Thursday, August 19, 2010

Park51/Cordoba House

You may find it odd, even ironic that the first topic I've ever blogged about on a blog with a subtitle like "polytheism without apologies" involves the controversy surrounding the building of an Islamic cultural center. But stay with me, it all ties in.

It has been little over three weeks since the issue of the construction of Cordoba House in lower Manhattan became national (and in my case international) news. A firestorm of opposition has erupted across the American political and religious landscape, ranging from questioning the "wisdom" of building so close to Ground Zero to claiming the construction (and its supporters) were "spitting in the face of Americans". A central theme which has permeated the entire discussion is the questions of religious freedom, or rather it should have. Frankly the kind of rhetoric which is being bandied about by those in opposition to the construction seems to be little more than xenophobia, disguised as "concern" for the victims. The usual suspects of course have voiced their concerns, conservative luminaries like the ACLJ, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and John McCain. All have couched their opposition to the planned construction as being "sensitive to victims and their families". Claiming that building a mosque so close to Ground Zero is akin to constructing a "Japaneses cultural center at Pearl Harbor" or "a Museum to Bach outside Auschwitz".

There is however a problem with such analogies, they are patently false. I'll be the first to admit that I did not lose anyone in 9/11, nor even knew anyone who was killed. Not being an American, I've been considerably removed from the emotional impact of the entire situation. It is wholly reasonable that people emotions still run high, and the pain and anger continues to linger almost a decade after. However it is far from reasonable, disgusting in fact, that politicians have managed to turn a non-event into something so divisive. Lets look at the essential facts.

1. The property is privately owned. This by itself ought to be enough to show the hypocrisy coming from commentators on the right. In any other case they would be out trumpeting the private property rights of an individual and decrying any attempt by the "government" to curtail these rights. It is endlessly amusing to see such a stark about face, with many attempting to use the vary governmental apparatuses they have unequivocally campaigned against.

2. People have a right to freely exercise their religion. Enshrined in the American Constitution (and in just about every other constitution or charter in democratically elected nations) is the freedom of religious expression. Muslims have every right to construct their mosques, on their own property, if they want to. This gets to the crux of the issue, because if this were a group planning to build a Church, Synagogue or Buddhist Temple, no one would have batted an eye. No One. Zero. Zilch. Nada. However because the group is Muslim, and because the terrorists who brought down the towers were also Muslim, it is supposed to be very clear that this is a case of Muslims being insensitive or even "rubbing it" in victims faces.

To expand on the last bit of the second point, many opponents claim that this is not an issue of either private property rights or religious freedom, and that it is about sensitivity to victims families. I think this is bull pocky and a clear example of cognitive dissonance. Of course this is about property rights and freedom of religious expression, because if this were a Christian church being built in Wisconsin, no one would care. However because the proposed building is two blocks from Ground Zero, and is going to be an Islamic cultural center, it suddenly becomes a huge problem. The center has so far fought off any legal attempts to prevent its construction, but it has stirred up really problematic sentiments across the US, Islamophobic sentiments.

I suppose this is as good a place as any other to say something about my personal feelings about Islam. Being a polytheist, I'm about as enamoured with Islam as I am with Christianity, which is to say not much. I disagree with several of the core principles of the religion and especially those regarding Shirk (polytheism) and how to treat those who have committed Shirk. Having said that, I believe in the freedom of religion and people are entitled to worship a Middle Eastern deity as readily as a Gaelic one.

Freedom of religion means freedom of religion all the time, not only when it is convenient or the majority favours it. Frankly this debate has me considerably questioning how dedicated the average American is to protecting the religious freedom of those outside their own religion; and since Christianity is the closet thing to a majority religion, it becomes a Christian vs. Other issue. An article I read after I began writing this blog is rather telling; most New Yorkers do not support the building of the center, but recognize that the builders are protected by the constitution, which is why all attempts to stop the construction have failed thus far. However the issue seems to have been blown up enough to become an election issue in November. We will get to see firsthand the impact of xenophobia in what is supposed to be one of the "home states of liberalism" in the US. My guess is that the sort of people who would oppose the center were already voting for a right leaning candidate anyway, but time as always will tell.

I see this entire episode as nothing more than an excuse to erode the rights of religious minorities, or failing that, remind people that religious minority A hates America. The end result is that just a little more fear and a smidge more of mistrust seeps into the mind of the average American when it comes to the dread other, and the lunatic on Youtube or CNN screeching about the Islamization of America or Terror babies moves that much closer to becoming normalized as reasonable viewpoints, instead of the madness which they are.


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