*No Room for the Muslim

Part III of “The Implications of American Islamophobia” (concluded)

The short history offered in the previous post of attempts to exclude those viewed in mainstream American society, or by a considerable majority of Americans, as ‘undesirables’ tempts one to conclude that xenophobia is intrinsic to American history, and that the fear, suspicion, and hatred of the Muslim is only the latest instantiation of an inability to live with the Other.  However, such a conclusion stops considerably short of pursuing the implications of present-day Islamophobia, if only because disdain for the Chinese or hatred for the Japanese did not entail wholesale contempt for Confucianism, Shintoism, or Buddhism.  Indeed, religion has seldom entered into American discussions of China or Japan, and Zed Buddhism’s attractiveness to a certain class of Americans resides in, if one could put it this way, its secular qualities.  The Muslim from Iraq, Iran, Libya, or Syria is a different kettle of fish.  The Middle East, or West Asia as it is known in other parts of the world, has to Americans been largely synonymous with oil; if it conjures any other image, it is of a barren landscape and a cultural desert.  It is doubtful, for example, that most Americans have ever heard of a single poet of writer from any of these countries, even if Iranian cinema has now been acknowledged as having produced masterpieces of world cinema.  The closest most Americans are likely to get to a feel for this part of the Muslim world is perhaps a taste for Persian food or some belly-dancing from Egypt or north Africa.  Some Americans who are sensitive to criticisms about insularity might suggest that Arabs themselves have conceded that nothing remains of their culture. Did not, after all, the Syrian poet Adonis say in an interview he gave to the New York Times in 2002:  “There is no more culture in the Arab world.  It’s finished.  Culturally speaking, we are part of Western culture, but only as consumers, not as creators.”  Insert into this landscape what appears to Americans to be an arid, sterile, and humorless religion, and one can begin to fathom the deeper roots of Islamophobia.  There is also the matter, which is perhaps tacitly present in the vast resentment against Islam that has long been brewing in the US, that it is the fastest growing religion in the world, and it presents the stiffest possible competition to American evangelical proselytization.  If there are two religions which have not eschewed proselytization, they are certainly Christianity and Islam:  and it is their proximity and nearness to each other, in far many more respects than can be enumerated here, that of course feeds the anxiety of Trump, Cruz, Carson, and their ilk.

It is important, as well, that the difficult questions about the nature of “American” identity not be deflected by considerations that, while they are important, are not centrally important in the present discussion about the implications of Islamophobia in the “land of freedom”.  Many Americans and even some Muslims, for example, will argue that Trump and his ilk are only proposing to do what Muslim nations have already done.  The treatment of non-Muslims in most predominantly Muslim countries is shabby at best, and more often simply horrendous.  On this account, merely being a non-Muslim is hazardous in a country such as Saudi Arabia.  Pakistan, to name another country, even requires all Muslims who are applicants for a passport to take an oath denouncing Ahmadis.  A second argument, which is increasingly being heard in Muslim communities and has been voiced by most American public officials, including President Barack Obama, is that law-abiding and “good Muslims” must increasingly take responsibility for the “bad Muslims”; or, in somewhat more sophisticated language, the onus falls on the vast majority of Muslims to understand how radicalization has affected their youth, and then isolate and rehabilitate the “bad Muslims” and “evil jihadists” among them.  But when Christians engage in mass shootings in the US, which happens rather often, we do not hear calls for the Christian community to take responsibility for the evil ones in their midst.  Moreover, surprisingly little attempt has been made to situate the present controversy in relation to the widespread language of “diversity”, which today is conceivably the single most important issue in the American workplace.  Diversity has most been understood as a way of accommodating women, ethnic minorities, and increasingly members of the LGBTQ communities; however, there has been scant discussion of religious diversity.  Ignorance of Islam is widespread; the greater majority of Americans admit that they have never known a Muslim.


Five years ago, there was a storm of resentment over the proposed installation of an Islamic center and mosque at ‘Ground Zero’, the “hallowed ground” where two planes struck the World Trade Center towers and made martyrs of some 2500 Americans.  (I wrote about this in two previous posts .)  Obama, echoing Lincoln, declared that “I understand the emotions that this issue engenders.  Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”  There was indignation that Muslims were being allowed to lay claim to the very ground that their fellow Muslims had desecrated:  the unstated supposition, which has never been allowed to tarnish the barbarism of any white Christian, was that all Muslims stood condemned.  The public remarks that were then on display could reasonably have led one to the view that the abuse of Islam is the new form of anti-Semitism in America.  Yet the implications of Islamophobia are still deeper.  Arguments that the ban on Muslims will keep America safe from violent terrorists, or that America is in dire need of controlling its borders, are a smokescreen.   Immeasurably more Muslims have paid with their lives for the terrorist attacks of September 2001 than Americans, or practitioners of any other faith, though an American can only recognize this if a Muslim life is viewed as equivalent to an American life.  Those who denied Muslims an Islamic Center on ‘Ground Zero’, on the grounds that it is sacred space, arrived at a conception of the sacred that has no room for the Muslim at all.  That is the fundamental problem that lurks behind American Islamophobia.

