Today’s guest post was composed by students in an undergraduate course I just finished teaching on American religious minorities. The students’ assignment was to provide historical perspective on a controversy involving one of the religious minorities we discussed, with the aim of generating greater empathy among readers (i.e., greater understanding if not necessarily agreement) for the minority group’s position. If you have constructive feedback to offer the students, please comment on this post.
MUSLIM AMERICANS AND THE “GROUND ZERO MOSQUE”
By Alex Dietz, Blaine Elliott, Ben Thaeler, Sara Wenger
Plans to build a community center, Park51, in New York City, were met with great tension and opposition by a majority of the American public. This disapproval was primarily due to the center’s Islamic values, Muslim heritage, and, most significantly, location: only two blocks away from where the Twin Towers once stood, a site that many mourn because of the devastating terrorist attacks on September 11th committed by Muslim jihadist group, al-Qaeda. As a means of gaining sympathy for Park51 and Muslim Americans, however, we wanted to explain how the community center was unreasonably misidentified and judged in the eyes of the Western press as well as modern day American society.
The American Response to Park51
The controversy and condemnation surrounding the supposed mosque gets its roots from the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. The 9/11 attacks were, obviously, a terrible devastation in US history and resulted in many people forming strong opinions against Muslims which, therefore, affected their thoughts about the construction of Park51. Some people were quoted in The New Yorker saying that the construction of the Muslim center was “a slap in the face” for victims. One person was quoted in The Daily Beast saying, “Placing the center close to the site of the late World Trade Center will not promote healing and, as for promoting a ‘better understanding of their religion,’ it would certainly be a constant reminder of the evil it is capable of.” The project’s most blunt critics argued that Park51 was an insult to those who died at the hands of the Muslim extremists who carried out the 9/11 attacks. It seems as though many share this negative point of view on the subject, as recent polls show that almost two-thirds of Americans oppose Park51. Unfortunately, this anti-Muslim sentiment goes against the values that our nation was built on. Our nation proudly claims to be founded on the principles of liberty and tolerance, not to mention the fact that our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion.
The fact that some Americans have reservations about Park51 is understandable, but Muslims have the right to practice their religion and those who oppose the institution could utilize their time and energy toward honoring victims of the September 11th attacks in other forms, without hindering Muslim practices. One of the things that separates our country from others is the fact that citizens have the freedom to practice any religion they choose. Imagine if you were Catholic, Christian, or Jewish and our country did not allow the practicing of your religion. Would America still be so great? The American public has every right to be angry about the September 11th attacks, but it is unfair to blame an entire religion for the actions of a small extremist group and to impede their right to practice their beliefs. We are a country founded on the principles of freedom and as Americans, we should be proud of that. Instead of preaching hatred, let us come together and preach acceptance. Let us reinforce the fact that we are the greatest nation in the world.
The Media’s Influence and Misidentification
In order to understand the widely shared, negative bias toward Park51, one must survey the history of Muslim residence in America leading up to September 11th and how the chronology of events altered the opinion of many American’s to make them consider the cultural center as the “Ground Zero Mosque.”
Prior to the attacks on September 11th, there was little opposition against Muslims and Islamic establishments in the United States. Conflict arising from Islamic followers was not prominent nor was the negative and extreme stigma that greatly follows Muslims today, other than skewed misconceptions caused by films and the media stereotyping Muslims. In fact, two mosques had already existed as close as a mere four blocks from the World Trade Center since 1970 without facing any hostility during their decades of operation prior to the attacks. They went seemingly unnoticed and unchallenged, as would the proposed Park51 Islamic center, until after the attacks, when curious and apprehensive residents would begin to ponder what the organizations were practicing exactly and whether they had ulterior motives.
When Park51 investors initially endeavored to gain approval to remodel an old Burlington Coat Factory into an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan in December of 2009, the organizers had already been utilizing the building since that July. With no prior animosity, Imam Rauf, the head organizer for the project, thought that the prime location of the building would benefit the group’s mission to “push back against extremists” by occupying a structure that had been hit by wreckage from the September 11th attacks. The general public did not resist the organization’s request and a mother whose son was killed in the aftermath of September 11th was quoted telling a New York Times reporter, “It [was] quite a bold step buying a piece of land adjacent to ground zero,” but considered proposals from the organization as a noble effort.
With this positive outlook on the group’s efforts, the New York Community Board committee unanimously approved the project in May of 2010. It was not until this authorization that the media began to spin Park51’s motive and facts regarding its proposal. The New York Post made the first inaccurate narration on the project when they headlined a story called “Panel Approves ‘WTC’ Mosque.” A more hostile contribution to the fabrication of a mosque being built was made by blogger Pamela Geller when she wrote a post titled “Monster Mosques Pushes Ahead in Shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction” stating that the project was “Islamic domination and expansion,” and claiming that “the location [was] no accident.”
Geller successfully rallied support and launched a campaign to thwart the center while Andrea Peyser, another New York Post columnist, continued the condemnation. Peyser misleadingly titled her column “Mosque Madness at Ground Zero,” notably contributing to the rumors and misinformation that a mosque was actually being built on the grounds where the Twin Towers once stood. Most significantly, in Peyser’s May 13th column, she erroneously reported that the institution planned on hosting its grand opening on the 10-year anniversary of the attacks. Because of these deceptive headlines and inaccurate stories by such popular news organizations, columnists, and bloggers, the media greatly contributed to and was responsible for so many Americans having negative opinions of Park51 based on false pretenses.
Park 51’s website presents a very different vision of the “mosque.” In the Frequently Asked Questions section, bullet #2 asserts, “Park51 is not a mosque. It is a cultural and community center” in direct response to rumors suggesting otherwise. Adjacent to Park51’s location is a not-for-profit group called “PrayerSpace,” where praying is encouraged but, “is completely independent of Park51.”
