“I wonder whether I need honor these people [Muslim Americans] and pretend they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment, which I have, in my gut, the sense that they will abuse.” Here, I quote Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of the New Republic unjustly — by citing a sentence out-of-context for which he has apologized. Then again, an unusually animated Nick Kristof did worse, calling Peretz’s blog post — and all anti-Park51 activists — “venomous and debased.” On the anniversary of September 11, he asked, “Is this America?”
How did we get here? To levelheaded intellectuals reduced to faux-patriotic one-upmanship? To planned Quran burnings, stabbed Muslim cabbies and a New York City where one-in-three residents think Muslim-Americans are “more sympathetic to terrorists” than the rest of us?
You may already have an answer, an explanation for this sudden Islamophobic convulsion. In a word, Park51: the proposed Muslim community center and mosque less than 600 feet from where the Twin Towers stood, nine years and six days ago. But it has been a long time since supporters and opponents of a political project have so fundamentally misunderstood one another.
For clarity and full disclosure’s sake, here’s my — and I would hope, most other Park51 detractors’ — view on the proposed center. The well-intentioned Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has every legal right to worship privately on private property.
The question then is one of decorum, or tact. The Park51 controversy centers around respect, not racism. Most Americans, New Yorkers and relatives of 9/11 victims object to building a mega-complex for the religion that inspired the attacks, in a building that was nearly destroyed by them. Just because you can do something, that doesn’t mean you should.
The debate surrounding Park51 is an outlet for a tide of Islamophobia that is far more complicated, more entwined with our leadership, our foreign policy — our president.
Sept. 11, 2001, gave our nation its moment of deepest psychological trauma. A misplaced hatred of Islam — a religion that is far closer to Judeo-Christendom than many will admit — began to grow. But then, President Bush set an agenda, forging a plan and a crucial distinction. Six days later, he compelled us to fight back, to promote the American spirit when it was needed most. “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” he told us. “That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace.”
We would not take revenge against Islam itself, but embark on a global struggle against terrorism. It would be a distinctly American quest: to free Muslims from despotism, to show the world that Islam and democracy were not incompatible.
And so we did, the best that we could. Over the course of two mismanaged wars, we sublimated our anger into a missionary zeal: Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom. We saw fingers dipped in ink, tyrants toppled, Iraqis and Afghanis at the polling booth, the movie theater, the police academy — not so different from us, after all. Our aggressive foreign policy and promotion of American values, even by the sword, provided the ideal outlet for our grief. We were flag-wavers instead of flag-burners.
Today, the wars have become quagmires, and while Iraqis and Afghanis yearn for their promised republics, their leaders are too incompetent to grant them. Our current president speaks weakly and timidly on national security, using the ninth anniversary of our greatest tragedy to give a primary teacher’s lesson on tolerance. He sympathizes with Hamas. He gives us nothing to do. The psychological scars remain but now lack the salve of action.
He says he wants to “finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban.” How, Mr. President? Where and when? When we’re dealing with a near-nuclear Iran, a militant Israel, a desecularizing Turkey, a Europe fighting back against Islamofascism? Now is the time to confront, to act. Without a mission, our fear, sadness and anger will fester. Without an outlet, we strike back at the innocent: the taxi driver, the nail-salon owner, the holy text. In March 2002, according to Pew, 33 percent of Americans viewed Islam unfavorably. A week ago, an ABC/Post poll revealed that today, 49 percent of us hold that view.
Meanwhile, liberal commentators deride those who oppose such Park51 as “un-American”: the very same jibe that Republican supporters of the war in Afghanistan used against them. How hypocritical. How weak.
And at home, we must have the courage to tackle assimilation when honor killings and fatwas stretch the limits of our tolerance. And there remains that unavoidable reality: Infinitesimally few Muslims are terrorists, but almost all terrorists, and the nations that support them, are Islamic.
War should never be self-help, even in the wake of a tragedy. But if we continue to confront Islamic fundamentalism with little more than words, we place ourselves in a greater danger. By failing to confront the reasons why we hate, we set the stage for violence of a far worse sort: blood spilled not for lofty affirmations, but for vengeance.
Alex Klein is a junior in Davenport College.