BU Panel to Ponder Manhattan Mosque Debate
Prejudice, 9/11’s unhealed wounds, or both?
Months of arguing haven’t quelled the firestorm over a proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque two blocks from Manhattan’s Ground Zero. The issue has dominated newspaper editorials, the networks’ Sunday morning shows, and water cooler conversations in offices around the country. The Ground Zero Mosque Controversy: What You Need to Know, a College of Arts & Sciences forum tomorrow night, seeks to dispel what the speakers call Americans’ mistaken beliefs about Islam.
“Controversies like the so-called mosque at so-called Ground Zero don’t come out of nowhere,” says forum moderator Stephen Prothero, a CAS religion professor. (He says “so-called” because the mosque is more than a mosque and would not be in the footprint of the Twin Towers.) “They come out of a history of western caricatures of Islam and America’s reluctant march toward tolerance.”
“Our conversation in America about religion is really impoverished, and I think it’s impoverished because we don’t know much about religion,” says Prothero, whose 2007 bestseller Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t speaks to that topic.
Scheduled panelists are Teena Purohit and Kecia Ali, both CAS assistant religion professors, and Cristine Hutchison-Jones (GRS’11), a PhD candidate in religion and society.
The proposed Manhattan project calls for a tower of up to 15 stories, with a mosque, auditorium, and pool. It is the brainchild of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who leads a mosque in Manhattan’s financial district, his wife, Daisy Khan, and New York–born investor Sharif el-Gamal. Survivors of 9/11 victims are split over the project, some calling it a fitting rebuff to al-Qaeda’s homicidal intolerance and others insisting it would stoke their grief. Pollsters report that two-thirds of Americans say the center should be built elsewhere. Rauf said this week that “everything is on the table” as backers seek a resolution to the controversy.
The anger about the project, says Ali, “rests on the idea that Muslims aren’t and can’t ever really be Americans. But that’s nonsense. Muslims have a centuries-long history in the United States, first as slaves, then as voluntary immigrants, and increasingly as native-born immigrants.” Her aim at the forum will be “to sketch briefly what Islam in America, and American Islam, looks like, so that rather than dealing with an imaginary Muslim, a mental construct composed of all the worst stereotypical images, we can have conversation that rests solidly on fact.”
Purohit believes the current debate shows that Americans are “ill-equipped to respond to Islamophobic statements perpetuated by the media. I will talk about this problem of representation in the media and briefly address the diversity of Muslim religious practices.” Hutchison-Jones says she’ll discuss the opposition in the context of intolerance towards other denominations in American history.
Prothero, who supports the mosque project, believes that “there are principled reasons to oppose it that are not rooted in bigotry,” notably, deferring to survivors’ families and others for whom the project’s location would cause real pain. But while he finds those arguments sincere, he doesn’t find them persuasive, as they equate the 9/11 attacks with Islam, when most Muslims do not endorse terrorism. Last month, he blogged that such “tortured logic” undergirded the Anti-Defamation League’s opposition to the project.
His blog post also decried politicians like Newt Gingrich, former Republican House speaker, who called the center’s backers “radical Islamists.” (Although Rauf has said the United States was an accessory to the 9/11 attacks, he denounced them and terrorism and has no links to radicals, according to the New York Police.)
Yet Prothero remains optimistic that anti-Islam bigotry will subside. “What was it Martin Luther King [GRS’55, Hon.’59] talked about—the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice? I do think the moral arc of American history bends toward more and more religious tolerance. What’s happening here is we’re having birth pangs of tolerance toward Muslims.”
The Ground Zero Mosque Controversy: What You Need to Know begins at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 16, at the College of Arts & Sciences, Room 222, and is free and open to the public.
Rich Barlow can be reached at email@example.com Comments