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Park51 and Collective Guilt


If a YMCA or a YMHA were planned for 51 Park Place in Lower Manhattan, two blocks from the Twin Towers’ former site, who would have noticed?

Instead, the equivalent of a Muslim Y (without the implied male exclusivity) is to be built there. What’s the big deal?

I can think of only one answer: Consciously or not, a majority of Americans associate all American Muslims with the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Although the U.S. government’s position is that the attacks were perpetrated not by Islam but rather by fanatics who warped the religion, the opposition to Cordoba House, now known as Park51, suggests that most Americans don’t believe it. They seem to hold all Muslims responsible for the acts of a few. If so, that’s disgraceful collective guilt based on religion — and unbecoming a society that claims to judge individuals by their character.

Just when one thinks that politics can’t sink any deeper, conservatives and Republicans come along to prove one wrong. Who cares what Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and their ilk really think about the Islamic cultural center located two vision-obstructed blocks from (not at) Ground Zero? What counts is that they are eager to exploit Americans’ ignorant fears about Muslims and Arabs for political advantage. Gingrich, ever the pseudo intellectual, suggests that Nazis would not be permitted to build a center near the Holocaust Museum. He hopes you’ll not realize that (1) the developers of Park51 are neither Nazis nor supporters of al-Qaeda, and (2) they own the property on which the center is to be built. He’s also not likely to mention that Lower Manhattan has been home to actual mosques for years.

Right-wing leaders have helped whip up hysteria among the populist Tea Partiers. TeaParty.org routinely sends out emails linking Park51 to the Muslim Brotherhood, implying that that “the objective … is to convert the U.S. into an Islamic nation through sabotage and subterfuge.”

The idea that a public Muslim cultural center in New York City is part of a covert effort to turn the United States into a caliphate is ludicrous. The hysteria is not focused just on Manhattan. In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, residents opposed an Islamic center, although one has long existed in another part of town. Opponents say they are concerned about Islamic radicalism. CNN reported that one resident said, “In Islam, a mosque means ‘We have conquered this country.’ And where are they? They’re in the center of Tennessee. They’re going to say, ‘We have conquered Tennessee.’”

The anti-Muslim charges get even nuttier. One protester carried a sign with the inscription, “MOSQUE LEADERS SUPPORT KILLING CONVERTS.”

But that’s nothing compared to the American Family Association’s position. AFA’s Bryan Fischer says,

If a mosque was willing to publicly renounce the Koran and its 109 verses that call for the death of infidels, renounce Allah and his messenger Mohammed, publicly condemn Osama bin Laden, Hamas, and Abdelbaset al Megrahi (the Lockerbie bomber), maybe then they could be allowed to build their buildings. But then they wouldn’t be Muslims at that point, now would they?

Fischer earlier said he agreed with a Danish psychologist that “the integration of Muslims into Western societies is ‘impossible.’” He wants the U.S. government to prohibit Muslims from moving to the United States. But he’d go further. “The most compassionate thing we can do for Muslims who have already immigrated here,” he says, “is to help repatriate them back to Muslim countries, where they can live in a culture which shares their values, a place where they can once again be at home, surrounded by people who cherish their deeply held ideals.”

This sort of bigotry, whipped up by cynical politicians, can have no good end. As I write, the news carries a story about a man who slashed a New York City cab driver after learning he is a Muslim. It hasn’t been that long since the U.S. government put Japanese-Americans in concentration camps simply because of their national origin. After 9/11, 1,200 Muslim and Arab immigrants were rounded up. According to analyst Jim Lobe,

In a widely noted report released [in June 2003], [the Justice Department’s inspector general] found “significant problems” in the way federal officials dealt with the post-Sep. 11 roundups. Dozens of detainees were subject to verbal and physical abuse by guards at the facility, where they were left to languish in “unduly harsh” conditions for months, some without access to family members or attorneys, it said.

Has this country gone crazy?

Fanatical Christians and Jews have killed many innocent people, even in modern times, believing they were doing God’s will. But reasonable people do not hold Christianity and Judaism, or every Christian and Jew, culpable for those crimes. Why the double standard with Muslims? Some would say that Islam preaches violence. But Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower, a history of al-Qaeda, points out that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri went to great lengths to rationalize violating the Koran’s prohibitions against suicide and the killing of innocents.

