The Park51 controversy has brought many dark elements to the fore. To my mind the foremost danger is the mainstreaming of a pernicious partnership between prejudice and politics. Come December, the politicians will abandon the issue and the bigots, strengthened and empowered by their political salience, will continue to spew their venom against the mosque.
But sadly until November, we will be forced to witness an ugly and hateful vulgarity on display, as the GOP uses hate as a political strategy. It is also rather shameful that prominent Democratic leaders like Harry Reid have joined the “I am a bigot now, be sure to vote for me” bandwagon. What is the point of having values, if we will not live up to them, when the polls dip?
President Obama’s downsizing of his moral stand to a politically expedient position was disappointing. It seems that the President’s instinct is to do the right thing and then when he thinks about it for a while, he resorts to political tap dancing. One of the principle elements of his grand strategy was to improve ties with the Muslim World and change America’s perception in the hearts and minds of Muslims. He won on that strategy but is finding it difficult to govern on it. Islamophobia unfortunately has reached its zenith on his watch.
The position that a majority of Americans are taking – we respect their constitutional right to build a mosque, but they should respect our sensibilities not to have anything Muslim at our sacred places – is fascinating. It allows prejudice to prevail while simultaneously alleviating guilt. It is this ethical fiction – this is not about rights but about what is right — that is allowing so many to oppose the project and enabling mainstream politicians to traffic in intolerance.
Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, the principle force behind the center, is a very good example of a moderate Muslim. A leader in interfaith relations and a teacher of tolerance and love, he belongs to the Sufi traditions of Islam for whom the love of God is paramount. He has also worked closely with the U.S. government on projects of citizen diplomacy to build bridges between the U.S. and the Muslim World.
But now his project to build bridges with America has inadvertently become a lightning rod for hatred. If he succeeds in building his center, it will be a triumph for America and its values. But American Muslims will have to pay a big price for it. The American constitution and law is on his side, but the American public opinion is not. As the crisis developed it has become apparent that he has lost public support and now nearly two out of three Americans oppose the location of his center.
To American Muslims in general, it is rather disquieting that so many Americans do not wish to see Islam and its symbols anywhere near what is sacred to America. It is as if Muslims are pushed out of the sacred into an unholy realm. It is frightening that so many Americans are blinded by prejudice and insist on mistaking a bridge for a beachhead.
Perhaps Imam Rauf and his team could have acceded to the demand and agreed to relocate the center. It would have defused the issue and not given Islamophobic crusaders the opportunity to sustain a hateful discourse against Islam and Muslims for such an extended period of time. Imam Rauf’s fight, and it is his right to fight, is however signaling the presence of pride. Even those Americans who do not hold ill will towards Park51 are a bit taken aback by what they see as arrogance and pride on the part of Muslims who insist on building their mosque at the same location despite such overwhelming opposition to it from so many.
The tidal wave of Islamophobia that has been unleashed will not disappear easily or quickly. The anger could manifest in myriad forms of discriminatory behavior towards Muslims. We must not forget that the fundamental reason behind the anger towards the mosque is an inability or an unwillingness to distinguish between ordinary American Muslims and Al Qaeda.
Prejudice is also fungible. Even if it is nurtured only against Muslims, it will turn against every one else eventually. American Muslims and Islamic institutions in this country will suffer the after math of this clash between pride and prejudice, but America too will suffer as forces of intolerance, xenophobia and hate garner nourishment and sustenance from this crisis.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Associate Professor at the University of Delaware and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. His website is www.ijtihad.org.