Friday, October 22, 2010

Ground Zero and the leap of illogic

Oct 22, 2010

By Timothy Garton Ash

LAST Friday, in New York, I discovered a strip club near the site of the planned Islamic centre, described by its opponents as 'the mosque at Ground Zero'. As pole dancers gyrated with all the sizzling eroticism of a weary Walmart checkout assistant at the end of a long shift, I asked the burly front-of-house man - Scott, from Brooklyn - whether they had faced any protests about this profanation of hallowed ground. Had any Fox News commentators, for example, been beating an angry path to their door? Well, he replied, one or two passers-by had raised objections since the controversy erupted about the Islamic centre. 'People are entitled to their opinions,' said Scott, but the New York Dolls Gentlemen's Club had been here for 30 years and the folk working in it had to make a living.

Now a strip club at the memorial site of the worst terrorist atrocity on American soil would truly be a profanation. Though obviously not comparable to a strip club, planting a large new mosque directly on that site would nonetheless show an acute lack of sensitivity. Nine years on, the place where the twin towers stood is still a building site, but in a nearby exhibition you can see the plans for a commemorative ensemble of pools, trees and a museum, as well as a soaring new 'freedom tower'. As at the horror sites of Auschwitz, Katyn, Hiroshima or Ypres, so in the footprint of the World Trade Center, historical tact and commemorative mission should override all other considerations.

But here's the point: the strip club in Murray Street is not 'at Ground Zero' any more than the site of the planned Islamic centre, a former Burlington coat factory in Park Place, is 'at Ground Zero'. They are, respectively, three and two blocks away. Neither would be visible from the World Trade Center memorial site, which may in some important if secular sense be considered 'hallowed ground'.

In New York, two blocks is a country mile. By the time you get to Park Place, there is no doubt that you are already somewhere else, amid the city's habitual hugger-mugger craziness, with the Amish Market on the corner selling Amish BBQ chicken, Amish fettucine and Amish sushi - all of them as authentically Amish as I am Chinese.

Then the critics of the proposed centre in Park Place - sorry, 'Ground Zero Mega Mosque' - go on about dubious sources of funding and suspect statements by its principal protagonist, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. And so, they say, it should be built farther away.

The leap of illogic is as big as any leap of faith. Were the centre to have terrorist sources of finance, or radical, bloodthirsty Islamist leadership, it should be stopped anyway, whether it is two blocks away from Ground Zero or 200.

In the event, these claims, too, turn out to be twisted, or absurdly thin. Anti-Islam blogger Pamela Geller, for example, has a characteristic rant on her website, arguing that Imam Rauf was associated with a Malaysian peace group which funded the Gaza aid flotilla. Her headline: 'Ground Zero Imam Rauf's 'Charity' Funded Genocide Mission'.

The Daily Show's Jon Stewart did a fine riff on this kind of guilt by association, pointing out that the second-largest shareholder in Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which owns Fox News, is Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who is associated with the Carlyle Group, which has done business with the bin Laden family, 'one of whose sons - obviously I'm not going to say which one - may be anti-American'.

In a clumsy, provocative comment during a television discussion soon after the Sept 11 attacks, Imam Rauf said that US policies had been 'an accessory to the crime that happened' and that Osama bin Laden was 'made in the USA'. That was wrong, and offensive. But it has to be put against the rest of his words and deeds, which have been devoted to promoting a gentle Sufi version of Islam compatible with a free society.

I'm not a huge fan of his kind of inter-faith waffle, but if the Muslim world were comprised entirely of Raufs, we would not have the problems we face today - and there would have been no Sept 11 attacks. That is why the State Department has been funding him to travel round the Middle East explaining American Islam.

There is, therefore, no reasonable objection to this Islamic centre, with its stated mission to promote peace, love, inter-faith dialogue and swimming, being built in Park Place. Yet in the run-up to the US mid-term elections on Nov 2, senior politicians, pundits and even supposed opponents of religious discrimination are either condemning it or ducking out with weasel words.

Mr Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, denounced the scheme, saying 'Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington'. Fox News star Bill O'Reilly says it should not be built because 'Muslims killed us on 9/11'. Former Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin famously tweeted 'Peaceful Muslims, please refudiate (sic)'. Facing a tough re-election race, even Senator Harry Reid, the Democrat majority leader in the Senate, distanced himself from President Barack Obama's cautious endorsement of Muslims' constitutional right to build the centre.

Most grotesquely, Mr Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League insists it should be moved. Talking of the relatives of Sept 11 victims who oppose it (though some other relatives support it), Mr Foxman says 'their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorise as irrational or bigoted'. An organisation established to combat bigotry thus comes out in defence of... bigotry. And the upshot of all this is that in a Pew poll this August, 51 per cent of Americans asked said they opposed the building of the centre near the World Trade Center site.

