Friday, September 17, 2010

Discrimination: In a nation in which civil rights are enshrined in law, ignorance of and intolerance towards the "other” endure

Aerial view of the World Trade Center site, September 23, 2001 | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Ernest Corea
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

WASHINGTON DC (IDN) - The rhetorical excesses of a fast fading summer suggest that in a nation characterized by diversity, and in which civil rights are enshrined in law, ignorance of and intolerance towards the "other” endure.

How else to explain the Islamaphobia -- or as Jon Stewart, a comedic genius and astute political commentator calls it, Islamaphobiapalooza -- of the past several weeks?

Two developments, one in New York City, the other in Gainesville, Florida, set off waves of Islamaphobia in different parts of the country. Rage, hatred, and downright stupidity replaced the spirit of honest inquiry and serious debate so essential to mutual understanding. Some mosques and worshippers were threatened.

Many Muslims felt as beleaguered as they did in the weeks immediately following the al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001 (now universally referred to by the shorthand, 9-11).

Like the summer, Islamaphobia also appears to be receding now, at least for the present, but the fact that it can erupt periodically and in full force is both discouraging and dangerous.


The wave of Islamaphobia that washed over New York was a somewhat delayed response to plans for the construction of an Islamic Community Center in the vicinity of Ground Zero, the name by which the site of the World Trade Center towers that were brought down on 9-11 is best known.

Over 3,000 people of many ethnicities and religious faiths -- including some 300 Muslims -- died in that barbaric attack. Two places reserved for Muslim worship within the World Trade Center were destroyed as well.

The existence of these Muslim prayer spaces and their destruction were reported only very recently. The fact that even local media did not find their existence and demolition fit to print until nine years after 9-11 had passed has been quite correctly criticized.

Ground Zero is a place of heart rending memories. It is hallowed ground to those who lost loved ones there on 9-11. Many of these mourners erroneously associate their loss with Islam, not with the group of politically driven insurgents who carry out their own agendas in the name of Islam. Islamaphobists prey on this misunderstanding, and have no quarrel with the distortion of truth.

Thus, politicians who opposed the new center proclaimed their opposition to "the construction of a mosque at Ground Zero," and repeatedly referred to "the mosque at Ground Zero." Of course, no such mosque was planned at that emotionally-charged location. When politics is heated over the fires of prejudice, who gives a damn about truth?

Moreover, critics of the planned center don't care to ackowledge that two mosques already exist in the area, as do strip joints and a betting shop. New York, New York!


The proposed new center will succeed a former outlet of Burlington Coat Factory, a clothing store that sells "brand name” products at bargain prices, some distance removed from Ground Zero. The new structure will replace an Italian-style building said to date back to the 1850s. An attempt to have the building classified as a historic site, which would have ended the community center project, failed.

The center is expected to include "a 500-seat auditorium, theater, performing arts center, fitness center, swimming pool, basketball court, childcare area, bookstore, culinary school, art studio, food court, September 11 memorial, and prayer space that could accommodate 1,000-2,000 people." All this is expected to cost some $100 million.

Although plans for the center have been in the public domain for over a year, attacks against its construction became noisier and nastier as the campaign for the mid-term congressional (Senate and House of Representatives) elections scheduled for November moved forward.

Among those who roiled the discussion were Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, and Mitt Romney. All of them are expected to enter the Republican primaries preceding the next presidential election.


Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf who heads the religious group associated with plans for the new center has worked closely with the U.S. establishment, including law enforcement, to improve inter-faith understanding.

Ironically, when the angry attacks on plans for the new center were in full spate within the U.S., he was on a tour of the Middle East, explaining the facts of American diversity to Muslim audiences. He undertook this mission at the behest of the U.S. Department of State.

He has said that if he realised that plans for the new center to be constructed at the Burlington Coat Factory site would turn out to be so divisive he would have chosen another location, and has undertaken to work at resolving the issues that have emerged.

