Friday, June 11, 2010

Religious Tolerance: a New and Fickle American Tradition

This great lede pretty much says it all:
 A church may be a church, and a temple a temple, but through the prism of emotion that still grips many New Yorkers almost a decade after 9/11, a mosque can apparently represent a lot of things. 
Paul Vitello's story in the New York Times about a Staten Island civic association meeting to discuss the proposed conversion of an abandoned convent into a mosque captured a heated and ugly scene. Non-Muslim community members -- from the borough of New York that gave us much of the cast of Jersey Shore, it should be noted -- received the opportunity to interrogate representatives of Islam, who of course were not offered the chance to turn the tables on their Christian and Jewish neighbors. It is up to the ascendant minority religion, after all, to prove its loyalty to the American nation, as it has been since the No-Nothings.

I am personally interested in the ethnic background of the interrogator who asked “Wouldn’t you agree that every terrorist, past and present, has come out of a mosque," given that the largest mass-casualty terrorist act to occur in New York before September 11th was perpetrated by a cell of Italian anarchists. That question aside, can you imagine a fundamentalist Christian or an orthodox Jew being asked whether they could point to any places in their holy books that may be in error in a public meeting about building permits? Or, more accurately, can you imagine hysterical reaction such a question would create among American conservatives? That last one doesn't seem so difficult.

The idea that the United States is a "Judeo-Christian" nation is a concept purchased dearly by the experience of World War II and the Holocaust. Before that, most Americans preferred to think of it simply as a Protestant one. The nation's so-called tradition of "tolerance" shifted slowly from that of merely not locking people were were not members of the Church of England up in the colonial period to accepting the loyalty and moral rectitude of Catholics and Jews much more recently. I wonder if any nativist eyes peered over the gates of this Staten Island convent in the early 20th century and wondered what kinds of rumored sexual depravities were going on inside between the priests and nuns. I guess it's going to take a lot of years of things not blowing up for muslims to enjoy the same proportion of normalcy.

The saddest thing is that the crowd that profiled last night probably didn't think of itself as intolerant. I would have liked Vitello to have stuck around a bit longer and ask what participants though of themselves. The probably just thought they were being careful. But the end of the article demonstrates the limits of cross-cultural "dialogue" when religious ignorance and fear are involved:

The tenor of the inquiry became so fraught that the meeting eventually collapsed in shouting around 11 p.m., prompting the police and security guards to ask everyone to leave.
But just 20 minutes earlier, as Bill Finnegan stood at the microphone, came the meeting’s single moment of hushed silence. Mr. Finnegan said he was a Marine lance corporal, home from Afghanistan, where he had worked as a mediator with warring tribes.
After the sustained standing ovation that followed his introduction, he turned to the Muslims on the panel: “My question to you is, will you work to form a cohesive bond with the people of this community?” The men said yes.
Then he turned to the crowd. “And will you work to form a cohesive bond with these people — your new neighbors?”
The crowd erupted in boos. “No!” someone shouted.
 The tolerance that Americans celebrate as a national value remains a weak one. If it is to really mean what it should, which is the freedom of anyone to celebrate any faith they choose (or to choose no faith at all), assimilation cannot require other minority faiths to prove their worthiness to the dominant Protestant-Catholic-Jew pantheon.

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