16 August 2010

Cordoba continues to smolder and burn

I would take more seriously arguments like these if there were not masses of people protesting (actual) mosques in Staten Island, in Tennessee, in California, in Wisconsin, etc.

The problem is not simply and strictly limited to the grief and suffering and anguish of NYC. The problem, at the national level (where Obama must speak, but where Mayor Bloomberg does not have to), is more about the tolerance and requirements of engagement in faith (or lack thereof) that the first amendment guarantees and presents us with. It does not, contrary to popular belief, enshrine a notion that we should have a wink-wink nudge-nudge state faith and that people who subscribe to these wacky "other" faiths are at best tolerated (Jews mostly), and at worst shunned and assailed (atheists and Muslims in particular).

In general I would characterize two types of opposition
1) Naked bigotry and aggressive fear. This is typically visible from the "Islam is a cult" argument being advanced by many politicians and religious figures (both here and in Europe). The idea being that we should not recognize "cults" as legitimate religious beliefs. Nevermind that "cults" are essentially all ANY religion is, that there is no actual connotation of the definition of cult which is not identical to "a religious set of beliefs and practices which I find, personally, disagreeable". This subset of opposition will not be mollified or pacified by political processes or engagement. In fact, their very operating premise concludes that even moderate and sensible assimilation of any kind of Islam into the American scene is somehow evidence of treachery and elaborate deceptions designed to bring about the end of Western civilization. See also: related claims to Obama's supposed Islamic adherence, which likewise cannot be disproved by any evidence to the contrary. I've noticed a ton of overlap between these two claims and who holds them, suggesting part of it is blind ideological or partisan opposition rather than based on any firm principle or even personal grievances.

2) More of a passive fear relating to the unknown nature of American Muslims and Islam in general, this is more specific to NYC itself, but I would say accounts for about half of the opposition to Corboda's project. I would also say that what this fear actually signifies is less a foreboding feeling that somehow Shariah law is upon us (which is absurd), but rather a question about the nature of our country. What exactly does it mean to have freedom of religion and respect for that concept? Freedom in general has the quality at times of permitting people to do things which we might find personally disagreeable, but which are of no consequence or harm or danger to ourselves or others. Freedom with respect to religion is no different. The appropriate question that people who are in this boat of opposition must be asking is not "why here" but rather "why not here?". If they can answer that question with something ultimately other than "because they're Muslims and Muslims make me queasy and feel unsafe or annoyed", I will be impressed. The point is that they need to confront that feeling by asking themselves the question. What does it mean to call something hallowed ground, that it cannot be populated, even nearby, with the construction and activity of people who we do not approve of (ie, non Judeo-Christians)?

And if we may limit these liberties for this minimal sense of fear, left unbacked by real hostile actions and intentions, why not accept limits on liberty in some other direction and for other devices? The appropriate response to our fear is to learn. To engage. To understand or know something of our cause of fear. And by studying it, hopefully abating it rather than feeding and inflating it, as our politicians seem wont to do. Even Obama did not incline an opinion that Islam and its practitioners would and should be welcomed physically, backing away by giving only the legalistic requirement that they must be permitted physically (and even that much still a vaguely unpopular position for which I will give some credit). The appropriate response is not to surrender more liberties to satisfy our temporary constraints of uncertainty and grief. The simple explanation, the way to "assimilate" and to understanding, mutually, with Islamic peoples in America, is to give them the liberty to live and to play and to worship among us as equals and not to force them into obscurity or to say "could you be a little less Muslim, or maybe a little more Christian".

Put another way: "it’s okay to build a mosque in the Financial District, and it’s not okay to blow up buildings in the Financial District. A general policy of exclusion is unworkable." People of any faith who promote violence and intolerance and hatred should be shunned and where their actions have real consequences, sought out and punished by law. I see no distinction or quarter that should be drawn when a Christian extremist kills an abortion provider or bombs their clinics than when a man straps explosives to his chest and kills dozens of shoppers in a marketplace in Tel Aviv or Baghdad or Islamabad or Mumbai. The death and suffering of innocents is not to be taken lightly.

But where a people are innocent of that hateful activity, we should not be in a rush to collectively punish and to draw out our penalties against ALL people of a particular and peculiar faith to that of our own. I draw distinctions between Christians whose attitudes and public policy positions I find sensible though sometimes disagreeable, such as I think a religious belief lends itself to that proposition of being reasonable, and those (admittedly fewer, but busily fewer) who act utterly irrationally, mistrusting of the ideas and wisdom of others, and who are thus often possessed by hateful and intolerant behaviors (generally, but not always or always limited to the behavior of religious fundamentalism or scriptural literalism). Being in this rocky outcropping observing the scurrying of others around and around in these metaphysical realms, mountains of their own minds, does give me the perspective to note that the same diverse set of opinions and beliefs and practices populate the Muslim world. While religious dogma and practice presents avenues of absurdity and pain and panic for those who wish to follow them or wish others to follow down them, they also present the vast majority with subjective values or meanings that can be used to promote more positive endeavours than terrorism and "holy" crusades against the infidel (for another example: the promotion of heterosexual monogamy and marital fidelity need not come at the expense of denying that fidelity to homosexuals in their own partnerships and unions). I may dearly wish that more people would recognize the means of establishing and promoting these values without cloaking them in a more easily perverted notion of organised religions. But given that most people are swayed by religious notions, particularly in America, I am left to desire that they should promote and acquit themselves positively among others. So when one group of such people wants to build a community, and to promote its values, unless there's an active harm (in the form of violent or threatening remonstrances toward others and people within the group itself), other groups do not get to tell it what those values must be and how they must be practiced. That does not strike me as a positive behavior. It strikes me as intolerant at worst, or a surrender to fear rather than inquiry at best to command obedience on matters of conscience and practices of faith. We should not want to be in the business of promoting either ignorance or intolerance as either a faith or a nation.
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