Must it be pointed out that several million Muslims live peacefully in the United States and have done so for generations? What more needs to be said?

No bin Ladenite

Moreover, it takes only minutes on the Internet to learn there are different Muslim traditions. Feisal Abdul Rauf, director of Park51, is no bin Ladenite. As William Dalrymple writes, Rauf

is one of America’s leading thinkers of Sufism, the mystical form of Islam, which in terms of goals and outlook couldn’t be farther from the violent Wahhabism of the jihadists. His videos and sermons preach love … and reconciliation…. But in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, he is an infidel-loving, grave-worshiping apostate; they no doubt regard him as a legitimate target for assassination.

Rauf’s mainstream credentials are indisputable. President Bush used to send him on goodwill missions to the Middle East. President Obama continues to do so. Rauf was invited to speak at the memorial service for Daniel Pearl, the Jewish reporter for the Wall Street Journal whom jihadists brutally murdered in Pakistan. In his remarks, Rauf said,

We are here to assert the Islamic conviction of the moral equivalency of our Abrahamic faiths. If to be a Jew means to say with all one’s heart, mind, and soul … hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one, Mr. Pearl. If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind, and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one, Mr. Pearl.

This hardly sounds like someone with sympathy for killers of the innocent. He is a conciliator, which makes the location near Ground Zero especially appropriate for an Islamic center. We don’t have to agree with everything he says to understand that.

Other major religions passed through stages in which traditionalists struggled with modernizers. Unfortunately, it did not always occur peacefully, but eventually some kind of accommodation was reached. Since World War II, Islam has been in a similar stage. The difference, however, is that Western imperialism disrupted the process. First the British government (with help from French) and then the U.S. government presumptuously and brutally intervened in the Muslim world using all the vicious tools of empire, including mass murder and torture. That has not only interfered with Islam’s evolution in the modern world, it has spawned the desire for revenge against the empires that aggressed against them.

Ground Zero and U.S. aggression

The ignorance displayed in the opposition to Park51 cannot be separated from the general American ignorance of U.S. foreign policy. History did not begin on 9/11. It was the culmination of six decades of violence against and oppression of Muslims in the Middle East, both inflicted and sponsored by American regimes, Republican and Democrat. Predictably, that record provoked a tiny minority to strike at innocent people nine years ago, including many Muslims. We may be thankful that not all Muslims hold all Americans responsible for the U.S. government’s continuing aggression. What message does it send when Americans persecute rather than applaud conciliatory Muslims?

Glenn Greenwald of Salon writes,

The campaign against the Park51 community center in Lower Manhattan is being condemned, rightfully so, because it is driven by a desire to stigmatize all Muslims and even institute a generalized war against Islam as American policy.  But far from Ground Zero, having nothing whatsoever to do with the warped right-wing fanatics driving that campaign, we’re increasingly engaging in actions perceived — understandably so — to be exactly the War against Muslims which, with our pretty presidential words, we renounce. Escalation in Afghanistan, a sustained bombing campaign in Pakistan, all sorts of increased covert actions in multiple Muslim countries, the ongoing imprisonment with no charges of Muslims around the world, bellicose threats to Iran, and now a proposed expansion of our drone campaign into Yemen:  we can insist all we want that we are not waging a War Against Muslims, but it’s going to look to a huge number of people as though we’re doing exactly that.

Or as Drew Hjelm wrote on Facebook, “The U.S. has been building ground zeros near mosques around the world for decades.” If anything should be excluded from Lower Manhattan out of respect for the 9/11 victims, it’s U.S. government buildings.

Anyone who thinks American security is served by demonizing Islam or Muslims is delusional. The way to prevent another 9/11 is to change U.S. foreign policy. Contrary to the neoconservatives, the attacks were not a manifestation of a “clash of civilizations.” They were not about religion. They were about stopping U.S. aggression against the Muslim world — and the U.S. government knows it. As a 2004 Pentagon Defense Science Board Task Force put it, “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies.” Robert Pape’s analysis of suicide terrorism confirms this.

It’s time to change those policies. As things stand now, we have bin Laden exactly where he wants us.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.