“Ground Zero Mosque” crisis and the smoke screen of moderate Muslim identity

Developing Just Leadership

Zainab Cheema

Ramadan 22, 1431 2010-09-01

News & Analysis

by Zainab Cheema (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 7, Ramadan, 1431)

The renaming of the Center is a particularly eye-catching facet of this enterprise. The Cordoba House, named for Al-Andalus’s achievements in erudition and cultural pluralism, is now the rather legalistic Park 51 Center, shearing off the historical allusions to past Islamic civilizations.

The recent Ground Zero Mosque controversy has become the crucible of fevered reactions and terrors. It’s vaulted a relatively unknown figure, Feisal Abdul Rauf, into prominence and transformed a below-radar project into a cultural crusade.

Everyone has seen fit to weigh in on the construction of the Park 51 Center at the site of the empty Burlington Coat Factory. From Sarah Palin’s illiterate tweets to Barack Obama’s noble speechifying, to pundits and brahmins and politicos dealing in every shade of political wool, the Center has dispersed the summer torpor misting national politics. Yes, government policy has suddenly become interesting again, on a mass-level. The Muslims have succeeded where Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden most epically wilted.

The renaming of the Center is a particularly eye-catching facet of this enterprise. The Cordoba House, named for Al-Andalus’s achievements in erudition and cultural pluralism, is now the rather legalistic Park 51 Center, shearing off the historical allusions to past Islamic civilizations. Cordoba House challenges the Reconquista’s painstaking Christianization of Spain, achieved at the expense of expelling Muslims and Jews and transforming their sacral infrastructure into churches. Yet according to some commentators, the Muslims are the ones who should apologize for “occupying Spain for 800 years.” Even as Rauf tours overseas to collect the funds to erect the structure, the name change reflects the desire to huddle down and disappear in Manhattan’s urban grid.

Muslims, unfortunately, seem to be out of line even at their most appeasing. Actually, Muslims appear to be outside of all kinds of lines. Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo recently attempted to Islamicize the immigration debates thicketing Arizona’s border, claiming that numerous prayer mats and Qur’ans were found abandoned at the camp. The unexpected relocation of the terrorist south of the border is surprising, but hardly original — and in fact it underlines the rather sad repetitiveness in political imagination.

But what is striking is the overtly religious mood of the country eight years after September 11, 2001. The infidel is in demand even in the well-institutionalized practice of racializing the country’s borders — dark-skinned Mexicans just don’t cut it anymore. The dark-skinned Muslim terrorist is bogeyman plus. One must after all get with the program and upgrade, even if it is rather fantastic to imagine angry Pakistanis, Libyans, or Iranians swarming in Mexico, ready to brave the concrete wall, armed militias, and other terrorizing paraphernalia decorating the US-Mexican border.

By and large, most mainstream commentators recognize the controversy to be overblown. Newt Gingrich, who somewhat amended himself after fellow conservatives called him on the outlandishness of his comments, originally accused the organizers of Park 51 to be “radical Islamists” encroaching on the hallowed ground of 9/11 in a “deliberate insult”. A pressured Newt, having compared Muslims to Nazis, grudgingly accepted that it is possible for moderate Muslims to be patriotic Americans. After all, Abdul Rauf seems to possess significant credibility in the US politico-media complex.

In fact, Abdul Rauf, who has been employed by the FBI to give sensitivity trainings and by US State Department to tour the Middle East and facelift the crumbling US image abroad, is described by supporters as a “dream Muslim.” Fareed Zakaria, the hawkish pundit affiliated with The Council on Foreign Relations, went so far as to return the medal given to him by the Anti-Defamation League after the ADL voiced its disapproval of the Center and its founder.

“Dream Muslim” is an interesting designation, especially as Abdul Rauf was unknown to the majority of the Muslim Americans before Park 51. His career has been more devoted towards ambassadorship of Islam, particularly to government circles, than outreach to Muslim Americans themselves.

If the soul of “moderate” Islam is the issue at hand, there is something amiss in designating as representative, an individual possessing little equity with the 10 million-strong demographic of Muslim Americans. According to Zakaria, Feisal Abdul Rauf, “has spent years trying to offer a liberal interpretation of Islam” and “argues that America is actually what an ideal Islamic society would look like because is it peaceful, tolerant and pluralistic.” Equating Islam with an America whose roots lie paradoxically in imperialist Protestant evangelicalism and Enlightenment god-abandonment, is hardly reassuring.

