Racism at centre of 9/11 mosque dispute

  • September 1, 2010
The bitter controversy raging in the United States over the proposed mosque near New York’s World Trade Centre site has exposed a dark, durable stain on American public life. It’s racism of the old-fashioned, virulent kind, blurring distinctions, stereotyping the hated and feared “Other,” radically threatening the discipline and tolerance necessary to make a multicultural society work.

This sorry state of affairs began, you may recall, some weeks ago, when an Islamic group in New York City announced plans to build a $100-million, 13-storey mosque and cultural centre on private property two blocks from the site of the 9/11 terrorist assault. Though the question of whether the scheme should go ahead lay solely in the hands of Manhattan planning and land-use authorities, it became a passionate national issue after being taken up by vociferous right-wing talk radio hosts, Republican politicians and celebrity darlings of the right such as Sarah Palin.

The argument put forward by these pundits has nothing to do with law, since the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, including religious expression and the building of places of worship on private property, to all citizens. Rather, the line of reasoning, if it can be called that, takes the following tortuous course: The perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks did their evil deeds in the name of Islam; therefore the very presence of anything Muslim near Ground Zero is an affront to the memory of the victims and to their families.

By this logic, a church should never be constructed near the place where an abortionist was gunned down by an extremist acting in the name of Christianity.

Of course, the latter instance would never come up, since most Americans know that Christianity (whatever else they may think or know about it) does not licence murder. In the view of an increasing number of Americans, on the other hand, Islam is an ideology that enshrines murder as an acceptable religious and political weapon. Anyone who knows Muslims personally or Islam beyond what they hear on talk radio — polls suggest the vast majority of Americans do not — is aware of the dangerous generalization embodied in this belief.

But this is the way racism always works: by isolating and demonizing the “Other,” branding all as criminals for the crimes of the few, by taking indiscriminate revenge for those crimes on whole religious or ethnic communities.

Christians must bear some responsibility for this turn of events. Most Americans still identify themselves as Christians, yet 70 per cent of Americans have expressed their agreement with the right-wing attempt to squash the mosque at Ground Zero. Many millions of Americans believe, on no evidence whatsoever, that Barack Obama is a Muslim, not the Christian he definitely is. Many millions think the president was not born on American soil, as he surely was — and thereby disqualified by the Constitution from occupying the White House. This is all racism, and demonstrates that the hatred of African-Americans once embodied in American law has not disappeared, but has merely been redirected against Islam and Muslims.

It is time for American Christians, and Canadian Christians as well, to take a deep look at the foundational social teachings of our religion and renounce the world’s divisive, hate-mongering ideology of fear and estrangement.

For Canadians, Christian or other, have no grounds for smugly dismissing the U.S. mosque episode as merely another example of the occasional craziness Americans are inclined to get up to. It is true that the liberal social democracy Canadians enjoy is fairly stable at the present time. The many ethnic groups that make up the Canadian mosaic are getting along well these days, but we must be aware that this pacific situation could change in a heartbeat. All it would take would be an attack on Canadian soil like the 9/11 catastrophe, which so hurt and bewildered Americans, to erase Canadian indifference and turn public attitudes ugly.

But the Ground Zero mosque hullabaloo could turn out to be a blessing after all, if it has the effect of strengthening our Christian commitment to compassion and charity for the strangers, the aliens and the newcomers among us.

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