Monday, August 16, 2010

Making Sense of the "Ground Zero Mosque" Controversy: Religion, Assimilation, Countersubversion

Rather than wading into the question of whether or not the Cordoba House should get its building permit, I want to take a poke at understanding the reaction of those most stridently against its establishment. (Readers can gather from my previous scribblings about mosque construction that I would vote to approve the lower Manhattan project, although - for those who care about my personal opinions - my reaction to the controversy itself is more or less Hitchensesque.)

The most startling part of the Cordoba House controversy is the disproportional quality of conservative opponents' responses. These reactions, of course, were ginned up by the ultra-Right blogosphere and the Murdoch media empire in willful denial of the plain facts that, first, the building will not be a mosque, and second, that there is already a mosque four blocks from the World Trade Center site. Unfortunately, the controversy - now grown to the level of presidential comment - has also distracted from the fact that what's happening in Manhattan is going on all across the country

Some of the over-reaction has to do with conservatives' own view of Christianity. They are the driving force behind the 62 percent of Americans who view the United States as a "Christian Nation." Figures like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich have been just as explicit in their opinions that national identity is wrapped up in Christianity, even if the latter feels no need to live up to his own religiosity in his personal life. While they may accept the principle of tolerance that allows those "peace-loving" muslims that Palin has tweeted about to practice their religion, this religiousized nationalism will always leave the Islamic community at the margins.

But conservatives' perception of Islam itself is much of the problem. The issue runs deeper than their mere ignorance of a major world faith. The understanding of Islam that conservatives are operating from fundamentally denies the possibility of its assimilation into American society. They have assumed this position because they are even more ignorant of the politics and history of Muslim nations than they are of the tenets of the faith. The religion and its affect on politics in many Middle Eastern nations have become inseparable to these conservatives. This is why Gingrich thinks it's relevant to insist that no mosque be built near Ground Zero before Saudi Arabia allows the construction of Christian churches. Islam to him and his conservative supporters is the House of Saud (or Hamas, or Hezbollah.) Despite the counterexamples offered by places like Indonesia, Turkey, and even Syria, Islam is shariah. As one mosque protester told the New York Times, “I do believe everybody has a right to freedom of religion. But Islam is not about a religion. It’s a political government, and it’s 100 percent against our Constitution.”

This view of a monolithic and oppressive ideological enemy of Liberal democratic values is strikingly similar to the way conservatives thought about Communism during the Cold War. The conservative approach to radical Islam broadly, from a declaration of war on the totalitarian ideology of "Islamofascism" to the opposition of cultural centers, is a lingering hangover of this era. Then, conservatives claimed the nation faced subversion by a dedicated minority that was loyal only to an international conspiracy. They argued that Communists simply used American civil liberties to shield their true destructive intent, and therefore deserved no Constitutional protection. Their key to securing the nation at home and abroad was constant exposure of Communists "true intentions" as a monolithic international conspiracy and unending confrontation with its proponents. Rejecting a mosque is to claim its parishioners cannot entirely be trusted and the threat of subversion or terrorism is too great to tolerate. An opponent of a mosque in Murfreesboro told the same Times reporter “A mosque is not just a place for worship. 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.”

Clearly, the exotic nature of Muslim immigrants to what Republicans euphemistically call "Mainstream Americans" exacerbates this overactive countersubversive imagination. The California grandmother the Times quoted worried that the nation will be overtaken by Muslims in the future because of immigrants' high birth rates, an interesting extrapolation because there are more Jehovah's Witnesses and Buddhists in America than Muslims (0.6 percent of the population). And one could argue that Catholics faced a similar conspiratorial barrier in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when more ignorant varieties of Protestants believed Catholic practitioners were loyal only to the Pope.

For those raised at the height of the Cold War, though, the conservative countersubversive imagination is ingrained in a political world view. We simply argue past them when we argue for tolerance. They would rather have the targets of their suspicion "refudiate" on the terms they set and claim represent the rest of us.

Mike Blake/Reuters, via New York Times

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