Drop the preconceptions already (UPDATED)

010914-F-8006R-003 Aerial view Sept. 14, 2001, of the destruction caused when a high-jacked commercial jetliner crashed into the Pentagon on Sept 11th. The terrorist attack caused extensive damage to the Pentagon and followed similar attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. (Department of Defense photo by Tech. Sgt. Cedric H. Rudisill) (Released)

Of all the ridiculous things written about the controversy over the proposed mosque near Ground Zero, one has stood out for me. A couple of weeks ago Salon‘s Justin Elliott asked Why did no one object to the “Pentagon mosque“? He said that “right-wingers have been strangely silent” about Muslims praying in the Pentagon and having their own Muslim chaplain.

The story spread around the Twitterverse with pundits and political journalists retweeting and suggesting hypocrisy. They thought concern over Cordoba but not the Pentagon proved that it was an invented controversy.

Of course, it could have also meant that the vast majority of Americans concerned over the $100 million mosque really were telling the truth when they said they support religious freedom — just question the propriety of a mosque near the site where terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center towers in the name of Islam.

The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, who is a big fan of Cordoba, headlined his piece:

Muslims Infiltrate Pentagon! Judeo-Christian Civilization Collapses

Thanks in part to President Obama, I think that most people now have a clear understanding of the difference between discussing the right of a religious group to do something and the wisdom of doing so. And yet I just saw this Associated Press story about this supposed scandal of an interfaith chapel at the Pentagon. The headline works overtime to drum up some controversy “Muslims pray daily at Pentagon’s 9/11 crash site”:

Americans are debating bitterly the proposed building of a mosque near New York’s ground zero, but for years Muslims have prayed quietly at the Pentagon only 80 feet from where another hijacked jetliner struck.

Pentagon officials say that no one in the military or the families of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has ever protested.

They describe the 100-seat chapel as a peaceful place where some 300 to 400 Pentagon employees come to pray each week. The chapel hosts separate weekly worship services for Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Mormons, Protestants, Catholics and Episcopalians.

The first few versions of this AP story that I read reduced it down to four paragraphs. That just makes the piece even less serious than it is at full length. But the big weakness in the piece, even at full length, is that there is precisely no discussion of why, perhaps, Americans support the chaplain program at the Pentagon while expressing concerns about Cordoba.

I don’t want to put too much on one wire service story. But it did prompt some thoughts about larger media coverage problems. It seems that too many members of the media are unable to loosen their death grip on the idea that bigotry is the sole, or even primary, reason for opposition to this mosque. The sooner they open their minds to the actual arguments of the people (arguments I disagree with, I hasten to add), the better the coverage will be. This Pentagon chapel could have provided an excellent hook for just such a discussion.

UPDATE: Reader kjs notes the addition of two helpful paragraphs at the end of the story:

Abraham Scott, whose wife, Janice, was a civilian Army employee killed at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, said that while he opposes the lower Manhattan mosque, he “can live with” the fact that Muslims pray at a Pentagon chapel.

“It’s not a mosque that’s built specifically for Muslims,” Scott said. “It’s a facility where Muslims can go and pray.”

The two issues — neither of which I oppose — are even more different than that. But still, it’s nice to get at least one additional comment on the matter.

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  • Jeffrey

    It seems that too many members of the media are unable to loosen their death grip on the idea that bigotry is the sole, or even primary, reason for opposition to this mosque. The sooner they open their minds to the actual arguments of the people (arguments I disagree with, I hasten to add), the better the coverage will be.

    Let me play devil’s advocate for a second. How do you know bigotry isn’t the sole or primary opposition to the plan? You say this as it s a fact, yet offer nothing more than your own biases to support it.

    Real evil and intolerance exists. Islamophobia and intolerance of Mulsims really exists in this country. So why must journalists buy into the argument that hate isn’t a primary motivator in the opposition?

    I agree that journalists should help engage all arguments on all sides, but they needn’t bury their heads and act as though everyone is acting in good faith and without animus.

