Monday, August 16, 2010

Thoughts on The Ground Zero Mosque


Bus Ads running in NYC, questioning the proposed Ground Zero Mosque,
a visual reminder of the polarization discussed below.

Dear Parish Faithful,

At least into the foreseeable future, there will always be a great deal of polarization when assessing the nature of Islam, and the role that Islam and Muslims will assume in the United States. That will be the undying legacy of the infamy of the Muslim terrorist attacks of 9/11. The White House immediately began a campaign of rhetoric following 9/11 that started with former President George Bush who was determined to present "true" Islam as a "religion of peace." That bridge-building campaign probably had an assortment of motives. Perhaps two of many interrelated motives were: 1) to protect innocent Muslims in America from random attacks of retaliation in the immediate post 9/11 environment of fear and rage; and 2) to convince the Islamic world that the United States had no desire to enter into conflict with the voices of moderation that presumably exist within the greater Islamic world.

That same approach has been continued by our current President Barack Obama. The president recently shared his views concerning the proposed Islamic center that would be built just two blocks away from Ground Zero in New York City. This proposal has reinvigorated the simmering polarization mentioned above. For many, the mosque and Islamic complex would reveal the best of America's sense of tolerance and legal fair play; together with American open-mindedness and inclusiveness. For many others, the close proximity of the mosque will be nothing short of an affront to the memory of those who died in the terrorist attacks engineered and planned by Muslims, as Ground Zero has taken on something of the aura of sacred ground. It is also considered to be a "provocation" that common sense dictates against. When carefully articulated, both positions can sound quite convincing. Thus, in addition to the two positions outlined here, there probably exists a large group of Americans who feel torn between these two positions and hence less certain of a definitive stance.

The role of the president, ideally conceived, is to serve as the representative voice of America. That means he want to embody the virtues of American identity at its best, beginning with the noble ideal of being above "partisan politics," and thus affirm his ability to survey the deepest implications of a course of action and its long-term effects on America's commitment to its best ideals and its international image. That ideal was upheld in the president's rather bland statement that, "Muslims have a right to practice their religion as anyone else." In that light, his public comments in favor of the mosque being built near Ground Zero make sense. I am convinced that former President George Bush - or any president for that matter, Democrat or Republican - would have taken the identical stance, whatever their private beliefs or wishes. We have also learned that the President Obama later equivocated by further explaining that his comments were not directed at "the wisdom of such a choice" for the placement of the mosque, but were simply a defense of the Muslim community's "right" to build the mosque where it chooses. That equivocation signaled something of a White House retreat due to the "firestorm" of his initial comments. Political pressure always seems to encroach upon the ideal.

The above is meant to serve as an introduction to a few comments I would like to share concerning the context in which the president's initial comments were made - an iftar dinner at the White House. An iftar dinner, if I understand this correctly, is the dinner that Muslims enjoy following a day-long fast from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan, one of the most sacred times of the year for Muslims. I also learned that former President Bush hosted the same iftar dinner annually (beginning post 9/11?). This is fine. Again, this is the administration's attempt at bridge-building with the Muslim community, together with its assurance that Muslims can take a place within the world of American "religious diversity." My first question is admittedly perhaps a bit superficial, but I wonder if the president hosts a lenten dinner for Christian leaders at the appropriate time of the year? (Let the Orthodox handle the menu for such a lenten dinner!).

What struck me, however, as not only supremely ironic, but as horribly hypocritical, was the make-up of some of the dinner guests before whom he made his comments. I read that there were "representatives" from Saudi Arabia and Indonesia at the iftar dinner, no doubt applauding the president's comments. And I am certain that such representatives had to be invited for political reasons. But, if I am not mistaken, there is not a single church anywhere in Saudi Arabia outside of diplomatic compounds! They are forbidden by intolerant Islamic-generated laws. Saudi Arabia is the home of Wahhabi Islam, a "reformation movement" within Sunni Islam that gained currency in the early 20th c. This is actually an extreme form of Islam that is "hard-core fundamentalist." Again, it is inherently intolerant. There is absolutely no "room" for different religious beliefs or claims to Truth. And though there are churches in Indonesia, Christians there are constantly under siege, persecuted and subject to outbreaks of violence that are conveniently overlooked by the police. I therefore repeat that I detect a definite strain of hypocrisy in the presence of Saudi Arabian and Indonesian "representatives" at a dinner which became the occasion for the president to express America's commitment to toleration and peaceful co-existence. Was the president trying to convey a "lesson" in civil rights to these figures? A more lasting question may be: will American tolerance be eventually emulated as a great national strength; or will it be exploited as a national weakness?

As a footnote, I wanted to share a bit of unpublicized information that I just heard from "a reliable source." The Greek Orthodox church of St. Nicholas - located at Ground Zero - was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. I was told that to this day, bureaucratic obstacles are still preventing the rebuilding of that church, while the newly-proposed mosque has cleared all local ordinances, zoning qualifications, etc. No further comment required.

Fr. Steven

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