High horse at Ground Zero

SlightContradictionGiven that 30 Rock has cemented its place as a critical darling*, I imagine this joke from last week’s episode was rather cutting:

Jenna: You’ve got to lie to her, coddle her, protect her from the real world.

Jack: I get it. Treat her like the New York Times treats its readers.

I didn’t expect to revisit the Islam vs. the West issue so soon, but it along comes the New York Times right on cue trying to protect its readers from the complexities of the real world.

But before I can get into discussing what’s wrong with wrong with “Muslim Prayers and Renewal Near Ground Zero” — let it be said that the most of the occupants of the Times newsroom really do know how to write. Here’s the lede:

On that still-quiet Tuesday morning, the sales staff was in a basement room eating breakfast, waiting to open the doors to the first shoppers at 10 a.m.

There was no immediate sign of the fiery cataclysm that erupted overhead starting at 8:46. But out of a baby-blue sky suddenly stained with smoke, a plane’s landing-gear assembly the size of a World War II torpedo crashed through the roof and down through two empty selling floors of the Burlington Coat Factory.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attack killed 2,752 people downtown and doomed the five-story building at 45 Park Place, two blocks north of the World Trade Center, keeping it abandoned for eight years.

But for months now, out of the public eye, an iron gate rises every Friday afternoon, and with the outside rumblings of construction at ground zero as a backdrop, hundreds of Muslims crowd inside, facing Mecca in prayer and listening to their imam read in Arabic from the Koran.

The building has no sign that hints at its use as a Muslim prayer space, but these modest beginnings point to a far grander vision: an Islamic center near the city’s most hallowed piece of land that would stand as one of ground zero’s more unexpected and striking neighbors.

The article goes on to discuss how Sufi Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is leading the drive to build the Islamic center because it “sends the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11″ and further quotes Faisal saying, “We want to push back against the extremists.” The article notes that FBI has praised Faisal for helping the law enforcement agency in its Muslim outreach. As far as Muslim leaders go, Imam Faisal seems like a relatively decent guy and I’m all for giving moderate, tolerant Muslims their due so media attention isn’t relentlessly focused on Islamic extremism.

But the article sort of unravels at the end. Here are the last two grafs:

Joy Levitt, executive director of the Jewish Community Center, said the group would be proud to be a model for Imam Feisal at ground zero. “For the J.C.C. to have partners in the Muslim community that share our vision of pluralism and tolerance would be great,” she said.

Mr. El-Gamal agreed. “What happened that day,” he said, “was not Islam.”

Despite the article being exceptionally well-written for the most part, it seems rather clumsy at the end. Would the Jewish Community Center agree that what happened on September 11 was not influenced by Islam? I highly doubt it.

And while that quote about September 11 not being Islam makes for a nice pat ending in keeping with the article’s emphasis on “renewal” — should an assertion like that really be let to stand without being challenged?

conflictFor instance, I did a bit of quick Googling and found this article about Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf from the Sydney Morning Herald:

“The Islamic method of waging war is not to kill innocent civilians. But it was Christians in World War II who bombed civilians in Dresden and Hiroshima, neither of which were military targets.”

Imam Feisal said the bombing in Madrid had made his message more urgent. He said there was an endless supply of angry young Muslim rebels prepared to die for their cause and there was no sign of the attacks ending unless there was a fundamental change in the world.

Imam Feisal, who argues for a Western style of Islam that promotes democracy and tolerance, said there could be little progress until the US acknowledged backing dictators and the US President gave an “America Culpa” speech to the Muslim world.

Whatever good Feisal may be doing, his views appear to be a lot more complex than the relentlessly upbeat and uncritical Times story would have you believe. Feisal’s comments here are kind of disingenuous and ahistorical; however controversial Hiroshima and Dresden might have been — it’s pretty hard to argue these regrettable episodes were motivated primarily by explicitly Christian impulses given all of the secular political baggage of World War II. And even if you do consider them atrocities, whatever American wrongdoing was committed here still has to be weighed relative to the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Now let’s talk about the Islamic method of waging war. “The Mohammedan conquest of India,” wrote historian Will Durant in The Story of Civilization, “was probably the bloodiest story in history.” The 12th Century conflict was driven pretty explicitly by a desire to spread Islam, killed some 80 million Hindus — much of which amounted to the wholesale slaughter of innocents, and had zero to do with the pernicious influence of the West that Feisal claims is somehow responsible for turning what would otherwise be peaceful Muslims violent. Is this also not Islam? Obviously, I’m not saying Islam has to be inherently violent or the West hasn’t wronged Muslims, but would be nice if the story spoke honestly about what can be done to ease tensions between Muslims and the West without uncritically included double talk about the moral superiority of one religion.

