Friday, 27 August 2010

Not at Ground Zero, Not a Mosque, just a really bad idea

I haven't commented so far on the "Ground Zero Mosque" - or multi-function Muslim venue within walking distance of Ground Zero if we're being strictly accurate - largely because I've found it genuinely difficult to work out who is most wrong. Almost everyone is at least partly wrong. Robert Spencer of JihadWatch, for whom it is an "Islamic Supremacist Mega-mosque" planned by radical Islamists intent on destroying American democracy, manages to torpedo any valid criticisms he might have had about the insensitivity of the proposal with his absurd, rabid conspiracy-mongering. But Barack Obama was just as wrong to imply that it was purely a question of religious liberty and planning law. Those who claim - with the venue's planners and their liberal cheerleaders - that the building is merely a positive contribution to interfaith dialogue and a celebration of tolerance are either naive or dishonest. And as for those who think that it's all a fuss about nothing, they obviously have no understanding of how symbols often count for more than reality.

Today, Butterflies and Wheels draws attention to two excellent pieces which ask rather more searching questions about the whole proposal (whose provisional name is Park 51). On Slate, Christopher Hitchens takes a look at the background and past pronouncements of the famously liberal and moderate imam behind the scheme, Feisal Abdul Rauf. Rauf has said some dodgy things over the years, for example singing the praises of the brutal theocratic government of Iran. He also condemned the Danish cartoons in vociferous terms (not much sign of tolerance there) and implied that the US was partly to blame for 9/11.

No-one motivated by anything other than malice would suggest that Rauf is a friend of terrorists or a purveyor of an extremist version of Islam. That, though, may be the problem: what is moderate or liberal from an Islamic point of view does not equate to moderate or liberal from the point of view of secular democracy. And this is especially true when it comes to those who claim to speak public for Islam or to represent Muslims. Hitchens:

We are wrong to talk as if the only subject was that of terrorism. As Western Europe has already found to its cost, local Muslim leaders have a habit, once they feel strong enough, of making demands of the most intolerant kind. Sometimes it will be calls for censorship of anything "offensive" to Islam. Sometimes it will be demands for sexual segregation in schools and swimming pools. The script is becoming a very familiar one. And those who make such demands are of course usually quite careful to avoid any association with violence. They merely hint that, if their demands are not taken seriously, there just might be a teeny smidgeon of violence from some other unnamed quarter …

The term "radical", in Islamic terms, invariably signifies a bearded loon convinced that the whole world will bend the knee to a Taliban-style universal caliphate - someone, in other words, who is profoundly reactionary in religious terms. It would be great to hear from a genuinely radical Muslim for a change. The only one I can think of, off hand, is Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam. Happily, she too has been writing about the GZM affair. She begins by wondering about the politics of offence, which she describes as a "nefarious force". "Too many Americans are mistaking feeling for thinking," she complains. It's telling, indeed, that the technique - perfected by Islamists - of claiming offence as a way of closing down debate has been adopted wholesale by the anti-mosque campaigners, their tone most succinctly caught by Sarah Palin's notorious Tweet that the scheme "stabs hearts." But Manji pushes it further, noting that the mosque's liberal supporters are now using the same emotive language - declaring, for example, that the campaign against the building offends their sense of American values.

Manji then takes a different, and much more interesting, tack. She asks what kind of "tolerance" the GZM might be expected to embody, given the intolerant nature of the kind of mainstream, moderate Islam associated with its proponents. It's not just that no-one associated with the proposal has "publicly acknowledged that the feelings of these 'appalled' Americans parallel how moderate Muslims such as Imam Rauf felt during the cartoon debacle." It's also things like this:

Will the swimming pool at Park51 be segregated between men and women at any time of the day or night?

May women lead congregational prayers any day of the week?

Will Jews and Christians, fellow People of the Book, be able to use the prayer sanctuary for their services just as Muslims share prayer space with Christians and Jews in the Pentagon?

What will be taught about homosexuals? About agnostics? About atheists? About apostasy?

Where does one sign up for advance tickets to Salman Rushdie's lecture at Park51?

Manji argues that the intense scrutiny that the GZM will inevitably face if it goes ahead could lead to the construction of a facility that would genuinely embody the spirit of pluralism and equality and so "make the colorful neighborhood around Ground Zero host to the most transparent, most democratic, most modern Islam ever." Which is very optimistic of her. Much as I share her dream, it's too late for that. The battle-lines have been drawn. In any case, a mosque-complex based on the ultra-liberal version of Islam Manji espouses would be deeply controversial within Islam. It would surely be disowned by Muslim leaders around the world as evidence of a sinister Western plot to undermine and re-design their religion. It would be an open invitation to terrorists.

"Park 51" is not part of a plot by Islamists to take over the world, a celebration of the destruction of the Twin Towers or an attempt to rub the noses of 9/11 families in their grief. Of course not. It is, however, a really bad idea. Even if you regard it as a positive thing in principle, it should by now by obvious that has not worked out like that, and indeed was never likely to. The row has now become terminally poisonous. Either its construction or its abandonment will be something to crow over or denounce for the winning and losing side. It can't end well. The real question is why anyone ever thought it could.

Whatever the positive intentions of the facility's backers, this was always a high-profile, elaborate and thus divisive scheme. Spencer and his evil twin Pamela Geller may have cynically whipped up a storm on their blogs, but that does not mean that there was not something inherently offensive about the proposal. It is not simply a question of giving local Muslims somewhere to pray or meet. There is already a makeshift mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero, that has been operating for some time with little or no comment. It is the size and ambition of Park 51, more than its incorporation of a mosque, that smacks of insensitivity or even triumphalism. It was intended as a grand gesture, which is why the location matters to its proponents (who have rejected an alternative site) as much as to its opponents. Ground Zero - or its vicinity - is no place for an Islamic PR stunt, which is basically what this complex always was.