The NIMBY syndrome and the mosque
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Bergen Record Featured Op-Ed
President Barack Obama’s remarks supporting the right to build an Islamic center that includes a mosque near Ground Zero reverberated across the country, nationalizing a passionate debate over the project. The dispute is the most prominent in a series of debates around the country where Muslims have sought to build mosques. From New York to California, opposition to mosque building is a constant reality. Aspiring and elected politicians are rabid in their determination to exaggerate the inappropriateness of the mosque so near Ground Zero.
Shamefully, Republican leaders and right-wing media pundits have made it their objective to use the “Park 51” issue not only to attack Islam, Muslims but also to debate President Obama’s popularity and speciously as a tool in the upcoming midterm elections. Gratefully, a few Republican leaders have sided with what’s right. Mayor Bloomberg of New York City and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have decided that scapegoating American Muslims was in fact too costly for the party’s political chances. The words of the Governor, breaking away with statements of others from his party, are an assurance that America will readjust its moral focus and find more productive venues to discuss the issues of the day. Supportive statements from the President and other officials are very reassuring to American Muslims and those who hold sacred the US Constitution. These reassurances play a critically needed role in convincing our friends (and foes) around the world that America treats all of its citizens equally, without prejudice. That its commitment to the struggle for human and democratic rights is genuine, the enjoyment of which is availed to all of its citizens.
We categorically reject the notion that mosques are somehow spoiling the American landscape much like a cellular tower, a porn shop, or a nuclear reactor. NIMBY, “not in my backyard”, has been the weapon anti-mosque advocates have used. Hypocritically, they differentiate between what is right and what’s legal. American Muslims and their places of worship are an integral part of America’s pluralistic fabric. Their contributions, commitment, and patriotism have stood the test of time.
American Muslims have suffered plenty as a result of the 911 attacks. They lost their loved ones in the rubble of the WTC disaster and collectively suffered from never-ending humiliation, suspicion, and denial of their religious and civil rights. While I genuinely grieve with the families of 9/11 victims, I refuse to accept the baseless charge of insensitivity to their feelings. It was not fellow American citizens who brought this catastrophe upon our nation. American Muslims were the intended target just as American Christians and Jews. Building a mosque anywhere in America is not an expression of indifference or dominance. It is only but an affirmation of our rights (and our growing population needs.)
It needs restating that America’s war on terror is against Al-Qaeda and not Islam. Al-Qaida is a group of terrorists using a distorted form of Islam and they have killed by far more Muslims than Christians combined. To suspect every Muslim, especially fellow citizens who are Muslims, as somehow connected to this bastardized form of Islam is itself a terrible distortion of America core values. To say that Muslims who have prayed within 12 blocks of Ground Zero for 27 years cannot pray in a neighborhood because it is too close to Ground Zero is to say the Muslims who died at the World Trade Center was not the same as the rest of the victims that horrific day.
At times I have almost suggested that Americans Muslims forgo their constitutionally-protected right in the hope of easing the tension; removing the doubt and forging a lasting camaraderie with the rest of society. But what about the feelings of American Muslims who now feel perpetually condemned to a life of suspicion and exclusion? Alas, I, sometimes say that, after all, the site is not God-mandated and I am sure similarly appropriate sites can be found to accommodate the multi-goal plans of Park51.
But I realize that such concessions will “proof” the opposition’s allegations about our faith and our community; will render guilt-by-association an acceptable tactic. Above all, in the end, our capitulation will hurt the foundations of our constitutional democracy which most spectacularly protects religious freedom from both private and official infringement. And so it was George Washington’s famous words to a Jewish congregation over two hundred years ago: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.”
Therefore, our community’s mandate is to persevere. There is an understandable impulse to just to look the other way at the anti-Muslim sentiments to dismiss the grandiose mobilization claims as just one more fringe right-wing nut job. Not because the “claims” are anything other than preposterous, but rather because there is a far too much public belief in these preposterous assertions for anyone concerned with public education and mobilization to so carelessly write them off. And with the clear links between the Islamophobic and prejudicial treatment of certain American citizens, the implications cannot be easily dismissed.
Those who hate American Muslims believe we are lesser citizens, deserving second-class treatment. While their loud voices seem to echo throughout the national landscape, thankfully, the anti-Islam folks will see victory as but an illusion. Their fight is fundamentally against the American constitution. If Muslims are the target now, who is next? And there will be the next target if we as a nation do not defend our Bill of Rights and the Constitution.
America’s past may be redemptively promising. We are the new alien intruders, much the way Chinese, Japanese, Jews, Catholics and other ethnic and religious groups have been perceived by past generations. Opponents of the American Muslims ought to learn from our history that, the sooner we accept the newcomers onto our soil, the sooner they are likely to end up being willing and productive participants in American society. American Muslims pray this awakening. Meanwhile Arab and Muslim Republican, feeling betrayed and outcast by their party’s elite, may now have the needed motivation to en masse abandon their party.
As I hoped in my last post, there will come a day soon when American mosques will be American as apple pie. And America will be the better for it.
Aref Assaf, Ph.D. President of American Arab Forum, a think-tank specializing in Arab and Muslim affairs.