearing something very like religious fervor about Ground Zero itself when it is described as ‘holy ground’ that is somehow being ‘desecrated’ if Muslims have a community and educational center with a prayer room in it somewhere within a few blocks of what used to be the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
I don’t really know what to make of the Ground Zero Religion except that it seems to be a kind of visceral and American response to disease about people for whom the separation of ‘church and state’ or ‘religion and politics’ is nonsense, people who are engaged actively throughout the world in trying to turn majority Muslim countries into effective theocracies. The religious impulse applied to Ground Zero converts the anti-Islamic sentiment into an issue of one religion’s freedom over against that of another and therefore somehow within the bounds of the common life of those who live in this country.
Akbar Ahmed of American University has offered a kind of ‘Muslim Typology’ in his Journey Into Islam in which he recognizes the mystical strain of Sufism. He bemoans the waning of modernist Islam of which he is a part, and which most Americans would recognize (rightly or wrongly) as inherently ‘moderate’. He sees the majority of Muslims as adhering to traditionalist and anti-modernist expressions of the faith that would include everyone from our friends of the Atlanta Masjid on 14th Street to members of Al-Quaida. If he is right then it is difficult for many Muslim leaders to really and truly distinguish themselves from the kind of Islam that suborns terrorism. It might not be just a prejudice of Western Media that makes the condemnations of murderous violence seem so ‘muted’. This is not a view that pleases me, nor is it one with which my friends who are more deeply involved in interfaith conversation than I am, agree.
The issues of immigration, American identity, the salad bowl full of distinctive identities over against the old melting pot in which everyone eventually assimilates in to something recognizably ‘American’, the relationship of religion to national life and so on are more than can or should be addressed in a short blog piece. The legalities of the proposed Islamic Center seem clear to this non-lawyer. The intricacies of the religious and nationalist impulses revealed in the political football aspects of this issue are complex and worthy of sustained attention and conversation.