See also Parts I, “Trump and the Spectacle of Xenophobic Buffoonery”, and II, “The Deep Roots of Xenophobia in US History”

[The three parts were published as a single piece, of considerably shorter length, entitled “The Implications of American Islamophobia”, Economic and Political Weekly 50, no. 51 (19 December 2015), pp. 12-14.]

*The Mosque at ‘Hallowed’ Ground, Part II: Some Notes on the Politics of Place & Name

One of the most notable elements in the public discourse on the proposed Islamic Center in lower Manhattan, which is conceived as a multistory building of which the mosque will constitute one part, is the extraordinary and troublesome ease with which it came to be characterized as the “Ground Zero Mosque”.   The association of ‘mosque’ with ‘ground zero’ informs all arguments emanating from those who have voiced their opposition to this project, just as it becomes the pretext for rendering this ‘Ground Zero’ as “hallowed” ground.  Some supporters of the project, and even those who might profess indifference to the entire controversy, have observed quite rightly that the Islamic center and mosque is in fact two city blocks away from ‘Ground Zero’.  But such an argument presupposes that opponents of the proposed Islamic Center are interested in, and willing to be persuaded by, facts.  If one were interested in facts, one could point to many more that are pertinent to this discussion:  at least two churches – St. Paul’s Chapel, which dates to 1766, and the Church of St. Peter, in what is described as “New York’s oldest parish” — exist in closer proximity to ‘Ground Zero’ than the proposed mosque.  The supposition that adherents of Islam wish to claim ‘Ground Zero’ solely for their own faith is nothing short of preposterous.  But none of this is very germane, since such controversies are never at all about ‘facts’.

If the numerical table begins with zero, let us likewise also commence with ‘ground zero’ and the implications of rendering this as ‘hallowed ground’.  The term ‘ground zero’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “that part of the ground situated immediately under an exploding bomb, esp. an atomic one.”  The OED has traced the first occurrence of the phrase to an article appearing in the New York Times on 7 July 1946 (p. E10), wherein it was stated, apropos of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, that “the intense heat of the blast started fires as far as 3,500 feet from ground zero”; as a further illustration of how the phrase has been deployed, it points to the September 1955 of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:  “There was no noticeable contamination even at ground zero at Hiroshima.”  We can see that the OED’s stress on “esp[ecially] an atomic” bomb, to describe the impact on the ground situated directly underneath an exploding bomb, is not misplaced.  Now, within hours of the attack upon the Twin Towers, the phrase ‘ground zero’ began to be used by American reporters:  the intent, it is reasonable to infer, was to suggest that that the destruction of the World Trade Center (and a portion of the Pentagon) was America’s Hiroshima (and Nagasaki).

It is precisely this sleight of hand, this tacit attempt to draw a parallelism between the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the one hand, and the terrorist attacks upon some of the most iconic structures of the American landscape, that must be decisively repudiated – and, at the same time, affirmed for very different reasons than those which are summoned by those who speak of the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’.  The parallelism is gravely suspect, and not merely for the reason, if at all that is a reason, considering that the loss of one innocent life is too excessive a loss, that the 3,000 odd victims of the September 11 bombings are a much smaller number than the more than 200,000 dead from the atomic bombings:  more importantly, unlike the attacks of the September 11 suicide bombers, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were authorized by the President of the United States.  The wanton destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an act of state; the same cannot be said of the September 11 attacks.  If, further, we are to identify the suicide bombers of September 11 as Muslims, as everyone has so effortlessly done so, even if it might be with the implicit encouragement of the terrorists themselves, should we not also identify Truman and the members of his war cabinet as Christians?  And, so, let us concede that the attacks of September 11 also call to mind the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:  if the atomic bombs forever altered warfare, ushering in an altogether different register of the mind at war and bringing forth a new conception of terror, we might well say that the September 11 attacks have similarly necessitated a radical rethinking of the conditions under which war might be waged.  Let those who seek to sanctify ‘Ground Zero’ also understand that the terrorism of the atomic bombings is the underpinning of all modern forms of terror.