  • Jeffrey

    Let me add that the polling data, as Nate Silver points out, isn’t all that helpful. For the 2/3 who think it is inappropriate, there’s no way to tease out “tolerance” or dislike of Muslims.

    http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2010/08/obama-defense-of-ground-zero-mosque.html

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jeffrey,

    Well, the burden of proof goes the other way, actually. I mean, that’s like saying, “How do I not know that Jeffrey isn’t a Hamas agent?” Hamas really does exist and some people in this country really support that terrorist argument. Why must we not buy into the argument that a vote for Cordoba isn’t primarily based on support for Hamas? It’s ridiculous, right?

    Unless we can read minds and see into people’s hearts, we have to go based on words and actions.

    Anyway, the mainstream arguments I’ve read against the mosque are not bigoted, even if I disagree with them. These mainstream arguments might even acknowledge that some people who oppose the mosque are bigoted. There are bigots everywhere, after all.

    But the arguments against the mosque, be they from ADL, National Review, Muslims themselves, or even polling data — all show tolerance and respect for First Amendment freedoms — but a real concern about propriety.

    That’s not bigotry and the media need to stop responding to legitimate concerns with “Shut up, bigots!”

    That’s just not an appropriate way to engage in civil discussion.

  • Dave

    That’s just not an appropriate way to engage in civil discussion.

    I agree, and I speak as someone who sees virtually wall-to-wall bigotry in this protest. Yes, including the ADL.

    But for this kind of soft-core, violence-free bigoty, “shut up” is not the way to start a conversation. And a conversation there needs to be, because that his how the venom has been withdrawn from past soft-core bigotries we prefer not to dwell upon. Journalism should be starting that conversation, if journalists sincerely believe that the protest is rooted in bigotry.

  • Jeffrey

    That’s not bigotry and the media need to stop responding to legitimate concerns with “Shut up, bigots!”

    Ah, the “how dare you call us bigots” argument, which is really as much of a conversation ender as calling someone a “bigot” (which the AP story didn’t do, btw). But it ignores the fact that, while Mollie may not think the arguments are bigoted, others do. I see a lot of anti-Muslim animus in the comments of the ADL and especially the National Review. The polling data is utterly inconclusive and unhelpful.

    But back to the AP story. I sense you imposed a lot of your own concerns on the story because, beyond the lead which was in search of a hook, the story was a slice of life, there’s a Muslim meeting place at the Pentagon story. It didn’t make any assumptions about opponents, only pointed out an interesting side-note in the larger conversation. Although activists may be trying to make a deal out of the existence of the chapel, the AP didn’t and it’s unfair to heap “how dare you call me a bigot” intentions on it.
    So journalists need not bury their heads and pretend animus isn’t driving some of the argument.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jeffrey,

    If you want to believe that opponents are bigots, that’s your business. But what’s the journalistic case to be made for saying without evidence that 70% of America is driven by bigotry?

  • Jeffrey

    But what’s the journalistic case to be made for saying without evidence that 70% of America is driven by bigotry?

    Since the AP story didn’t say that and no one, besides you and editorialists seem to be saying it, I’m not sure what your point is. You seem to want to have an argument that isn’t occurring beyond the pundit class.

    The AP story doesn’t accuse anyone of being bigots, doesn’t even mention bigotry, nor does it appear to be taking a side in the whole mosque debate. That your colleagues in the pundit class have used the chapel in their arguments doesn’t mean this story is furthering that argument.

  • Bill

    Jeffrey,

    Let’s see… it’s ok to assume bigotry on the opponents’ part, but not ok to wonder if those building the mosque might have motives beyond worship.

    As Mollie has been very careful to point out, there are religious freedom and property rights issues here. But let’s not forget that a subset of Islam, in the name of Islam, has declared war on the West. They’ve blown up airliners and committed other atrocities. They recently murdered 10 Christian missionaries for the crime of spreading Christianity. Is it bigoted to notice that? To report it? To consider the mosque in that context? And is a 100 million mosque and Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero really the same as an interfaith chapel (or even a Muslim prayer room) that has existed for years in the Pentagon?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jeffrey,

    To be clear, I was responding to your comment: “So why must journalists buy into the argument that hate isn’t a primary motivator in the opposition?”

