Still more confusions about Islam

I think both sides in the Cordoba house initiative debate are further confusing the relevant issues, though I think there are some bright spots. I wanted to get some of them down to debate them with those who are interested (no one really comments on this site though, so…), but also out of self-interest, because I think some of the things are largely confirming my theory (see mainly here) on this whole debate.

First are some good numbers I found (from this WP article).

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that two-thirds of Americans oppose building the Islamic center near the former site of the twin towers. Four in five of those opposed say their opposition is strictly because of the location. But 14 percent of the opponents (or 9 percent of all Americans) say they would oppose building it anywhere in the country.

The Post-ABC News poll found that roughly half the country (49 percent) holds an unfavorable view of Islam, compared with 37 percent who have a favorable view. That is little changed over the past few years but is more negative than eight years ago. In October 2002, 47 percent said they had a favorable view of Islam and 39 percent said they had an unfavorable view.

This is amazing. October 2002! Right after 9/11 more people were favorable toward Muslims than NOW. That’s pretty incredible and I think a very ominous number given that it directly refutes or calls into question the paragraph right before which claims that most people oppose the Cordoba house simply because of its location. Given that anti-Muslim sentiment is at a very high point (as shown by the second paragraph) then we have reason to wonder how many people are being entirely honest when they oppose the Cordoba house for purely “locational” reasons.

So, as I’ve said before, the issue really turns on what the motivations of people really are. I don’t think we should jump to a cynical conclusion about mosque-opposers, and case in point is people like Newt Gingrich who were against the mosque and claimed that it wasn’t racism. People said “I wonder…” but recently he has been one of the nearly unanimous group of voices condemning the proposed book burning in Florida. Now Newt might be dissembling here too, but I think our society’s very strong reaction against the book burning is absolutely warranted and may do a lot to further the coexistence between Muslims and the more entrenched American religions.

That said, here is huge mistake I’ve seen developing in the mainstream news and the blogosphere: Imam Rauf (builder of the Cordoba house) went on Larry King (on Wednesday I believe). On the program he said it was important to build the Cordoba house to prevent radical Muslims from using the incident to bolster beliefs that America is out to get Muslims. In other words, build the mosque to deny propaganda fodder to radicalists across the world. The developing story about this is that his comments were somehow “threatening.” (see here). I think that’s insane. If there are consequences for doing something, anyone should feel free to bring them up. Yes it’s true, Rauf’s observation favors his position, but so what, a smart person will have reasons to support the positions they take. If Gen. Petraeus said “we have to stay in Afghanistan otherwise there will many more deaths there and a Taliban takeover,” would that be a THREAT? No, that would be his candid military advice and any reasonable person should either take this into account or find reason to disagree. JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER DEBATE.

Still though, I think there is reason to doubt Imam Rauf’s point simply on the merits and not because it’s threatening or not. I think he could be very right that how we interact with Islam in the U.S. has consequences for the way radicals gather support (don’t take my word for it. Here’s an educated American Muslim making the same point, and again a silly counter narrative saying that he is being threatening, here). In other words, even if you don’t believe we should not be racist simply because its wrong, you should at least hide your racism so you don’t swell the ranks of extremists. A fine point, but Rauf is wrong to see a link with the Cordoba house, and that’s because building the mosque won’t cause the furor to go away. America ALREADY blew it by getting angry over nothing, and so extremists already have the ammunition they need (if you believe the whole previous point about Islamaphobia bolstering extremism), which is that 2/3 of Americans oppose the mosque for what I think is no good reason. Building the mosque won’t make that go away and in fact, will probably increase that anger, thus feeding the extremist’s point. So, I think Imam Rauf is not being threatening when he says we should build the mosque to avert extremism; he’s just mistaken (in my view) because it’s too late. Americans expressed anger over the mosque that looks — whether it is or not — like prejudice to the Muslim world.

But again, the simple distinction between the cogency of an idea and the motivations for putting it forward or the persona of the person who believes is blurred. It seems that no matter how much I write about this mistake, our leaders and public figures continue to make it. VERY discouraging.


3 Responses to “Still more confusions about Islam”

  1. September 13, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    Moreover, this whole incident could lead to a cultural disenfranchisement of American Muslims, who are more integrated into American society then their European peers right now. However, if the kind of rhetoric that Reza Aslan talks about in the NPR article continues, it will be harder for American Muslims to feel included.

    BTW, I have really liked your posts about the topic – they are well-argued and thoughtful!

  2. 2 thomas
    September 14, 2010 at 7:48 am

    suppose the center is built. the furor will exhaust itself, turn to mutters instead of news polls, and the entire issue will soon after expire as fodder for extremists. at that point, do you think it would be good, sufficiently good, to have the islamic center there? and if yes, don’t you think it should be built?

    • 3 questionbeggar
      September 14, 2010 at 2:21 pm

      This is a nuanced response — thanks. Not sure how much of my other posts you’ve read about this, but here’s my response.

      For me, everything is conditional. The furor is totally misplaced and my ideal state of the world would have been if the community center was treated with tolerance and was then built. But to fulfill its mission of unity and understanding, the center must actually unite people. Again, back to the conditional point: people don’t like the mosque by a wide margin, so given that people are silly, the best response by the builders would be to move.

      Now you might be right that if they just wait it out, people will stop being so agitated. That would be good, but still then, it seems like the damage outweighs the gains. In the short term, the mosque has spread anger and probably increased unfavorable views of America among moderate and extreme (Muslims) abroad. I don’t think that bad impression can be taken back, so on that front, I think the game is lost (and that our collective irrationality has generated a SUNK COST, that we cannot get back), though the event might be forgotten with the sands of time and so not do that much damage (but it seems like it will at least do some).

      On the other hand, moving the mosque I think is now the only way to salvage something positive out of the situation, which, depending on how well a withdraw was executed, could do a lot to convince non-racist Americans that Islam is genuinely interested in being reasonable and not provocative. Now, this gesture of good faith might be rejected by our culture as we go on to also try to shoot down a mosque somewhere else, in which case, mosques should be built in every town and ringing the 9/11 site just to spite prejudice. The point is that I think now, a graceful retreat could do a lot of good.

      Also you might be right that it might be really smart to DELAY the mosque since many people say “its too soon.” That might let things cool down, in which cases there would be a double victory: Islam gets to be magnanimously accommodating and the mosque still gets to be built.

      Also, what if the mosque agreed to move two blocks further away? Again, this would be a big concession and fundamentally, the center could still serve the same community.

      I just think someone needs to take the high road in this debate. Are people obstinately against the mosque for no reason? Absolutely. Are they racist? Don’t really think so, but I’m always open to new evidence. So, given that people are irrational, staying makes Islam look like its trying to hide behind liberal freedoms to thumb its noses at 9/11 victims (not actually what it’s doing), which is going to make cooperation between religions much more difficult in the future as well.

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