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August 18, 2010

Ground Zero Islamophobia

Reuel S. Amdur

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Opposition to the building of an Islamic community centre in New York is beginning to wind down, in spite of agitation by Republican Party extremists.

Since the legal hurdles have been overcome, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B’nai Brith has pulled in its horns. It may be that it is retreating with its tail between its legs in response to the hostile response from Jews.

Even ADL board member Tom Goldblatt has spoken out against their position. Rabbi Irwin Kula, President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, charged: “The ADL should be ashamed of itself.” Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center, based in Philadelphia, gathered some 30 rabbis and Jewish activists to support the Cordoba center.

More ambiguous support came from the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, both of which supported Cordoba’s right to go ahead but were uneasy about not knowing where the money was coming from and wanting to hear Cordoba’s explicit condemnation of terrorism.

Does that mean, if a Jewish group planned a synagogue, we should ask it to satisfy the community that it denounces West Bank settler terrorism, and demand that it reveal the source of its funding to ensure that no money came from supporters of such terrorism?

Perhaps the most touching stories during the controversy were expressed by two rabbis and an anonymous young Muslim woman.

Robert Levine, a New York rabbi, and David Ellenson, president of Hebrew University College–Jewish Institute of Religion, related an incident that occurred during the destruction of the World Trade Center.

A South Asian Muslim man, who had gotten out of the building, was knocked to the ground by the rubble, and a Hasidic man passing by stopped to help. He saw the religious medal around the man’s neck, read it aloud in Arabic, and then said, “Brother, we need to get out of here.” He then helped him get up, took him by the hand, and led him to safety.

A young New York Muslim woman wrote a response to an article in the Economist.

When she heard of the attack on the World Trade Center she was in the eighth grade, and was immediately terrified that her parents might have been killed.

Over the following days, she feared for their safety, from violence or arrest. The article in this year’s Aug. 5 Economist elicited this response from her: “I was on my way to school this morning when I read the article, ‘Build that Mosque.’ My eyes were teary…Finally, someone understands the plight of the majority of the American Muslims, or better yet me.”

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, editorial board member of The Canadian Charger and founding president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, said that building a mosque or any place of worship is guaranteed by the American of freedom of religion. “To stop it would be unconstitutional,” he said.

On this, he is right. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg refuses to be swayed by what may well be a majority of New Yorkers who oppose the mosque, stating clearly that religious liberty is not subject to majority vote.

President Barack Obama, addressing a group of Muslims at a White House dinner to welcome in the month of Ramadan, added his voice to the controversy. 

“I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country.  That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.  This is America, and commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.  The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are.”

While New York Republican Representative Peter King repeated the line that the location chosen was “insensitive and uncaring,” Mayor Bloomberg called Obama’s remarks a “clarion defense of freedom of religion.” 

Unfortunately, the United States has a long history of intolerance and discrimination, beginning with slavery, continuing through the “trail of tears” in which Cherokees in Georgia were dispossessed of their property and driven to what is now Oklahoma, many dying on the way due to the privations encountered en route. That was in spite of a Supreme Court decision against their dispossession. Then, of course, there were the Jim Crow laws in the South. One could go on.

While Muslims are the current religious group under attack, Jews were once subjected to quotas in higher education and various professions, and were limited where they could live.

In the mid-1800s, Catholics, especially the Irish, were the target, the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party and similar groups won elections in various major cities and in the state government of Massachusetts. One of the hallmarks of the anti-Irish sentiment was the tag ending on job ads: “No Irish Need Apply,” sometimes simply rendered “NINA.”

The ADL and other opponents of the Cordoba center argue that it is too close to Ground Zero. That argument raises the question of just how close is too close. Concern over closeness is meant to assuage the feelings of victims’ families, but they are found on both sides of the question. However, the issue reminds one of the Bogardus Social Distance Scale.

Emory Bogardus, a social psychologist, developed a scale to measure how people felt toward other groups of people. Would you feel comfortable eating with someone from the other group? Working in the same place? Living in the same neighborhood? If someone from that group married a close family member?

Other social scientists concerned about discrimination and prejudice analyzed which measures could decrease these undesired conditions. One measure was legislation; another was direct action, such as the sit-ins that helped to overturn segregation.

The ADL expressed concern for the feelings of victims’ families, but social science tells us that one way to change feelings is by direct action.

Raheel Raza and Tarek Fatah, from the Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC) call the location of the center “a deliberate provocation.” If so, it is in accordance with sound social science. Direct action.

What’s more, the Cordoba center will not be just a mosque. It will be a community center modeled after a Jewish one, and it is to have an interfaith board of directors. What could be more in accord with promoting positive intergroup relations?

In the past, Fatah has said that the MCC does not claim to represent Canadian Muslims, but that the views it expresses are representative of the views of the silent majority of Canadian Muslims. Does he really think that his position on the Cordoba plans mirrors what most Canadian Muslims think?

I suspect that their views more likely correspond to those of the young Muslim woman who wrote to the Economist.

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