Presumably, this will be done without further exacerbating existing tensions both here and abroad. For instance, a rush to relocate the center would most likely be misinterpreted, perhaps deliberately, as a surrender to Islamaphobia.


Meanwhile, as the controversy wore on, the second of the developments mentioned earlier hit the headlines in Gainesville, Florida better known as the original home of Gatorade, the energy-drink for athletes, than for religious conflict.

Pastor Terry Jones who leads his own parish (the Dove World Outreach Center) in Gainesville, and has a furniture business on the side, called for an "international” day of Koran Burning on 9-11. How "international" the event would be was moot. Depending on who is counting, the parish has either 50 or 30 members.

Jones said that the scriptural bonfire would expose Islam as a "violent and oppressive religion.” Many observers felt that the unholy burning of a holy book would be a "violent and oppressive” act.

Jones has also been quoted as saying that he was following God’s direction. He last received instructions from what has to be a celestial hot line in 1982 when he set up the Christian Community of Cologne, Germany in response to "a sign from God.”

A different kind of signal was sent out by current leaders of the church in Cologne when they heard of the Jones Plan in Gainesville. "We distance ourselves from this plan of his and don't want to be seen to have anything to do with it. We are as shocked as anybody else. This has nothing to do with out beliefs,” Stephen Baar, the deputy leader of the Cologne group told London’s Guardian.


Undeterred, Jones continued with his plans, in spite of warnings from the White House, the military and others, that his proposed bonfire would provoke attacks on U.S. troops, would destroy diplomatic dealings between the U.S. and Muslim countries, and would serve as a "recruiting tool" for al Qaeda.

It was only after Secretary Gates talked to Jones that he began back pedaling and eventually backed off, again on the understanding that he had received his instructions on that old hot line.

Note though, that the appeals to Jones were based on the possible repercussions his incendiary act would have on American interests and policies abroad, not on its inherent ugliness and its incompatibility with the nation's founding values.

Only a single admonition was based on its innate offensiveness. That came from P. J. Crowley, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, who spoke out against Jones's proposed action with clarity and, in responding to a question at the daily State Department media briefing, said that what Jones planned to do was un-American.

This is not a word that is in much use today because it evokes bitter memories of McCarthyism. Crowley was principled and adamant about his choice of the word.

He explained: "Let me define what I meant by this. We have a tremendous tradition of religious tolerance in this country. We believe that the potential act of burning a Koran shows enormous disrespect to one of the world’s great religions. It is contrary to our values. It’s contrary to how civil society has emerged in this country. It is un-American in the sense that it does not represent the views of the vast majority of Americans who are respectful of religions -- of the world’s great religions.

So while it may well be within someone's rights to take this action, we believe and hope that cooler heads will prevail and other ways can be found to promote a dialogue among the world’s greatest religions, which is what we have been trying to do here within this country and within this Department since 9/11."


In a world of sound bites and instant communication, stridence often tends to dominate public discourse. Better informed and more reasonable and reasoning voices tend to be shouted down or ignored.

Eugene Robinson, the award-winning author, columnist, and associate editor of the Washington Post, points out that so much of the recent Islamaphobia consisted of "lies, distortions, jingoism, and xenophobia." True. That does not, however, prevent the public media, "old" and "new", from taking these claims however false they might be to the four corners of the country -- and well beyond.

The result, frequently, is that the existence of viewpoints other than those of the loud-mouthed is barely known. To concede this point is not to argue that "strident is better."

In fact, it is useful to remember that despite the loudness and foulness of recent Islamaphobic rhetoric, much of the push back against ignorance and intolerance has been effective though less than strident.

For instance, there is a widely accepted notion here that the most successful intervention throughout this period was a brief phone call from Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates to Gainesville's Jones.

Whatever was said during that conversation remains, up to now, between them and their confidantes. Yet, the assumption is that Gates's quiet persuasion/diplomacy/admonition/threat actually worked.

There are more ways than one of resisting offensiveness.