Times reporters Ralph Blumenthal and Sharaf Mowjood really should have probably asked some more complex questions about what is motivating the construction of prayer center — but instead were too willing to buy into the symbolism of the story and take a lot of platitudes about tolerance from Imam Feisal and his associates at face value. While the development of Imam Feisal’s prayer center near Ground Zero may be encouraging on some level, the reality of the story is much more complex and less reassuring than the Times would have you believe.

*I swear I wrote this a few days ago, before I was mentioned by name on last night’s 30 Rock. Still have no idea why or how that happened, but can’t complain about being a pop culture reference.

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  • http://forgottencenotaph.blogspot.com J. Lahondere

    I am going to be frankly honest here: the thought of Ground Zero in Manhattan as some kind of Islamic epicenter was kind of disturbing to me.

    I’m Mormon. If there was a place where a group of extremist Mormons massacred thousands of innocent people in the name of our religion, I would feel it extremely inappropriate for members of my church to congregate there. That’s just my opinion.

  • Dave G.

    It may not have been negligence. First, it isn’t like seeing America as the villain of history (second place villain, Nazi Germany being number one) is unique to Islam, or that linking Hiroshima or Auschwitz to Christianity is some weird view that only a Muslim Imam could hold. If that’s the case, I must have had a lot of Muslim Imams for professors in my undergrad days. The writers of the NYT article may see nothing at all contrary to what Feisal said and how he is presented. So why delve? That’s a take that many, many in America and the West share.

    Plus, many are likewise unaware of the history of Islam – one way or another. As such, many probably have no clue about anything bad that happened outside of Christian Crusaders strolling into the Holy Land to pillage, rape, and murder Muslims.

    So I can see, from the outside looking in, how the NYT missed some important details by a mile. But it may be because, if you as a reporter think something is true, would you bother delving yourself? Who knows? Perhaps they did check things out, and it all made sense. I don’t know.

  • Ben

    J says:

    I’m Mormon. If there was a place where a group of extremist Mormons massacred thousands of innocent people in the name of our religion, I would feel it extremely inappropriate for members of my church to congregate there. That’s just my opinion.

    You mean like this:
    Okay, it wasn’t quite thousands, but…

  • Jerry

    Now let’s talk about the Islamic method of waging war.

    (rant on) Let’s talk about the Christian way of waging war on civilians (WWI, WWII) or the Christian genocide of the Native Americans. After all, fair is fair.(rant off)

    As someone pointed out recently, the fight today is between pluralism and fanaticism; between the future and the past. Those who have a forward-looking pluralistic view of humanity are in step with root American ideals. We need to defeat the backward-looking fanatics, no matter what religion they claim.

  • http://forgottencenotaph.blogspot.com J. Lahondere

    How did I know someone would bring up the Mountain Meadows Massacre?

    But yes, this is kind of what I meant. Like you said, it wasn’t thousands of people killed, but innocent people died nonetheless. And while I (or most LDS people) do not excuse the actions of those who hurt or killed others, I will say the circumstances of what happened there are very different from the terrorist act of 2001.

    I also think holding a ceremony 150 years after the fact is kind of different, too. Even 150 years later, I feel it would be strange if we were to build a temple or something similar on the site of the massacre.

    As far as I know, Islam doesn’t have one unifying body of leadership, but if they did I’d see nothing wrong with them holding a ceremony like the one mentioned in 150 years. In fact, I’d be interested to read the opinions of some scholars of Islam on the events of 9/11 (even though I understand that those terrorists were not representative of most Muslims).

    I understand the need for healing and reconciliation, but some distance can also be necessary for the healing process.

  • http://tfhgodtalk.blogspot.com Jeff H

    1. Here’s a key question that also seems to have been missed: What are the Muslims praying for? All prayer is not created equal. Are they praying for more of the same in terms of aggressive Muslim expression? If so, the presence and proximity of this prayer space is doubly disturbing.

