Monday, August 23, 2010

More Listening, Less Shouting: Islamophobia, a Muslim American Perspective

As part of our series on Islamophobia in America and as the controversy over the Ground Zero Mosque Islamic Cultural Center continues, I asked an American Muslim, living in New York City her thoughts on the "mosque" controversy, the treatment of American Muslims since 9/11, and whether projects like the Islamic Cultural Center can begin to bridge the gap between the false perceptions of Islam and the reality.  I have omitted her name in order to protect her privacy.  I have not changed the content of her responses because I think her responses should remain unfiltered.

Q:  As a Muslim American how have you been treated since 9/11?  Did you have any personal experiences with xenophobia in the aftermath of the attacks?

A: 9/11 marked the moment when Muslims moved from being the 'other' to the 'feared other'.  I live in New York City and have not had any personal experiences with xenophobia, but we have witnessed a shocking rise in hysteria and fear mongering. A Time Magazine poll this week showed nearly 50% of Americans hold negative opinions of Islam and many don't even know a Muslim.  Even other groups, such as Sikh and Hindus, have suffered hate crimes due to being mistaken as Muslims.

I have a Sikh friend who cut his hair after 9/11 for fear of hate crimes. I also know that travel changed that day for my brother and countless other brown men with Arab sounding names. I remember the first time my brother and I traveled together after 9/11 - the agent was all smiles with me - but her smile vanished as soon as she saw that my brother had Mohammed in his name. I felt very bad for my brother that day.

Q: What are your feelings generally with regards to the building of the Islamic Cultural Center Park 51 (Cordoba House)?

A: I lived in New York City on 9/11 and lived through the pain with millions of my fellow New Yorkers. I have very mixed feelings about the center not because the owners can't build there or shouldn't build there but because I believe that as a community (Muslim Americans), we have limited resources, financial and human capital, and that while I agree that - we do have to ensure our legal and constitutional rights - I think we should also strive to choose our battles wisely. With the level of opposition that we are facing (justified or not) we have to make decisions based on the resources we have. The growing resistance to Islam across this country is taking a toll on the community. 

There are good reasons to consider building on this site. Legally, the owner has the right to build. Constitutionally, we live in a country in which we have the right to religious freedom.  It is in an ideal location which has the potential to serve many people.  It is private property and the owner has the right to build there.

However, there are also good reasons to take a step back and re-assess the project, and its risks and rewards. There are many stakeholders in this project, including 9/11 families, the interfaith community, the intrafaith community and residents of Lower Manhattan to name a few. I can understand that certain stakeholders have valid and rational sensitivities and concerns and I believe that these must be heard and thoughtfully considered in the vision for the project and the decision on how to proceed. Unfortunately, at this time - valid and rational concerns are being drowned out by the right wing cacophony.  As a result, Muslim Americans are being pushed in a corner by one stakeholder, in this case, the far right, and can only address their increasingly irrational positions.

Q: Some opponents to the Islamic Cultural Center state that it should be built, but they argue that given the tension between some Americans and Islam, that 2010 is still too close to 9/11 and thus the Center should be postponed until those tensions subside.  How do you respond to that?

A: My question back to the opponents would be when and how will those tensions subside? Can we all work together on diffusing these tensions? Can we set a deadline within which the tensions will subside and work towards that together? Will opponents stop fanning the flames of fear and hatred? 

It is hard to tell a private property owner to postpone developing a property that he owns without being specific about timing and what needs to be done. 

Q: From your experience and the experience of other Muslims that you know, have Muslim/Non-Muslim relations progressed in America since 9/11 and how do you see the Islamic Cultural Center fitting into this dynamic?
A: I am not sure if Muslim/Non-Muslim relations in America post-9/11 have progressed. I would say that the parameters of engagement have changed in the nine years since 9/11. Many non-Muslims have become very interested in Muslims and Islam. And now finally, in the past 3-5 years the quality of information and reporting on Muslim Americans has improved. While the improvement in the quality of information is good, the actions of the extremists have hurt any progress that we have made. Incidents like Fort Hood and others have made people fearful of Islam, and on top of that, feeding people's fears about Islam has become a cottage industry. This works against Muslim/Non-Muslim relations. However, there is a lot of good work that has been done in the interfaith spheres by the American Society for Muslim Advancement, Cordoba Initiative and many other Muslim organizations; and I know that several organizations like Unity Productions Foundation, the Alliance of Civilizations Media Fund (now Soliya) and Change the Story are using media to humanize Muslims and their experience. A place like Cordoba House, as I understand it, would welcome the interfaith and non-Muslim communities and would offer programming to support Muslim/non-Muslim cooperation, and continued interfaith dialog and service

Q: Did you hear President Obama’s speech about the Center at the White House dinner celebrating the beginning of Ramadan?  Do you feel he went far enough in his support for religious freedom and reconciliation between the Muslim community and those who still harbor ill will?
A: I did hear President Obama's Iftar speech. I think that he said what needed to be said about religious freedom. With regard to reconciliation, the President, Mayor Bloomberg and others have spoken out strongly, but I don't think that hearts and minds can be changed with words - even if they are from the President - and so I cannot fault him for what he did or did not say. I think that a lot of work has to be done by the Muslim community to build bridges and move towards reconciliation. And we will need the assistance of our allies in other faith communities. 

Q: What should we as Americans take away from this controversy?

A: The controversy regarding the Islamic Cultural Center is in many ways a manufactured controversy. At the heart of it there are deep sensitivities and there are people, namely 9/11 victims families, who rightly have an emotional perspective of the project. But their sensitivities are not driving this uproar. The groups driving this uproar are preying upon others fears and magnifying them and skewing the average Americans perspectives of Muslims. This is hurting the whole Muslim American community, and the American people at large. 

Photo Copyright Owned by ILLUME magazine.
blog comments powered by Disqus