Per usual, I was walking around London a bit yesterday and came across this statue right outside of the Charing Cross tube station. It was a statue of Edith Cavell who was a nurse and spy during World War I. She helped 200+ Allied soldiers escape from a Germany occupied Belgium. She was caught by the German military and imprisoned for ten weeks; two of which were spent in solitary confinement. The British government stated there was nothing they could do for Ms. Cavell and that it would more than likely “go hard” for her. I can’t help wonder if there would have been more urgency to recuse her if she was a man. She was executed in 1915 at the age of forty-nine. The quote on her statue at St. Martin’s place (which is attributed to her) reads:
This insight got me thinking, as reading often does, about something a bit passe in the news. In the vein of patriotism and hatred I began thinking about the debate over building a Muslim community center four blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan, the site of the September 11th terrorist attacks.
It is at this point that I give you the opportunity to stop reading if you were expecting something funny.
What we know is that what is being proposed is not a mosque. It is a community center. It’s that thing that needs saving in 1980’s movies about skiing. It is a community center, not a mosque.
And what’s more, it doesn’t matter if it’s a mosque or not. Secondly, we know that Muslims and the religion of Islam are, at its core, peaceful. Islam means “to submit” and a Muslim is “one who submits”. People will say that there are violent passages in the Koran, often citing the word jihad which means “the struggle”. The three meanings of the word are the struggle to keep faith, the struggle to improve Muslim society and the struggle in a holy war. Ninety-nine percent of Muslims are the first two. People will also cite attacks on the U.S.S. Cole, the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1994 as well as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are all extremists and minorities within their faith.
The people who perpetrated the atrocities against Christians, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists alike on September 11th were psychopaths before they were religious figures. When someone is possessed by a psychosis and fervor caused by neglect, alienation, and influence from other neglected, alienated psychopaths, the result can never be good.
Another thing we know is that the First Amendment in the Constitution protects individuals in practicing any form of religion, have freedom of speech, the freedom to express grievances to the government, a free press and the freedom to assemble peacefully in public, among other things. The first one is at stake here, which was one of the founding principles for the United States. What the whole controversy about the community center illuminates is that many people only want this right to extend to people practicing mainstream religions within the US; preferably Christianity.
The core of the problem is how extremist Islam is being equated with Islam. The only thing these two sects of Islam share is religious text and a lifestyle that is different from a typical Westerner. By using the two sects as interchangeable, a simple, flawed logic arises, “9/11 was an act of evil and was perpetrated by Muslims. Muslims are evil and hate America. Muslims want to build a shrine to evil near the result of that act of evil.”
This supposition that Muslim extremists are the same as your average Muslim utilizes a dangerous set of generalities. These extremists responsible for 9/11 are no more true Muslims than Timothy McVeigh was true Catholic. He was indeed raised as a Catholic, but it would be incredibly unjust if there was a wave of backlash against Catholics in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. And there wouldn’t be any objections to building a Catholic church or a YMCA within four blocks of its memorial. Rightfully indignant Catholics would be justly entitled to point out that his actions wantonly violated any and all tenets of Christian thought to a point that he could no longer he considered a member of that community. So it is with the September 11th hijackers.
Does the name Scott Roeder resonate with anyone? He was the abortion extremist who assassinated Dr. George Tiller, an abortion doctor from Wichita, Kansas, while he was at church with his family on May 31st, 2009. Roeder, who was caught three hours after committing the murder, ultimately confessed and justified his actions by claiming, “preborn children’s lives were in imminent danger.” Roeder was a member of the “Army of God” which is a Christian terrorist anti-abortion group which advocates the murder of doctors who perform abortions. No one would dare to claim that because Roeder identifies himself as Christian that all Christians were associated with his cold-blooded murder.
There are several things conclusions that can be drawn from this white, Christian exceptionalism. The first conclusion is the perpetual divisiveness of race. Muslims are often people with darker skin than the white majority of the US. Everyone knows that darker skin has never gone over well in the United States despite what people might say about living in a post-racial world. The fact of the matter is that people with darker skin tend to get blamed first. There have been acts of non-Muslim terrorism committed in the United States before and after the attacks no the World Trade Center, yet all we hear is the insult and insensitivity of building a Muslim community center within four blocks of Ground Zero. It’s not as if the people are building the center thinking, “Well, I know a bunch of my buddies totally knocked these huge literal and figurative buildings down, but it’s within my rights to build this here so I will as a giant middle finger to the country who we secretly resent despite living here by our own volition and pay taxes to do so. Did I mention we pay taxes?”
The second conclusion is that we needed someone to blame because we were angry, scared, and embarrassed. Imagine you’re a staggering giant hit in the nose by Jack after climbing your beanstalk and knocking a whole bunch of shit around in your kitchen. It doesn’t matter who stole the golden goose, you’re going to tear the town apart looking for Jack because someone screwed with you. You think to yourself, “Well the townspeople know Jack and they share a town with him, so they must be just as guilty. Let’s get to stomping.”
The United States has some learning to do. We don’t understand Islam because it is not our own experience and when we experience Islam it is limited, anecdotal and as an “other”. It is something foreign and, as a result, frightening. Islam takes root as a religion with discipline as its linchpin. Submission, faith, discipline and routine characterize Islam and can only take hold when there is a culture that encourages this religious rigor. For Islam, it is the reciprocity of culture and religion that allows it to be successful, and, among other characteristics, peaceful. But, as we know, there are those who stray from the original intent of the word. Just as with all religions, there are those who violate the will of Allah by engaging in violent acts. This is the way it is in the East.
There is no reciprocity in the West. The US has been called a “Christian nation” on several occasions. As of 2009, 78% of Americans claim to be Christians. However, the religious life of American Christians is at odds with the culture that they live in. The reason people are “American Christians” and not “Christian Americans” because people are Americans first and Christians second. I also don’t blame them. Christianity is an amazing religion of forgiveness, peace, tolerance, universalism, welfare and humility. American culture judges the different, promotes the individual, blames the poor, promotes excesses and indulgences, all within the framework of white, Christian exceptionalism. This is why “true” Christianity is very difficult to find because there is very little true reciprocity between Christianity and culture. Because culture itself will ignore the real duties of The Bible. One in every sixteen verses in The Bible mentions helping the poor and forfeiting one’s wealth to live simply. Jesus said “Judge not, lest ye be judged” yet throw stones while sinning on a regular basis. There are always those who stray from the word. This is the way it is in the West.
What we have in this debate about the Muslim community center is the blatant product of fear, racism and exceptionalism. What we can take away from this whole debate is that we’re still frightened, we’re still angry and we’re unsure what Islam means in the West. The healing process most certainly involves flag waving and a realization that our country truly is great and is as a beacon to the rest of the world as righteous, fair and unwavering in our protection of what we claim to value most: our freedom. Without that, we’re no better than those trying to detract from us. But sometimes patriotism isn’t enough. We have to be better.