    2. What seems to be missed by Islamic extremists–and reports and analysts who don’t press the issue with them–is that the US does not now and never has functioned as a theocracy. Individual Christians may have been among those who bombed the Japanese cities, but this was not a “Christian action” (in the political sense, certainly, but also, perhaps, in the theological sense). What permits the presence of Islamic gatherings in the US is our pluralistic nature, something you will not find in the many Muslim nations that are both religiously and governmentally so–that is, in those nations that are what the US is not.

  • Peter

    While the development of Imam Feisal’s prayer center near Ground Zero may be encouraging on some level, the reality of the story is much more complex and less reassuring than the Times would have you believe.

    According to whom?

  • Dave G.

    Let’s talk about the Christian way of waging war on civilians (WWI, WWII) or the Christian genocide of the Native Americans. After all, fair is fair?

    Point being, why did the journalist miss the Imam’s rather one-dimensional take on history when he’s being presented as a messenger of peace. And yes, WWI or WWII being seen as an exercise of Christian discipleship is nothing other than a one-dimensional view. So why not bring it up, or allow it to inform the take of the story? There’s the question.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Hey, why didn’t you include a link to your moment of fame on 30 Rock last night?


  • michael

    Dave G,

    I sure don’t want to spare Christians of their culpability in bringing about the first and second World Wars; secular Europe is Christendom’s failure after all, but it seems to me that you’re missing a pretty important distinction between things people who may happen to be Christian (and that’s a big ‘may’) do qua Christian or qua American, British, German, whatever, and things that people may be claiming to do qua Islam. Not to mention the fact that you’re ignoring some pretty big historical factors like, oh, the Protestant Reformation, the rise of the secular nation-state, the advent of national socialism and so on.

  • Dave G.


    I didn’t delve into the depth of a historical thesis on the subject because this is not a site for such a thing. I merely pointed out that there are many who take rather sweeping interpretations of history: Christianity caused WWII, atheism caused WWII, Islam caused, well, anything other than WWII that was bad (or any of these caused nothing at all, depending on an individual’s POV). The Imam Feisal seemed, at least in the quote, to be equating some of the meaner parts of the World Wars and Christianity pretty loosely. The question was, why the journalists didn’t delve into just what this Imam was all about. My question was, if the journalists, perhaps, held a similar view, why would they delve? It may make perfect sense to them. That’s all. Believe me, much could be written on how modern Western historians look back at their own heritage. The theories of historical studies. Various models for understanding and studying history. Trying to understand and acknowledge the complexities of the various issues mentioned. But if the Imam appeared to prefer a quick, simplified ‘They Did It’ approach, and questions were posed about the journalists missing that point, I merely nod to the fact that there are many who see history that way. Perhaps the journalists thought nothing of it. The rest can be reserved for other sites dealing with the study of history proper.

  • blestou

    perhaps the journalists thought nothing of it

    That’s the problem.

  • Dave

    Thorough delving into these remarks would have entail at least a review of history of the Western world since the great schism. Not easy to do up against a word limit and a deadline.

  • Julia

    Where’s the mention of the Battle of Lepanto or the battle at the gates of Vienna or Charlemaign and El Cid battling the invading Muslims in the Pyranees?

  • Julia

    Or the Byzantine emperor writing to the Pope asking the West to help fend off the attacking Muslims and to make it safe again for Christians to resume their centuries-long practice of pilgrimages to Jerusalem?

  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com Karen Vaughan

    I think the point of the Iman’s mention of those failings of the west was to point out that they didn’t represent Christianity any more than the 9/11 attacks represented Islam. In other words, if you think the attackers are commiting blasphemy, then you don’t think they represent your religion. Kind of what I think about the Westboro Baptists when they were out demonstrating in front of the synagogue across the street from me this summer.

    Lord knows our scriptures contain their bloody counterparts and can and have been used (badly IMHO) to justify all kinds of wars, the conquest of Native American lands, even the Inquisition.

    Jeff, didn’t you read the article? What they are praying for is peace, to send “the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11” and as Faisal says, “We want to push back against the extremists.” In other words to be a witness against the misapplication or blasphemy of their religion.

    I think it is important for the religious of any faith, to wage prayer in sites where our religion has been blasphemed by misinterpretation. I think the writer of the article covers this.

    As a New Yorker who spends much of my time caring for 9/11 victims and rescue workers, this prayer center does not offend me in the least. It might be a dangerous location, but it speaks to me of responsibility of the faithful.