There is now no good way forward. If it goes ahead, it will be a constant bone of contention. If it is moved, more Muslims will believe radical Islamists when they say 'You see, we told you so: America is Islamophobic'.

Either way, America is doing something extremely stupid. As if it did not have enough problems of its own, it is conspiring to give itself a problem which, up to now, it has not had - or at least, has had much less than most European countries.

Yes, there have been a few home-grown American jihadists, but there is a lot of evidence that American Muslims are generally better integrated, and more supportive of the state in which they live, than most of their European counterparts. There are several reasons for this, but one of the biggest is the First Amendment tradition of free speech and freedom of religion which is now at issue in those blocks just up the road from, but not at, Ground Zero.

That great tradition - which Scott, the doorman at 'New York Dolls', seems to have understood better than Mr Foxman, Mr Gingrich or Mr Reid - says: This is America, where Geller can rant, strippers can grind, Christians, Jews and Muslims can pray - and Stewart can make fun of them all. This is America, where no one has the right not to be offended.

For God's sake, America, don't catch the European disease.

The writer is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.


StephenWV said...

The entire City of New York is hallowed ground.
The building at the Manhattan site 2 blocks away was hit by the landing gear of one of the planes. Nice alternative site chosen.

Don't wait too long to realize building a religious shrine on hollowed ground of a vanquished enemy is what we are witnessing. Perception is reality. On both sides.

After 9/11 Bush did a commendable job of blaming the terror groups NOT the Muslim people or religion. Americans responded with compassion for the people and the religion and hatred for the terror groups.

The Muslim world is well aware that the mosque represents victory over a vanquished enemy.

The Muslim leadership is well aware that the proposal to build this mosque will create anger and hatred among Americans. They WANT that. They are doing this DELIBERATELY for Propaganda!

What better way to force Americans to open old wounds and create hatred toward Muslims than playing the mosque card.

The propaganda the Muslims will advance to the world is their innocence in only wanting to build a community center, how bigoted and intolerant America really is, and proof of the real agenda of America's war on Muslims.

The propaganda will attempt to rally all Muslims to unity against America.

Inciting to riot is what they are really doing. Americans to riot against the Mosque and Muslims to riot against Americans.

There are laws against inciting to riot. Enforce the laws.

I would expect hateful groups like the Aryan Brotherhood to threaten to build a shrine at the Oklahoma bombing site to create the obvious hateful outrage that would result and exposure for their cause that would engender support and respect by their followers. Of course there are no real moderates that would do something that evil.

Yet we are told that those that are proposing this are moderates.

.Are those that make this proposal moderates!???!! And why do the liberal media and politicians want this??!!!

It is easy to argue against, spin, and deny all of the above, but reality is reality.

El Lobo Loco said...


You mentioned propaganda in your comment. Propaganda is described as communication intended to pursue an agenda or cause.

It has been months since the initial question of "should a Mosque be built on ground zero" was asked. By now, it should be clear that it is not a mosque but closer to a community centre like the YMCA, and it is not AT ground zero but 2, 3 blocks from it.

Now you extend hallowed ground to ALL of NYC. Does this mean that no mosque can be built in NYC, hallowed ground, then? Sorry to disappoint you (or give you something else to do) but there are already at least two mosques (not islamic community centre!) in NYC.

The rest of your comment is speculation (riots), and convoluted logic (It is Muslim propaganda to show that America is bigoted and intolerant so America should act bigoted and intolerant by disallowing the building of thie "mosque"!), and insoncistency ("Perception is reality." at the start, then "reality is reality" at the end).

The worst thing America and Americans can do is to sell out your principles because of "perception". Perception is the interpretation of facts and information.

Principles are what people strive to live up to. Abandoning principles out of fear is cowardice. And if you act out of fear, the terrorists have won.

And the principles that should guide American choices now are as relevant as when the First Amendment was written. I quote from the link below:

The First Amendment was not written just to protect popular, mainstream religions. It was added precisely for situations like this — to protect controversial and even reviled religions from suppression by majoritarian mobs and persecution by the government.

But, while I think this is fear-mongering and beating the war drums for political advantage, ultimately, this is a domestic issue. More specifically, it is a land use issue. So let the residents of Manhattan, NYC decide. They have to live with their choices. I think the voice of a metropolitan New Yorker should count more than the voice of an intolerant, ignorant, politicking Alaskan.

How often do Sarah Palin, or any of these other talking heads (or me, for that matter) find ourselves strolling around the lower Manhattan area? So what do I care if in one of those buildings is a mosque and Islamic cultural center? The zoning approval for such a center should be subject to the same approval process as anything similar in New York City, and those are subject to the relevant laws and ultimately the voters of New York City and the state. The rest of us should just butt out.