  • Jeffrey

    I guess I’m just confused because you used the AP story to symbolize some hypothetical problem with the media that doesn’t support your assertion.

    And is a 100 million mosque and Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero really the same as an interfaith chapel (or even a Muslim prayer room) that has existed for years in the Pentagon?

    The AP didn’t say it was. That may be an argument taking on someplace, but not in this story

  • Jerry

    A story I just saw provided some facts that I think are important to highlight: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100818/ap_on_go_ot/us_mosque_fact_check

    Rauf counts former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright from the Clinton administration as a friend and appeared at events overseas or meetings in Washington with former President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and Bush adviser Karen Hughes…

    and

    No mosque is going up at ground zero. The center would be established at 45-51 Park Place, just over two blocks from the northern edge of the sprawling, 16-acre World Trade Center site. Its location is roughly half a dozen normal Lower Manhattan blocks from the site of the North Tower, the nearest of the two destroyed in the attacks.

    The center’s location, in a former Burlington Coat Factory store, is already used by the cleric for worship, drawing a spillover from the imam’s former main place for prayers, the al-Farah mosque…

    Another, the Manhattan Mosque, stands five blocks from the northeast corner of the World Trade Center site…

  • Julia

    All this parsing of how far it is from Ground Zero is beside the point. To many people it feels like triumphalism and will certainly be seen that way in those same Muslim areas we saw dancing and singing after the Trade Center Towers went down.

    The Polish nuns convent wasn’t right by the ovens at Auschwitz. It was the building of the convent close to Auschwietz because of what had happened at Auschweitz that caused all the grief in Poland. That’s not the case for either the existing Manhattan Mosque or the inter-faith prayer room at the Pentagon. It is the location that is the reason for the building of this monster-size Muslim Center.

    John Paul II was Polish, he lost friends at Auschweitz and other palces, he himself worked in a labor camp and was in danger of losing his life for his underground activities. BUT he counselled those well-meaning Polish nuns to move their operations.

    What is to be gained by insisting on this and ticking off huge amounts of regular people? Why not take up the offer of the NY governor to build it somewhere else?

    It’s not that it’s Muslim; it’s that the location was specifically chosen to symbolize exactly what? Why would being so “in your face” lead to building bridges?

  • Steve

    As an attorney and Pastor, I feel frustrated in the media’s (sorry Jeffrey, but you as well) lack of understanding of the difference between legal rights and social mores. A clear distinction can be made between acknowledging someone’s right to do something and the wisdom of their actually doing it. President Obama understood this far better than most of the media who reflexively look at everything through a political paradigm. An analogous situation would be when the Carmelite nuns opened a convent near Auschwitz I in 1984 then later moved it. The question was not whether they had the right to be there, but whether it was wise, sensitive and respectful to do so. The question of the Mosque at ground zero is also a question of wisdom and sensitivity, not rights. Many people who grapple with this issue are reflective, not bigoted.

  • Mark

    What constitutes bigotry toward or intolerance of Muslims? If I oppose the Ground Zero mosque because I believe the developers aren’t sensitive, is that sufficient to call me a bigot? If I agree with Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory about the potential incompatibility of Islam and the West is that bigoted? Or, is welcoming the mosque with open arms the only way to escape the tar brush?

  • Peterk

    @Jeffrey “Rauf counts ….” doesn’t prove anything. look at how many Americans are buddy-buds with Castro and Chavez. does that make them decent fellows?

    what people don’t realize is that Jeffrey doesn’t want to have a discussion. he is acting in true internet troll fashion. no matter what you present to refute his point he’ll find same way to say “nuh-unh, not true”

    you’re wasting your time as you won’t ever change his mind. it’s like arguing with the tar baby

  • http://davidgriffey.blogspot.com Dave G.

    Of course, it could have also meant that the vast majority of Americans concerned over the $100 million mosque really were telling the truth when they said they support religious freedom

    Nah.

