The tempest in Gotham

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

I’m not going to dwell long on the tempest currently whipping many Americans into a frenzy. I mean of course the general hysteria, and all the teeth-gnashing and clothes-rending, that have accompanied the plans for a proposed cultural center/mosque in New York City.

Over the past few days I’ve engaged in a wide-ranging, sometimes frustrating exchange on my Facebook page regarding this topic. I’ve written several long posts, and I’ve tried to remain respectful during the intermittently tense back-and-forth. But somewhere between my first tentative foray into the debate and the umpteenth 500-word response I filed it dawned on me that I’m a debatin’ fool, and it’s not good for my health. I’m not going to change my interlocutors’ minds. They aren’t going to change mine. So I re-posted this opinion piece from the New York Times by William Dalrymple on my Facebook page as one would plant a flag to announce where one stands. I read the piece thanks to a Facebook friend who was kind enough to send me a link to it. Now I’m sharing it with you. If you want to agree or disagree, fine. But don’t expect any debate from me. I’m out enjoying life.

O.K., here are some sample comments from the aforementioned discussion. Yes, I know it’s somewhat unfair not to include the whole discussion, but that’s why I have my own blog:

While I respect a person’s right to the opinion that building a mosque near Ground Zero is wrong, I have to ask, Why is it wrong?
It seems to me that implicit in that argument is an inability to differentiate between the people who want to build the mosque and the obviously demented people who took down the Twin Towers. At its heart then are two scenarios: either there is an implicit belief that the two groups of Muslims share common values, beliefs and world views, and that they are all alike. Or it’s that the one group of Muslims should be penalized for the other group’s actions, even if the one group doesn’t believe like the other group and had nothing to do with the attacks. The former — that both groups of Muslims share the same values, that all Muslims are alike — is of course the equivalent of saying that IRA terrorists and most Christians share the same values, beliefs and world views, which is patently ridiculous. Going with the latter –saying that one group should be penalized for the actions of the other — is like saying all Christians should be penalized for IRA attacks, which again is patently ridiculous.

A little later in the discussion I wrote this:

Because a majority endorses an idea, or thinks something, doesn’t always mean it’s right, just or true. This reflects my belief that sometimes we Americans mistake a majority consensus for eternal truth, or eternal justice, only to find that that consensus was merely representative of a moment in time and that it doesn’t look so wise in retrospect. I think this is one of those times. In a few years, as people look back on this episode with the benefit of distance and perspective, I think many will grimace.
… Perhaps it’s my rising frustration with anti-intellectualism in this country and how it just turns these debates into screaming matches, full of vitriol and emotion, and whips people into a frenzy.
I’d venture to say that most Americans don’t know much about Islam, and its different branches, and sects, and what they do know comes from the news media. At the same time I’d venture a guess that if many Americans were told his or her neighbor was Muslim they’d probably have nice things to say about them. I mean to say that Americans are generally an accepting bunch if you remove the charged political atmosphere, which is what’s sad about this situation. (I’m no expert on Islam, but I’ve read up on it and it has helped that I have several friends and loved ones who are Muslim. My view on this issue is definitely shaped by my experience, not only of knowing Muslims, but my belief that has been confirmed over and over again that most people of any religion are good-hearted people who don’t wish ill on others. Christians. Jews. Muslims. Hindus. And Buddhists. They vastly outnumber the minority who do wish ill on others.)

At some point my interlocutor said that by defending the group’s right to build the cultural center I was essentially advocating a position that gave a free pass to terrorists. Here’s my retort:

I never said we shouldn’t worry about terrorists. … There are people who want to do us tremendous harm and some of them happen to be Muslims. (Did I tell you I lived in a town 80 miles from NYC when 9/11 happened and that town lost people in the attacks. Did I tell you that two months later I had to cover the death of one of five Americans to die of anthrax. I know the terror that comes with terrorism. The tri-state area was on pins and needles for what seemed forever. And I know that there are people who are trying to harm us. And some of them are Muslim. This is not lost on me.)
In a democracy we have a difficult choice to make when terrorism is involved.You have to strike a balance between two competing goods of national security and individual rights: do we brand an entire group because of the actions of a few, recognizing that we might violate rights, or do we respect the rights of the individuals in that group, recognizing that our decision might mean innocents will die because we are too lenient.
There’s no perfect answer. There’s no 100 percent certainty that either way we’ll get it right. But this country has to find a balance and I don’t think branding an entire group is the answer. Nether is ignoring the danger. So what is the answer?
I don’t like the situation we’re in right now because we have to make the difficult choice. My experience with individuals, whatever race, creed, religion, is that most people are good. That doesn’t mean you aren’t vigilant. It doesn’t mean you ignore the bad guys. But it also doesn’t mean you throw your hands up and say the vast majority of Muslim wish us harm. What I just described is not thinking monolithically about a group. It’s acknowledging the complexity of human societies and the groups they’re made up of.
As my parents and my grandparents always said, there are good and bad in every group.

I feel vaguely guilty about re-posting some of my comments without re-posting the entire discussion, but not guilty enough to change the format. Also I’m sorry if I have ruined your weekend by drawing you into the increasingly bizarre debate arising from this situation. But then again, we Americans are a disputatious lot. We argue. It’s what comes with being a citizen.

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