Friday, August 20, 2010

The Club of Ancient Wrongs: The Mosque Near Ground Zero

Another thoughtful essay from the excellent Australian-based blog devoted to human dignity in the face of the many threats to it, MercatorNet

Michael Cook | Friday, 20 August 2010

Welcome to the Club of Ancient Wrongs
The mosque in Manhattan should be moved further away from Ground Zero, but not because of enmity toward Islam.

With one war in Afghanistan, another in Iraq, a possible war with Iran, and an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, it seems bizarre that the biggest political issue in the US is whether to build a mosque near Ground Zero, the former site of the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan.

Muslims overseas are puzzled. “The mosque is not an issue for Muslims,” says Abdul Rahman Al-Rashid, a leading Arab journalist based in Dubai, “and they have not heard of it until the shouting became loud between the supporters and the objectors, which is mostly an argument between non-Muslim US citizens!”

First of all, some facts.

Only part of the US$100 million Cordoba Initiative is a mosque which will accommodate about 1,000 for Friday prayers. The rest of it is a community centre with a library, gym, auditorium, restaurant, 9/11 memorial and so on. Second, it is not a “Ground Zero Mosque”. It is a full two blocks away from the place where more than 2,700 people died.

Third, it is not a gathering place for radical Muslims. The Kuwaiti-American imam organising the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, may have sent mixed messages, but he claims to be promoting dialogue between Americans and Muslims. He has even written a book titled, What's Right with Islam is What's Right with America. Since we have George W. Bush’s word for it that Islam is “a religion of peace”, at least New Yorkers should believe in Mr Rauf’s good intentions.

There are two strands in the commentary defending the proposed Islamic centre.

The first is that Muslims have a right, like other Americans, to build places of worship wherever they like. In the words of President Obama, "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country." Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a prominent Jewish leader, says: “it is not only the constitutional right of the peace-committed Muslims of the Cordoba Initiative to build a community center in Lower Manhattan, but they are ethically right and profoundly wise to lift there a beacon.”

The other is that “Demonization of the Muslim religion is what this brouhaha is all about.” It is “as irrational an act of scapegoating as blaming all ethnic Germans for the acts of Nazis,” in the words of one left-wing pundit, Robert Scheer. Even the usually sensible Economist says that “The campaign against the proposed Cordoba centre in New York is unjust and dangerous.”

But the right to free commercial activity and the right to freedom from discrimination and vilification are very blunt instruments for dealing with a “sacred site”. His opponents may be using the controversy as a way to weaken President Obama (when 20 percent of Americans think he is a Muslim) but the source of the opposition is more an inarticulate sense of sacredness than bigotry.

If New Yorkers were really that prejudiced, why is the current Islamic centre in downtown Manhattan located ten blocks away in the basement of a Catholic Church?

Today, in most Western countries, the concept of reverence for the sacred is often dismissed or ridiculed or simply viewed with perplexity. But even a secularised sense of the sacred is a tenuous link to transcendence and an important element in forging a personal and national identity.

To take a non-political example, would Walmart ever build a mall and parking lot in Yellowstone? Will California ever sell off Redwood National Park to timber companies to balance its budget? Such proposals somehow violate places revered for their awe-inspiring beauty. Or if Mr Rauf somehow managed to shift his centre to the battlefield of Gettysburg, would the ensuing protests be due to hatred of Islam or to outrage at the violation of this hallowed ground?

And for Americans Ground Zero has been hallowed by senseless deaths, heroic sacrifice, national humiliation and an outpouring of grief.

It is hard to find words to explain why a plot of ground should be revered for memories like these. That is what poets are for. But part of being human is to be connected to places and spaces and memories. Analysing the conflict in terms of constitutional rights is utterly inadequate. Something more ancient is at work which disappears in sterile political battles over rights.

It is not pandering to prejudice to recognise that America, like other societies with a long and deep history, now has its own taboos which ought to be respected even if they are legally indefensible.

A Pakistani professor Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC, Akbar Ahmed, understands this. A former ambassador to the US, he has a deep knowledge of both cultures.
"I don't think the Muslim leadership has fully appreciated the impact of 9/11 on America,” he says. “They assume Americans have forgotten 9/11 and even, in a profound way, forgiven 9/11, and that has not happened. The wounds remain largely open. And when wounds are raw, an episode like constructing a house of worship – even one protected by the Constitution, protected by law - becomes like salt in the wounds."

Protectiveness and anger are typical of disputes over sacred sites in the Old World. Perhaps the passions in this controversy mean that America is growing up, or at least growing older. What could be more characteristic of an Old World society than fights over sacred sites?

In newer countries like Australia passions seldom run so high. I used to live in Tasmania where the indigenous people, the Tasmanian Aboriginals, had lived in complete isolation for perhaps 15,000 years. Within two generations after contact with Europeans they had all perished. It is one of the darkest chapters of Australian history, even of world history. Yet there is no fitting memorial to them, just a few wretched plaques and a hiking track named after Truganini, the last of her people.

Ancient cultures have deep feelings. Why is Jerusalem the world’s most volatile city? Because Christians, Jews and Muslims would all die to defend their sacred places. The Babri mosque in Ayodhya was destroyed in 1992 by a mob of 150,000 Hindus who believed that it had been built over the birthplace of their god Rama. Serbia fought a war rather than grant independence to Kosovo partly because the Field of Blackbirds, north of the capital Pristina, is hallowed ground where the Serbs made their last stand against the Ottoman Turks in 1389.

It is easy for unscrupulous politicians to exploit sacred sites for their own political gain, as Slobodan Milosevic did in Kosovo to rally Serbs against separatists, and perhaps Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin are doing now. But that doesn’t mean that ordinary Americans’ attachment to a sacred site should be dismissed as redneck prejudice. It’s more like the anger and exasperation you might feel if an intruding stranger made a scene at your mother’s wake.

And, to draw on the Australian experience, a sacred site can draw Western and Muslim cultures together. Arguably, Australia’s most sacred site is not on the island continent at all, but in Gallipoli, a Turkish peninsula in the Dardanelles Straits. There in 1915, thousands of Australians and New Zealanders died in a doomed attempt to capture Istanbul. Now it is a place of pilgrimage for both Australians and Turks who remember their forebears’ sacrifice and heroism.

Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey and the Turkish commander, later wrote a touching memorial which displays far more magnanimity and sensitivity than anything uttered by American politicians in the past few weeks:

“You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours... you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land. They have become our sons as well.”

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.
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