There’s a lot of talk about a potential mosque at Ground Zero. America is divided around the issue, with progressive people from both sides arguing for the proposition, saying it’ll be good for the country, and resistant people from both sides arguing against it, saying it’s inappropriate. For a quick overview, The Economist’s Lexington rounds it up nicely, making an interesting argument in an article aptly named Build That Mosque.
Reading the article — or the title alone — one can see that beyond the overview, Lexington’s end position is in favor of building the Mosque, which is an interesting point in itself. The fact that The Economist, a right-leaning publication, argues for the Mosque exemplifies how this is not a question of right and left politics per se, divided along straightforward bipartisan lines. This is a subtler and more complex issue.
Which is exactly why building that mosque is neither as simple nor as constructive as it seems.
The argument goes like this. Imagine ten murderous Christian Fundamentalists entering Mecca by posing as Muslims. They walk inside, among the crowds, take their M16s from under their loose garments and shoot everyone around them. By the time local security forces take them out, 210 people have been killed and a further 544 have been injured.
Now imagine for a moment that this hasn’t led to armed conflict on a global scale. Let’s assume that things are under control, and focus on the on-site aftermath and logistics. Mecca— and Saudi Arabia at large — tries to put the incident behind it and move on. Millions of believers are called on pilgrimages as a sign of solidarity to their fallen Muslim brothers; mullahs preach fervently; the money flows in from sympathizers and charities; international organizations lend a hand. The place gathers itself up, eager to put the trauma behind and move on.
Amid the hype and sympathy and solidarity, the representative of Catholics in Saudi Arabia announces that he wants to build a Christian Church right next to Mecca to show that Christian religion is not to blame, and that it doesn’t support terrorism. On the contrary, Christianity condemns terrorism, the Catholic representative says. Therefore, in good faith, and as an act of kindness, he and his followers wish to build a Church right next to Mecca, reminding their Muslim cousins — and everyone in the world — that Christianity is a peaceful religion that doesn’t condone acts of violence.
Imagine that… If it were to happen, how do you think the Muslim world would react? How would they respond? Would they accept such an offer or not? If not, why?
Preaching Is Easy
The imaginary situation raises questions of practical concern. Things are not that simple or easy to sweep under the rug, goodwill or no goodwill, progressive society or not. Sometimes theory and abstract politics are not enough. Events have to be grounded in reality. Rather than have abstract morality get away with the situation, pushing us down roads that sound great on paper, it’s more prudent and advisable to exhibit realism and react according to the situation on the ground. Let the policy be dictated along human parameters, not humanistic and fuzzy ones. Let the strategy be in touch with the field.
Careful examination of the situation — plus a small analogy in reverse i.e. imagining a ground zero in Mecca and the construction of a church there — does that make it clear why building a mosque on Ground Zero is not a sound idea, why it’s not beneficial for anyone, why the rapprochement would be shaky? It’s a provocative measure, possibly well-meant and apolitical — although many would disagree — and in direct disregard of reality, sideswiping the feelings of millions of ordinary people and replacing their perspectives and feelings with a morally-superior agenda. It doesn’t matter if the WTC is a secular site and Mecca a religious one, they’re not false equivalents. Both are monuments, and the knee-jerk construction of a site next to them with the sole purpose of exonerating a group is tone-deaf, to say the least.
Erecting a mosque or a cultural center next to the WTC is a flawed idea. Those who thought about it are trying to defend their beliefs, and can’t be blamed much. But those who point a finger to all who raise objections, calling them racist, they’re abusing the argument. It’s a double standard, a top-down peace directive based on indiscriminate interpretations of freedom of religion, all souped up and packaged so as to pass as an act of righteousness and solidarity, while disregarding the delicate balance of the sensitivities involved. A balance that shows more sensitivity to the religion associated with the attack — unjust and inaccurate as that association may be — than anyone else. There’s a rush to mend fences with the maligned American Muslim community — which is a great political move, and which requires common sense. Not holding grudges and letting go of stereotypes is one thing… sucking up the blow and moving on is one thing… being progressive and fighting bigotry and neutralizing holy wars and religious antagonism is one thing… but pretending not to understand what happened… pretending that half of America’s opinion doesn’t matter… enforcing policy that is in direct disregard with the field, with the citizenry of the country, with the raw reality on the ground, is another. It’s bad strategy, lousy management. A self-righteous reaction whose tone-deafness is direct contradiction with how one approaches a place of trauma.
If it’s peace and progress the proponents of the Mosque want, they ought to remember why they want it: so that stability will return to the area, and relations between America and Islam will be restored; so that there’s no discrimination against American Muslims, or any Muslims; so that America may retain and reinforce its free-loving, open-society mainframe.
All this won’t happen if we close our eyes to the reality of the situation and pretend that what happened to the WTC didn’t happen, going about our business as if this weren’t a delicate issue, building a place of worship to the religion in whose name the extremists/jihadists struck. It’s an insult to injury, not because we’re stereotyping against said religion but because it’s emotional overcompensation. As mentioned earlier, no one would accept such a gesture in their own right, nor Saudis, nor Iranians, nor Libyans and Indonesians, had they been the victims.
And for those among us who think that it’s irrelevant, that because Muslim theocracies (or countries made up of Muslim majorities) wouldn’t accept such a gesture doesn’t mean we shouldn’t either — because we’re a free society and ought to do what’s right — let me point out that no one of sound mind would accept it. This has nothing to do with the despotic nature of the Saud or Iranian or any other government. It’s an issue of common sense: building a religious shrine on Ground Zero on behalf of a faith that seeks not to be maligned, well, no! It’s not a good enough reason — in fact, it’s crass, at best.
Imagine the NRA going to Columbine and building a new wing for the school, with a big sign saying, ‘Guns don’t kill people, killers do!’ Imagine the outrage.
Bottom line, the argument against building the mosque is simple: the measure doesn’t fit the rapprochement. There will come a time when a mosque will be welcome there.
That time, like it or not, has not yet arrived.