The controversial planned Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, a few blocks from the “ground zero” site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks demonstrates a rather large gap between the perceptions of many if not most Western Muslims and their non-Muslim compatriots, and the difficulty of balancing sensitivities and rights.
The project itself was an extremely dubious idea from the outset, particularly given the fact that it was virtually inevitable that the Islamophobic right would try to twist this into yet another source of tension between American Muslims and the broader American society. The backers of the project did, and continue to do, a woeful job of framing it in any way that might avoid alienating much of American society (even the name they chose, “Córdoba House,” is exceptionally ill-conceived for reasons that ought to be obvious, upon reflection, to anybody).
Only those living in a bubble would fail to understand what was likely to happen, but this group seems to inhabit just such an isolated cultural and political space. It seems evident they didn’t consult with anybody serious before launching the project and, if they did, they certainly didn’t get or heed any good advice. Instead of loudly and proactively framing the project in a way that might foreclose the inevitable Islamophobic attacks, the field was left essentially open to the ultra-right blogosphere to define and frame the issue, giving rise to the myth of the “ground zero mosque,” at which point the whole thing became toxic and, for American Muslims, disastrous.
Tension continued to run high leading up to the ninth anniversary of 9/11 yesterday, fueled also by lunatic preachers threatening to burn Qurans and other provocative actions and comments. One has to ask why this random ninth anniversary of September 11 terrorist attacks would be so much more charged than previous ones, and I think the answer clearly has to do with the rise of an Islamophobic narrative that is largely unconnected to actual events and has independently developed a powerful cultural and political force by virtue of repetition and dissemination.
Unless some kind of violent incident takes place to reframe the debate, the whole issue has played itself out some while back, and had already achieved its full cultural and political impact by, at the latest, Pres. Obama’s second remarks on the subject (in which he reaffirmed the legal right to but not the wisdom of the project). By then, the two narratives — one holding that defending religious and private property rights is essential to American traditions of freedom and tolerance; the other ranging from some assertion or other that this was “insensitive” all the way to claiming that this will be some kind of gloating victory monument to Osama bin Laden — had been fully established and most people who were going to be inclined one way or the other had already essentially chosen sides. At that point, the actual cultural or political impact was more or less completed, unless something dramatic happens to reframe people’s attitudes.
No one doubts that the community center backers have absolute First Amendment and private property rights (subject to zoning) to develop a cultural center in the building in question. Objections from more mainstream critics, leaving aside overt bigots and hysterics who ascribe all kinds of unfounded extremist motivations to the project, have focused on the question of sensitivity. But almost all of the standard objections to the project do involve at least some level of Islamophobic assumption, requiring some degree of conflation between the 9/11 criminals and Al Qaeda with Islam and Muslims generally. On the other hand, clearly the backers of the project suffered from serious lack of sensitivity at least insofar as they did not understand the need to frame it properly or how to do that. Their mishandling of the situation has been a major part of the problem from the beginning.
Many people in the American Muslim community would hold that no one should ask for permission in exercising such a well-established American right or care what their fellow citizens think about the exercise of such basic rights. This is a profoundly mistaken attitude. Even legal rights that are practically unchallengeable come with social responsibilities (free-speech rights are a great case in point, such as deliberately inflammatory Quran burning spectacles which are certainly protected by the First Amendment and are also certainly repugnant and indeed dangerous). The mark of a healthy, well-adjusted community is not a decontextualized defiant assertion of rights, but is instead a balancing of rights with social responsibilities includes a due regard for the sensitivities of fellow citizens.
The project itself was not necessarily, and indeed should not have been, any kind of affront to the sensitivities of most Americans, but there was always a deep risk that it could be perceived that way and allowing it to be defined by extremist bigots ensured that it would be. The responsibility in this case was not necessarily to refrain from the project altogether, although that’s certainly what I would have advised if I had been asked, but at very least to create a powerful and proactive messaging strategy to mute and blunt voices seeking to promote outrage over it.
Another important display of responsibility might have been to quickly engineer a positive solution to the controversy (and I can think of many) once it got going, seizing the moral high ground, being magnanimous and at the same time not appearing to capitulate to bullying. It wouldn’t have been that hard, but it would’ve required some courage, selflessness and genuine vision. Among other things, such gestures would have severely disrupted the Islamophobic narrative of Muslim “encroachment” into (implicitly Christian) American cultural space, and could have transformed a dangerous situation into a positive one.
American Muslim religious and cultural (and, if they ever get any, political) leaders, in the urgent interests of their own community, are going to have to start to develop a much more sophisticated understanding of the cultural and political context in which they operate. It may not be fair when it comes to defending essential rights such as freedom of religion, but it’s the bottom-line reality. Even more urgently, they’re going to have to develop a much stronger understanding of how the Islamophobic narrative actually functions, in the long run to successfully counteract it and in the short run to, at the very least, stop inadvertently playing into it on a regular basis.