June 01, 2013

Urban Planning & Turning the Other Cheek The debate about the Park51 Islamic community center and mosque is mostly an irrelevant cacophony of bigoted foolishness, and yet it provides an opportunity for us to address many important cultural issues that are of vital importance to our nation and the world as a whole. In the discussions that I have had with those who are sympathetic to my own views on the subject, there tends to be a consistent theme: those who oppose Park51 are ignorant. They're ignorant of American principles of religious freedom, of the relationship between Islam and terrorism, of religious history, etc. While there are doubtless ignorant people in every crowd, I think that the argument for ignorance in discussions of religion and/or politics is usually fallacious. It relies on the well-intentioned, self-aggrandizing yet naïve view that if only so-and-so knew the facts, they would think differently about an issue. This keeps us talking to (or at) one another, and it is an essential motivator of civic debate... but it's quite often empirically false. People generally don't adhere to puzzling ideological views because they are generally ignorant (e.g., "[An] examination of the backgrounds of 75 terrorists responsible for some of the most damaging attacks found that 53 percent had attended college, while 2 had doctorates from Western universities and 2 others were working on Ph.Ds."1). The highly accomplished and well-educated individuals who oppose the Park51 project include U.S. Senators, Governors, professors, and widely-respected public intellectuals. While there are a myriad of reasons that individual protestors oppose Park51 (e.g., political, religious, emotional, etc.), to ascribe ignorance - or even "Islamophobia" - as the overarching one is, in my view, a mistake. [For the record, I hold it as a personal article of faith that Pamela Geller is an ignorant, Islamophobic hate-monger and world-class bigot.] If we look instead at what those who oppose Park51 have in common with one another, it quickly becomes apparent that political affiliation is - at least as far as media reports are concerned - a reliably consistent metric. Conservatives (be they Republicans or Democrats) oppose Park51 more readily than do liberals. This makes complete sense and is to be expected. As the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush made clear, lassoing American Christians - including purveyors of Dominionism - into a durable political coalition was a manifest goal of conservative politicians. Those who support "Reclaiming America for Christ," for example, can hardly be expected to support the construction of an Islamic center anywhere in the country. At least in this regard, a radically divergent set of values probably provides a better explanation of opposition to Park51 than mere ignorance. Among those who don't align themselves with a staunchly Christian brand of American Exceptionalism, there are explanations for opposition to Park51 that I find to be more credible than those frequently proffered by media (including confessional accounts). For example, an unemployment rate of almost 10% is a natural incubator for ultra-nationalist, xenophobic sentiments. I don't think that Arizonans suddenly woke up one day and decided that Mexican immigrants were any more threatening to white hegemony than they were the day before; rather, popular support for Arizona SB 1070 was influenced more by changing economic conditions than by naked racism or any imagined uptick of illegal border crossings. If racism or Islamophobia were as determinative as they are being portrayed by intellectuals on the left, protectionism and nationalism would certainly have been more prominent in September of 2001, when unemployment was at 4.7%. There is, however, a more central (though less conspicuous) aspect of opposition to Park51 that isn't getting much attention at all. First, here are two quotes that set the stage for our military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq: “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.” — Remarks by the President at Islamic Center of Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C. September 17, 2001 “Islam is a vibrant faith. Millions of our fellow citizens are Muslim. We respect the faith. We honor its traditions. Our enemy does not. Our enemy doesn’t follow the great traditions of Islam. They’ve hijacked a great religion.” – Remarks by President George W. Bush on U.S. Humanitarian Aid to Afghanistan Presidential Hall, Dwight David Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Washington, D.C. October 11, 2002 Unfortunately for us, we didn't have sole proprietorship of the casus belli in either war. Our enemies had a say in the matter too, and they have spoken unequivocally: they claim to represent Islam in its truest and most noble manifestation. Our enemies believe that they are fulfilling the will of Allah and his Prophet. We may not like it, but over these many years we have been fighting more non-terrorist Muslim warriors (Mujahideen and some Fedayeen) than we have the "evil" terrorist-types who populate our imaginations. Nearly ever day someone praises Allah just before firing their weapon at U.S. troops - and this has been going on for years. How long can we maintain the fiction that we are not engaged in religious war? Indeed, I give our country credit for learning from our mistakes and not repeating the fiasco of Japanese internment camps during World War II, and for not indicting by association the countless millions of Muslims who reject the tactics and goals of their militant brothers. To be sure, I support both the right and the appropriateness of building an Islamic cultural center at Park51; but the World Trade Center wasn't just the site of a terrorist attack - it was also a battleground in an explicitly religious war with Islam as a self-proclaimed combatant. Whatever the outcome of this controversy, I have no doubt that history will be clear on this point: in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a crisis erupted across the globe in large part because a major world religion incubated a militant, hostile and occasionally terroristic community of adherents. Acknowledging this...

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