What then does it mean to be a “moderate” Muslim? If people with no bearing on the social concerns, political positions, and psychological realities of a community can stand for its beneficent archetypes, what hand or eye frames this strange blueprint? What is the process that engineers a figment, a fiction into a social ideal? In the drama of post-9/11 criminalization, debates over such issues as the Mosque Controversy function as “build a Mus-lim” exercises. We are meant to take notes and take upon the discipline of self-reform. Except, the contradictions in contemporary US political culture ensure that the model doesn’t make sense. As Frank Rich of the New York Times queried in a rather different context, “How do you win Muslim hearts and minds in Kandahar when you are calling Muslims every filthy name in the book in New York?”

When the pot boils down, the bare bones of it all is that to be an “acceptable” Muslim in contemporary culture is to offer an endless apology. Scanning through the news, one can collect a rather capacious list. Sparked by the mother lode of 9/11, Muslim Americans must apologize for past civilizations, “radical Islam,” America’s “addiction” on oil; for Americans’ fears and terrors, for America’s predilection for war, for trespassing real and imaginary borders, for failing to say the right things, and in saying the right things, for failing to be sincere in saying them. In covering the various “terrorist” trials after 9/11, David Cole of Georgetown University and others diagnosed this rather trying cultural position, “guilty until proven innocent.”

Of course, it doesn’t help that most national Muslim organizations such as MPAC (Muslim Public Affairs Council) and ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) have mastered the art of the genuflecting. Their only significant role these days is to offer a speedy apology whenever the sledgehammer of terrorism lands on a particular Muslim.

But who doesn’t get to apologize in contemporary society? BP hasn’t apologized, nor has it been penalized for killing the Gulf of Mexico. Wall Street has not apologized for sinking the US economy and the livelihoods of millions. Telecom companies have not apologized for the deals that inaugurate the slow death of free content on the web. The US military hasn’t yet apologized for the extra-judicial procedures of Guantanamo Bay and its ghostly replicas across the world. There has been no apology for the social and cultural erasure of Iraq and Afghan-istan under occupation, for rendition, or the criminalization of illegal immigrants escaping from NAFTA-influenced “third worldization” of their countries. Zilch on the surveillance apparatuses that dissolve legal freedoms in the United States. Nor do development mavens and corporate raiders apologize for policies that engineer the awesome outward flow of resources from vulnerable nations.

With all its crimes against humanity, the US industry-military complex manages to reclaim the pink glow of innocence. The doctored slogan of “security” is the wheatgrass that delivers the needed cultural immunity time and time again.

Scape-goating is a time honored tradition but it has reached particularly distasteful proportions in post-9/11 culture. “Muslim Americans” have become a visible, precarious demographic that offers an easy target for a maelstrom of confusion, pain, and ignorance. Under the pressures of an evangelizing culture, Americans are channeling anger and frustration from the war-and-profits apparatus that appears too dizzying, too powerful, too abstract and inhuman to a figure that is social and mercifully smaller in scale. A bogeyman after all, is still a man.

In the post-9/11 imagination, the mosque is pictured a sleeper cell that can activate terrorists and circulate them into the social fabric. Tarnished by the ubiquitous procedure of othering, it is imagined as fundamentally unlike the church or synagogue. Perhaps, in a certain sense, it is unlike the church or synagogue — it doesn’t really operate as a means to project power in the social fabric. Mosques are politically irrelevant, especially after the Bush administrations’ measures to extend the spiritual-political alliance that proved so useful to the Christian Right by co-opting churches at large by means of government funds for “faith-based programs.” Muslim American mosques are by and large decorative houses where Muslims snooze through khutbahs or furtively look over their shoulders for informants, and then dash back to work after praying on Jumu‘ah.

The fact is that the mosque is not the launching pad of distorting power in our contemporary world. That honor goes to the vast network of US military bases that sustain global empire. Bases are invisible — while Americans hyper ceremonialize soldiers, the spaces to and from they launch war are a cultural blank. Military secretiveness is guarded about US military bases, which blanket the known earth, proliferating in each dimension: land, water, and space. Of course, Guantanamo is an anomaly — its visibility having become a political liability it is slowly being transformed into a tourist spot, complete with guided tours. Guantanamo’s sisters, 700–800 of them, remain hunkered in varying degrees of anonymity. This is the architecture of permanent war, of human-erasing terror.

Gingrich, a man who will walk barefoot on nails to get to the spotlight, commented, “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.” He eerily makes churches and synagogues sound like military bases, of which the necro-Wahabbi Saudi Arabia hosts 16 in any case.

As many commentators have pointed out, building one or so mosque in the NYC downtown a block away from the New York Dolls Gentlemen’s Club doesn’t make much of a difference. Except that it masks so effectively the political logic that will make possible the American versions of the night of broken glass.

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