Building a Straw Mosque

I know the bizarre controversy about the Islamic community center planned in New York City a few blocks from the site once occupied by the World Trade Center has been going on for a while, but I haven’t said anything before now because I’ve been so utterly baffled about the whole thing that words have simply escaped me. Imagine me reading article after article, staring open-mouthed at my computer screen (possibly with a little dangling string of drool depending on how late the hour is) and that’s about right. I’m basically stunned, confused, and filled with the need to plant my face in my palm, repeatedly.

I would like to note one thing. I don’t personally know anyone who was even injured on 9/11/2001. I’ve never even been to New York City. So I can’t really imagine the pain or anguish that is felt by someone every day when they get up and touch a hole that will permanently be in their life, or look at a scar that still sits in the middle of their city. I don’t want to insult or belittle that.

But I also think that grief and tragedy, personal or otherwise, should not dictate what rights someone is allowed to have, or how the law should be applied.

Go back to the first paragraph I wrote. Note that I said “Islamic community center” rather than “mosque.” Note that I said “the site once occupied by the World Trade Center” rather than “Ground Zero.” The words I used aren’t very emotionally charged, at least not unless you have a knee-jerk hate for all things Muslim, in which case I feel sorry for you. And particularly in the case of using “Islamic community center” instead of “mosque,” the less emotionally charged phrase is more accurate. If there is a mosque (and I’ve seen some disagreement on if it’s a mosque or if it’s “worship space,” whatever that means), it’s just a part of a community center that also includes basketball courts.

Word choice can have a lot of meaning. Some of this word choice might be shorthand to save time. But I kind of doubt that. I think there’s been a very deliberate decision to use the most inflammatory, emotional language possible. So “Islamic community center a few blocks away from the WTC site” has been replaced with “Ground Zero Mosque.” And I hope we all know what it’s called when you misrepresent something to weaken it, then argue against the misrepresentation.

It doesn’t necessarily bother me in principle that people are talking about this. There are a lot of times when the rights guaranteed in the Constitution end up resulting in things that make us personally squirm or feel angry – I’m thinking Fred Phelps and his gang, here, or the KKK having a rally on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday – there are plenty of things to take your pick from. Most of the time it ends up at “Well, I don’t like it, but I’ve got to defend the right to do it.”

What does bother me, however, is that this debate is being built on top of a straw man – or a straw mosque as the case may be. And what bothers me even more is that this straw mosque is being used as a kind of dog whistle to call up resentment against American (and non-American) Muslims in general.

I haven’t had much nice to say about President George W. Bush in a long time. But I will compliment him on one thing at least – after 9/11, the man did his level best to strongly separate the terrorists from regular Muslims, both at home and abroad. And people from his administration are trying to defend the Islamic community center now. Too bad it doesn’t seem to be working any longer.

Maybe it’s because it’s an election year, and some of the politics have gone past the point of disturbing and pear-shaped to just horrifying. (I’m looking at you, Sharron Angle.) I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that American Muslims and their community center are being used as a political football. But I sure am disgusted, and more than a little worried that this could get escalated to a truly awful level.

Since it isn’t just the community center in New York:

In Murfreesboro, Tenn., Republican candidates have denounced plans for a large Muslim center proposed near a subdivision, and hundreds of protesters have turned out for a march and a county meeting.

In late June, in Temecula, Calif., members of a local Tea Party group took dogs and picket signs to Friday prayers at a mosque that is seeking to build a new worship center on a vacant lot nearby.

How lovely.

“A mosque is not just a place for worship,” Ms. Darwish said in an interview. “It’s a place where war is started, where commandments to do jihad start, where incitements against non-Muslims occur. It’s a place where ammunition was stored.”

So we should trample one of the most important rights, the right to freedom of religion, because in the past, in other places, mosques have been used to commission violence and incite hatred. I wonder if this means that we ought to be protesting proposed Catholic churches, because they’re hotbeds of pedophilia. Or protesting proposed Southern Baptist churches because they encourage the murder of doctors and incite hatred against homosexuals.

Of course we wouldn’t. Because this is America, damnit. Because Americans are Catholic and Southern Baptist and Lutheran and Jewish and Atheist and Buddhist, and we have rights and freedoms, one of which is the ability to continue to believe or not as we see fit even if there was once a giant, murderous space bastard with facial hair you could hide a cute mammal in who claimed to have the same belief system as us.

Oh yeah. And Americans are Muslim, too.

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