The group recalls in its “Our Story” section, that, “Park51 was conceived as a way to give back to New York City, to help rebuild and reinvigorate lower Manhattan while developing a new perspective on Muslims in America.” Far from fears of radical secrecy, Park51 welcomes “New Yorkers of all backgrounds” to engage in community building “interfaith workshops.” The group goes on to assert that the park is “open to people of any religious, racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic background.”
Park51 resembles an interfaith YMCA, offering total wellbeing services such as, “social and recreational services, as well as world-class health, wellness and educational facilities.” Where the park includes services for Muslim New Yorkers including bread making and Arabic writing classes, it also provides mainstream multicultural experiences such as Karate and an informative “Haitian Creole workshop.”
Muslim American Response
The Park51 project was largely made possible by the funding efforts of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, head of the Cordoba Initiative. Cordoba’s website describes “a multi-national, multi-faith organization dedicated to improving Muslim-West relations.” Unlike Park51, which actively avoids the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, Cordoba goes to greater lengths to distance itself from any hint of radicalism. The Cordoba Initiative’s “Our Mission” page states, “A strong American Muslim community- confident in its identity as both wholly American and wholly Muslim, will inevitably be moderate.” Directly addressing the controversy, Cordoba states an ongoing hope to, “reverse the downward spiral of fear and mistrust that is fueling extremism on all sides.”
The leadership behind the Cordoba Initiative, specifically Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, has been accused of secrecy, but has met all accusations publicly. In 2010 he and his wife attended a community-board hearing in Manhattan. Angry residents often shouted and held signs opposing the construction of the Park51 facilities, but Rauf defended the center and its intentions to “’bridge the great divide’ between Muslims and the rest of America.” Rauf’s wife added, “we have no higher aspirations than to bring up our children in peace and harmony in this country.” Despite the raucous start to the meeting, the New York Community Board voted 29-1 to support the project, with 9 abstentions.
American Muslims unconnected to the project have expressed their support for Park51. Hussam Ayloush, the executive director of the CAIR, echoed President Obama in a Washington Post interview saying, “Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country.” Beyond defense of constitutional religious liberties, Ayloush drew a clear distinction between Islam and the 9/11 hijackers saying, “Islam rejects such murderous action and every major Muslim scholar and institution has unequivocally condemned the act and those who try to justify it.”
During the controversy surrounding Park51, the perpetuation of the unfair and harmful stereotype associated with Muslims as “terrorists” seemed to be all-consuming within American society. The belief that a few extremists reflect all of the people affiliated with Islam, that the values shared by those deemed “extreme” were shared by all within the religion, and that we, as a nation, should be wary of any Muslims, is a type of prejudice known as Islamophobia. Islamophobia can be found in the many misinformation campaigns throughout the United States that tell of a religion that only wants to bring destruction and mayhem upon Western civilizations. According to his article “Islam and Extremism: What Is Underneath,” William DiPuccio, Ph.D, correspondent for the Galestone Institute, claims Islam is a “diverse religion (…) a religion of peace,” and although its reputation is far from fair, one must wonder how it came about in the first place, how it managed to shape over the years into what it is now. Perhaps the blame should fall mostly on the Western press, who, according to DiPuccio, “continue to take the words of Islamic leaders at face value without adequate scrutiny” and who fail to recognize that “Islamists often refrain from discussing the unsavory aspects of their faith, such as the degradation of women, the suppression of free speech, homosexuality and ‘blasphemy’” and many more harmful instances that do nothing to help perpetuate a positive and accurate depiction of Islam.
Christian Extremism: The Untold Side of Terrorism
Though probably unthought-of of by most members of both religions, the connections and similarities between modern day Muslim Extremism and Christian Extremism are irrevocable in many ways, including execution and motive. In the United States, one of the most violent groups associated with a Christian ideology is the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group that, according to their mission statement, intends to “re-establish Protestant Christian values in America by any means possible,” and believe that “Jesus was the first Klansman.” Their well-known cross burnings were not only to intimidate racial and ethnic targets, but to demonstrate their “loyalty to Jesus Christ” that included the singing of hymns and spoken prayer. The modern movement and organization focuses on the supposed “war against Western Christian civilization,” and their methods of outreach and domestic terrorism remain the same: beatings, lynching, murder, whips, destroying of property, rape, and much more.
Beginning in the 20th century, a group known as the Army of God began planned attacks against abortion clinics and their doctors all across the United States, including the biggest organization to provide them, Planned Parenthood. Many people involved in carrying out these attacks were self-proclaimed members or allies of Christian Identity/Patriot movements, including the powerful Lambs of Christ group. On May 31, 2009, anti-abortion citizen Scott Roeder murdered Wichita doctor George Tiller for performing late term abortions at his Women’s Health Care services clinic – his being one of only three nationwide to actually perform late term abortions – saying in a statement how he believes abortion to be “criminal and disgustingly immoral” and in direct conflict with his religious beliefs.
Many would argue upon hearing these incidents in direct association with the Christian faith, especially those of the Christian faith themselves, that these extremists do not represent Christianity as a whole and are only a select few giving the religion an unjust and unfair reputation. But if this is true, and we as a Christian-heavy society believe that groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or people such as Roeder are not the poster children for Christianity, why is Islamophobia so rampant within society? If we are taught that extremists in one religion – such as Christianity – do not represent the whole of that religion, then the same empathy should be given to Muslims still facing prejudice for their religion that is judged not by their “diversity” or “peacefulness,” but by their most extreme members.