  • http://davidgriffey.blogspot.com Dave G.

    Islamophobia and intolerance of Mulsims really exists in this country

    I’m sure it does. Just like Christophobia and intolerance of Christians really exists in this country. That’s beside the point. Are the concerns valid or not. That’s the question.

  • Ben

    With some trepidation, I’m going to wade back into this overcharged conversation just to add some info about the people behind the mosque.

    John Pack Lambert mentioned in an earlier thread that Daisy Khan is married to Imam Faisal, and could reporters give some information on this couple. That interested me because Ms. Khan is known for trying to start an effort to create female muftis in order to bring more female-friendly religious rulings within Islam. Basically, this is your “moderate Muslim” that people are skeptical exists.

    Here’s a 2006 CSM story about the effort.

    She gave a 2009 interview where she talks about progress on the effort.

    In a recent interview with Democracy Now, Khan explains the Cordoba effort as an effort to help Americanize the religion (not Islamicize America.)

    The imam comes from the sufi tradition, which the CSM rightly notes, tends to be a tolerant strain of the religion.

    Finally, this whole stop-calling-me-a-bigot and stop-ignoring-the-bigotry debate I don’t think has left anyone enlightened. I know it’s made me wonder if I should stop wasting my time reading GR. How about we get some articles from the GR writers that add some useful facts?

  • Ben

    Maybe I’d dial back that last statement — Mollie’s last article on Cordoba history I thought was great. Helped teach some history.

  • George

    Maybe there’s no point in going back to the original post now, but from a journalistic perspective, the Pentagon chapel seems to offer a wonderful comparison to talk about why Americans don’t mind that, but do mind the Cordoba House. If the concept of Muslim worship per se isn’t the problem (as the Pentagon prayers establishes), that (IMHO) suggests the appropriate response is so ask “what is different about the contexts?” rather than simply yell about hypocrisy.

  • kjs

    Mollie,

    The last 2 paragraphs of the full AP article are as follows:

    Abraham Scott, whose wife, Janice, was a civilian Army employee killed at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, said that while he opposes the lower Manhattan mosque, he “can live with” the fact that Muslims pray at a Pentagon chapel.

    “It’s not a mosque that’s built specifically for Muslims,” Scott said. “It’s a facility where Muslims can go and pray.”

    This doesn’t really do as much as maybe the author should have done; however, it does seem to me to be a small bit of discussion why some Americans (at least one, anyway) oppose the Cordoba House while not opposing Muslim prayer in the Pentagon chapel.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    kjs,

    You’re right. It’s an important addition. I actually wrote this piece before those paragraphs were added last night but I’m glad to see that they were added.

  • http://None Bob Warfield

    Interesting read. I’m one who thinks the islamic center should be built just as the catholic church need not be torn down.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    The fact that this chapel hosts worship services for Christians, Jews, Hindus and such as well as Muslims makes it inherently different than the Park51 project.

    I think the objections to the Park51 project are poorly fought out, but I think the Main Stream Media’s methods of defending it are even more flawed.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    One of the major differences is that by-and-large Muslims in the US military are loyal Americans. We have an all volunteer military, so nut cases like the Fort Hood killer are rare.

    If a Muslim hates the US and thinks we should not be in Afghanistan and Iraq, why would he join the military in the first place?

    Closely connected to this, Muslim chaplains are apointmented in part based on US military supervision. While the loyalties of the Imam of the Park51 mosque are open to discussion, such discussion does not work with the Pentagon issue.

    If there is massive outcry against one thing and no complaints against another, it means that they are inherently different in some ways that those who try to reduce the whole issue to hypocrisy are ignoring.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    Jeffrey,
    The “how dare you call us bigots” is what people say when they realize any real conversation is impossible.
    This country is plagued with impatient maximalists who think they can achieve everything immediately.
    They fail to realize how sich and tired the vast majority of Americans who do not live in lofts and pent-houses are of being called bigots for their moral beliefs, their basic patriotism and everything else that differs than from thsoe culture elites who feel they are their “betters”.


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