Do Americans respect Islam?

Are we at war with Islam?  George W. Bush, author of the “War on Terror,” said this about some American statements critical of Islam, way back on November 13, 2002, after a meeting with UN Secretary General Kofi-Annan:

“Some of the comments that have been uttered about Islam do not reflect the sentiments of my government or the sentiments of most Americans. Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion, a religion that respects others. Ours is a country based upon tolerance and we welcome people of all faiths in America.”

The current controversy over the so called “Ground Zero Mosque” shows that the sentiments of a vocal minority of Americans are not so welcoming of Islam.  They may claim that they only oppose the Islamic Center being built on “hallowed ground,” but you see Americans protesting mosques all over the country.  Is that just NIMBY?  Or, do they have a problem with all Mosques and Islam?

When you have Christians in Florida creating a Burn the Quran day on September 11, it is hard not to see a War on Islam from this vocal minority.  The danger of this rhetoric is that it may be feeding the radical minority of jihadist Muslims from groups like Al Queda.  By grouping those extremist few with the global Islamist whole, the rhetoric may be helping the radicals recruit and fundraise.  The Wall Street Journal, bastion of Rupert Murdoch, seems to agree.  They quoted independent terrorism consultant Evan Kohlman of Flashpoint Partners saying “We are handing al Qaeda a propaganda coup, an absolute propaganda coup.”

In the same breath, those that view President Obama as a secret Muslim without a birth certificate feed into the same rhetoric.  It shows an America that is intolerant of religious freedom, despite our Bill of Rights and our Constitution.  This whole “controversy” is a disgrace.  David Brooks has an excellent column today in the New York Times, where he talks about the “underlying” problem in America:

“In this atmosphere, we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions. Occasionally you surf around the Web and find someone who takes mental limitations seriously. For example, Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway once gave a speech called “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment.” He and others list our natural weaknesses: We have confirmation bias; we pick out evidence that supports our views. We are cognitive misers; we try to think as little as possible. We are herd thinkers and conform our perceptions to fit in with the group.  But, in general, the culture places less emphasis on the need to struggle against one’s own mental feebleness… There’s a seller’s market in ideologies that gives people a chance to feel victimized…To use a fancy word, there’s a metacognition deficit. Very few in public life habitually step back and think about the weakness in their own thinking and what they should do to compensate. A few people I interview do this regularly (in fact, Larry Summers is one). But it is rare. The rigors of combat discourage it.  Of the problems that afflict the country, this is the underlying one.”

Unfortunately, American attitudes towards Islam are often wrongheaded.  Before the Iraq War, most Americans did not know the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni, let alone a Sufi Muslim.  We tend to view Islam through the lens of the Iran Hostage Crisis, Al Queda, and the violent historical intersections between the minority of extremist Muslims and American foreign policy.  If we are really so serious about the Constitution that we inherited, and the freedoms encapsulated in the Bill of Rights, we need to reaffirm those freedoms by respecting Islam and the Muslim community in America.

Zeitoun and the “Ground Zero Mosque”

My wife and I just returned from a 8-day road-trip that took us from the Berkshires, through the Green Mountains, east through the White Mountains, ending with a day in Portland, Maine.  During the trip we hiked a mountain, idled by a stream, and generally unplugged from the noisy din of civilization.  I was blissfully unaware of the 24-hour news cycle, instead concerned only with the lazy whims of vacation-time.  I treasure vacations for many reasons, but one benefit that applies to all trips is the time to catch up on reading.  For me, that meant finally getting to Dave Eggers’ latest, Zeitoun.

Zeitoun is a true page tuner, one that I couldn’t put down and read in a day or so.  It is a non fiction account of the harrowing experience of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a successful Syrian-American businessman, in New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina.  Zeitoun, a Muslim, stayed behind to watch over his painting business and his rental units, but ended up saving people in his canoe.  Of course, the weight of this narrative, and the reason why this book is once again very timely, is the fact that Zeitoun, despite his honorable reputation, winds up experiencing the dark side of our society, our prejudice towards Muslims, and winds up detained where his family cannot find him.  I won’t spoil the story for you, but when you read what happened to Zeitoun, you might wonder, like I did, what exactly America has become.

In fact, given the controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” it is easy to see how intolerant we have become as a society.  Of course, tucked away in the White Mountains, I was blissfully unaware of the ongoing controversy until I returned.  Once I came within range of the media din and the 24 Hour news cycle, I could see clearly how stupid the entire controversy is.  The Islamic Community Center would sit two blocks from ground zero; an existing Mosque, Masjid Manhattan, sits three blocks away from the hallowed ground.  That’s right, there is already a Mosque only three blocks away from Ground Zero.  If the construction of the new Mosque is so unacceptable, shouldn’t we also tear down Masjid Manhattan?  Shouldn’t we tear down all Mosques in New York City, in the District of Columbia, in Pennsylvania?  After all, they are also “hallowed ground.”

Wait a second, lets not get ahead of ourselves.  The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. If that is the case, why are Americans protesting the building of a Mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee?  Ahh, there is that prejudice rearing its ugly head.  It appears that certain Americans do not like Islam at all. I wonder how they feel about the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights?  A church in Gainesville, FL is planning a “Burn the Quran Day” on September 11; Tennessee Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey advocates that Islam is in fact not a religion but a cult, and thus does not deserve First Amendment protection; Indiana congressional candidate Marvin Scott compares ALL Muslims to Kamikazes.  It appears that in Republican eyes, the Constitution is only sacred part of the time (see discussion of Anchor Babies and immigration for another example).

In the midst of this senseless election-year controversy, Dave Eggers’ brilliant account stands out as a must-read book.  I was reminded in some ways of Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song, because the narrative builds suspense effortlessly, and weaves together the past and present experience of Zeitoun and his family, to give you a whole picture of these Muslim patriots and the difficult trials they encounter.  Tune out the media din, and pick up Zeitoun.