Ground Zero Revisi­­ted
Sadik J. Al-Azm 15 November 2010

Beirut, Lebanon

While trying to follow, at great distance, the news and sharp controversies about the project to construct an Islamic Center and Mosque near Ground Zero in New York City, another telling occurrence deflected my attention in the direction of Washington DC. On August 28, a host of right wing Americans, neo-conservative crowds and Tea Party multitudes demonstrated at the Lincoln Memorial in the American capital in favor of “American Dignity Restored” and implicitly against that part of the country that had elected a black President for the first time ever, with a Muslim for a father and a Hussein for the obligatory American middle name, to boot. The demonstration took place exactly where the American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, had delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech 47 years ago to the day.

Liberal and Civil Rights America was appalled at such tactics, timing and protestations regarding the whole affair as a deliberate provocation of and an intended affront to the best in American values in general and to America’s blacks and its other ethnic minorities in particular. At this point, I thought to myself: Is not the same logic of provocation and affront applicable to the Muslim construction project and Mosque in the Ground Zero zone? I do not want to answer the question simplistically. Obviously, the intention of the New York project is forgiveness and reconciliation and not just to insist no matter what on exercising, in a certain way, the constitutional right guaranteeing to all Americans the freedoms of religion, conscience, worship and expression. At the same time, it is no less clear that the intention behind the TeaParty demonstration in Washington DC is out and out provocation, at least to all those who hold dear the memory of Martin Luther King’s speech and the epochal shift it triggered in American life. I say this with all due respect to the inalienable right of all people to assemble, congregate, demonstrate and express themselves and their grievances peacefully.

In my estimation, the Ground Zero Muslim construction project shows, at its best, lack of tact, inconsiderate approaches and bad live-and let-live strategies and tactics. This can only be of great disservice to a religious minority, like the Muslims, in a country such as the USA where the disabling backlash phenomenon is pervasive, powerful and so well known. At its worst, the project is open to charges of gratuitous provocation, bad faith, and hypocrisy. So, all in all I am for moving the Center and Mosque to another and more suitable location in New York City to prove good faith and honorable intentions. In any case the organizers and financial backers of the project have already made so many concessions to the opposition as to render the whole idea pointless. For example, they agreed to change the name of the Center from the tell tale “Cordova House” to the utterly bland street address of “Park 51”. They denied that they are building a mosque in the first place. And they reassured everyone concerned that no casual passer-by would recognize the Center for what it is from its outside appearance. In other words, no minarets and no revealing Islamic architectural or decorative features. Given these demeaning and humiliating concessions, it would be more dignified to relocate the Center to a spot where there will be no need to conceal its identity in such a ridiculous manner.

Furthermore, the Muslim and Arab Worlds do not have much to show on matters of the freedoms of religion, conscience, worship and free-expression, neither officially nor at the popular level. The current despicable plan of the small evangelical Florida Church to burn copies of the Koran on the occasion of remembering the 9/11 destruction and victims should not be a warning only but should also critically remind us of the recent Muslim resurrection of the Medieval rituals of book burning (and people burning as well) when they put to the torch, in view of the whole world, copies of Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, most spectacularly in Bradford, England. It should be a critical reminder to all as well, that it was Muslims who dynamited the historical Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan, not so long ago, in the name of Islam. Regrettably, no authoritative voice, either institutional, individual or personal, in the whole Arab and Muslim Worlds condemned that act of monumental desecration and vandalism directed at the SACRED of another living world-historical religion and its faithful adherents.

In the Nineties of the last century, Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, was accused of having deeply hurt the feelings of a billion and a half Muslims. No doubt, any present day ritualistic public burnings of copies of the Koran (in the US or anywhere else for that matter), would constitute a grave injury and a provocative insult to the world’s billion and a half Muslims. Still, at the time of the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas no voices were heard in the Arab and Muslim Worlds speaking out either against that savage assault on the SACRED, or against the hurting and insulting of the religious feelings of the world’s two billion or so Buddhists and Hindus or in favor of the historical importance, artistic value and religious significance of the destroyed monuments. Obviously, Muslims are as adept at selectively and arbitrarily using and abusing double and triple standards as the West is Islamically accused to be. So, the usual Muslim self-righteous uprightness is very much out of place, here.

Perhaps, at least American Muslims should heed the Arab piece of wisdom saying: “He who lives in a glass house does not throw rocks at other people”.