Friday, August 27, 2010

How to respond to reaction

The storm over the proposed Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan - misdescribed as the "Ground Zero Mosque" as it's neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque - grows and grows. Cynically whipped up for political reasons (when originally proposed the center was welcomed, even on Fox), the hysteria plays on people's traumas, fears and ignorance. Responses decrying Islamophobia play into the hands of reaction. It's horrifying to watch, and to imagine the rest of the world, especially the Islamic world, watching. It has already produced violence. But how should one react?

Last Sunday, opponents of Park 51 opponents gathered and got into shouting matches with a smaller group of supporters. The better organized opponents get all the press. So how about a countermarch, supported by religious and human rights organizations from around the city, who walk to houses of worship of all kinds in that neighborhood en route to Park 51, carrying only American flags?

This is really happening, the Liberty Walk: Interfaith Rally for Religious Freedom. I plan to be part of it. But it's been interesting to see the discussion at my church about whether we should join the long list of official sponsors. Definitely, say some. -- The project is going ahead anyway, says another, so wouldn't we be better off hoping the controversy fades away? -- Silence feeds violence, retorts someone. -- Wouldn't joining a shouting match make it more likely to get out of control? -- Out of control has already happened: the taxi attack. --

In the end, I think we're letting our Social and Economic Justice Committee represent the parish, but it's been interesting to see how hard it is to have a measured discussion. The discussion has already been made ugly by politicization. But part of it is also that a bunch of quite different issues, all of them difficult, are bundled together here, from issues of religious freedom to American views of Islam to the legacy of 9/11 to New York City's complicated relationship with the rest of the country. Let me try to look at them one by one.

The religious freedom issue seems the easiest to understand, and is a value everyone at least professes to support. Even Evangelicals understand religious liberty to be central to what America is about. But some - notably the despicably opportunistic Newt - are spreading the idea that Islam is incompatible with American values tout court, that it's a clash of civilizations. It's us (US!) vs. them, and since they don't play nice...

In the background are ideas of America as a Christian (or "Judeo-Christian") country to which Islam is by definition foreign. The "by definition" stuff is of course bunk. Definitions (as I often tell students) are ways of trying to shut discussion down; human values and institutions are made and remade all the time, they aren't and can't be as fixed as "definitions" demand. Islam hasn't been a recognized part of American culture for very long - but then, it took until at least World War 2 for Judaism to be recognized in this way, and possibly as late as the election of John F. Kennedy for Catholicism to be. We've always been a more religiously plural place than we quite realize. Even now, interfaith and ecumenical ideas (like those behind our rally), commendable though they are, don't really plumb the depths of religious difference. Most of us probably buy into some version of Karen Armstrong's wishful idea that at root all religions are about the same thing, compassion.

In any case, most Americans don't know how to think about Islam. Why should they? We don't teach anything about religion in our public schools, and the media are an echo chamber for opinions which sell advertising. And our politicians?! A big part of what's going on is simple ignorance. Calling it "Islamophobia" is reckless and imprecise. On the other hand - and this is a touchy subject - there is surely Christian suspicion of Islam out there. Buddhism is easier for Christians to welcome, since it seems different enough from Christianity that it doesn't really seem like a real rival.

Islam relativizes Christianity. It coopts and claims to complete Christianity in something like the way Christianity has coopted and claimed to complete Judaism. The rivalry is a big part of the history of the tradition. I'm not making any "by definition" claims here. But it should be recognized that it's a lot harder for monotheisms to just be friends - not because monotheisms are inherently intolerant (though that might be true, too) but because the Abrahamic faiths are kin. It's wonderful when siblings become friends, but it's certainly not automatic. Not just political but theological work is required if these siblings are to get along. It's worthwhile work, but tough. America seems like a promising place for it. But even here, the work has barely begun.

Well, more work has been done in New York City than in much of the rest of the country. We live with religious diversity. We also live with the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. We know that people of all nationalities and religions were killed in the WTC, and those who were here on that terrible day (I wasn't) experienced a sense of profound solidarity with fellow New Yorkers which relativized all differences, and strengthened our more cosmopolitan patriotism. We also know that an unjust war was opportunistically started because of 9/11, which has led to the deaths of untold thousands of Muslims.

Perhaps as importantly (and less glamorously) we know that the WTC site is a big hole, its ruins moved to Fresh Kills and much of its iron sold as scrap to China. It continues to be a site of tedious bickering, various plans for rebuilding and memorialization butting heads in ever new constellations. Whatever one's hopes for the site, I'm sure everyone wishes we'd just get on with it.

For much of the rest of America, the situation is clearly different. The site still looks as it does in this cartoon by Glenn McCoy, the token conservative political cartoonist featured on the cartoon page of the New York Times. The man speaking is Rauf, the founder of the proposed Islamic Cultural Center, but you'll notice he doesn't speak with an accent - unless it's a New York one. McCoy's cartoon shows that for much of the rest of the country, nothing's changed at Ground Zero. The nightmare landscape of twisted metal is still there. It's a moment suspended outside time.

This is worth taking seriously. I've noticed that many of the objections to the proposed center are couched in religious terms. Not Christian terms but more broadly religious ones: the World Trade Center site is "hallowed ground," we hear. It is "sacred." What can this mean? The first thing to say is that many religious traditions congregate around places that are made "sacred" by extraordinary, often traumatic events. Many religious centers are located where the often dismembered bodies of saints and martyrs lie. Every Catholic church has a relic of a saint, for instance. Most of the sites sacred to the Sufism professed by Imam Rauf are tombs. From a History of Religions perspective, Ground Zero has the potential to be a religious site.

But there's more. New York City has to some extent been able to assimilate the 9/11 attacks into our understanding of history and geography and politics. But not so much of the rest of the nation. And that has to do with things like the unprecedentedness and the scale of the even - and its abstractness. I forget who wrote about this, but most Americans encountered death in its most abstract form at 9/11. The dimensions of the attack boggled the mind, entirely transcending the scale of the human body. And there were no bodies. (The closest one could come, the images of people jumping, were quickly suppressed. For those who saw the jumpers, the bodies are still in the air. For everyone else, the bodies are everywhere and nowhere.) There has been no ritual closure, no healing.

All of these things are coming together around the Park51 project. It's hard to believe they will be patiently parsed, that differences won't be construed as "insensitivity" and "prejudice," and that pundits won't (in the words of Jon Stewart) see in "insensitivity" an "incensitunity." What can the rest of us do? There's lots of work to be done, in understanding the different positions on religion, Islam in America, 9/11. Let's begin.

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