Even as the controversy over the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ continues, many Americans have begun to describe ‘Ground Zero’, where the Twin Towers stood and then collapsed, as “hallowed ground”.  Obama himself sanctified this usage when, in the White House iftar dinner last week, he declared: “I understand the emotions that this issue engenders.  Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”   Some Americans, at least, will at once recognize the hallowed provenance of “hallowed”, as it calls to mind the address, “short, short, short” (in the author’s words), delivered by Lincoln at the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on 19 November 1863.  The north and the south were in the grip of “a great civil war”, proclaimed Lincoln, “testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”  Let us leave aside, so that we can get to the notion of “hallowed ground”, the obvious temptation to probe whether some American commentators are not convinced that the United States today is similarly faced with a test of endurance:  if the likes of the grunting troglodytes on the right are to be believed, America’s future is jeopardized both by enemies from within (so-called liberals and leftists, whatever these anodyne terms mean in the US) and from without (Muslims).  Here is what Lincoln was moved to say:  “We are met here on a great battlefield of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.  But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled, here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”

Thus, to render Ground Zero as “hallowed ground” is at once to lay claim to the legacy of Lincoln, the most hallowed figure in American history, and to render the space of Ground Zero as ‘sacred’.  Lincoln significantly abjures the idea that the ground can be rendered hallow:  “But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow this ground.”  It is human sacrifice that consecrates a ground as sacred, and what is sacred is a form of being rather than a form of becoming.  For the present purposes, though, it suffices to note that the opponents of the proposed Islamic Center are firmly attached to the idea that ‘Ground Zero’ is sacred space and that the construction of the mosque would desacralize this space.  If it is sacred, then it is sacred for a religion, or – as is the case with some religious sites or cities, such as Jerusalem — sacred for several (but not all) religions.  Yet, what makes ‘Ground Zero’ sui generis as a sacred site, if at all it is sacred in the same way that Gettysburg is hallowed ground, is that the adherents of perhaps all the faiths — and certainly Muslims — were present in the Twin Towers, and we know as well that more Muslims have paid for those bombings than the practitioners of any other faith.  Those who would deny Muslims an Islamic Center on ‘Ground Zero’, on the grounds that it is sacred space, have thus arrived at a conception of the sacred that has no room for the Muslim at all.  That opens further the doors of the Islamophobia that has already crept upon the United States.

See also Part I, The Controversy and the Meaning of ‘America’


Part III (forthcoming):   Islamophobia and the new Anti-Semitism in the US

*The Mosque at ‘Hallowed’ Ground: Part I, The Controversy and the Meaning of ‘America’

Nearly all the fundamental questions that might animate anyone interested in what I would call ‘the question of America’ seem implicated in the swirling controversy that has arisen over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque in lower Manhattan.   As much as any other place in the world, the history of the United States is inextricably interwoven with the narratives of immigrant groups.  Muslims are, for the most part, among the more recent of the immigrants who have made their way to the United States, furnishing the latest challenge to those who insist that America remains the ultimate haven of religious freedom.   Are the Muslims as welcome in the US as the adherents of any other religion?  If so, what arouses the passions of those Americans who, to put it mildly, feel resentful about the proposed installation of an Islamic center and mosque at what is called ‘Ground Zero’?  If not, does that tell us something about the limitations of religious freedom in the US and expose the grand lie that the freedom of religious belief and practice is the most venerable of all the freedoms, real or imagined, to which America is said to give unrivalled expression?

There are other prior questions:  are immigrants from Indonesia, the Gulf states, North Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and many other parts of the world which are predominantly Islamic to be viewed first as Muslims and then as being immigrants from those countries?  If, as is apparently the case, the answer is in the affirmative, is that because (say) Indonesian or Pakistani Muslims themselves insist that their principal identity is as Muslims, or is it because in the United States, as in most of the West, it is fondly imagined that religion is the fundamental and most irreducible part of an identity in what is characterized as the Muslim world?  Was it not the ‘Muslim world’ that Obama addressed last year, and can one imagine a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist leader addressing the ‘Christian world’?  Why is it even that the ‘Muslim world’ comes so effortlessly to the tongue of most people, including those we suppose are intelligent and even leaders of free societies, but that the phrase ‘Christian world’ would strike the same people, even when they are observant Christians, as awkward?

The unseemly controversy over the mosque has brought many other considerations to the fore.  No one who has been keeping abreast of events in recent months, never mind the last nine years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 brought down the Twin Towers, could have failed to notice the rising tide of Islamophobia.  Considering how little intelligence has been displayed by some previous occupants of the White House, such as his grey eminence George W. Bush, one should expect almost nothing of the likes of the Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee, who came up with this inexcusably stupid formulation:  “You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion or it is a nationality, way of life or cult, whatever you want to call it.”  One of the highest-ranking retired officers in the American armed forces has openly stated that practitioners of Islam are not entitled to the protections accorded to the adherents of other faiths in the Bill of Rights.  And so might one continue in this vein, but all this gives rise to the glaring question:  is the US in the grip of Islamophobia?  Some will suggest that Muslims have replaced communists:  it is not difficult to fathom the argument, certainly, that the gargantuan military-industrial complex is constantly in need of new enemies.  But there are other, more interesting, complexities to this Islamophobia.  The remarks now so cavalierly bandied about as characterizations of Islam would not be tolerated if they had been made apropos the practitioners of another faith.  One is tempted to say that the abuse of Islam is the new and fashionable anti-Semitism of America.

Let us consider also another distinct oddity in the present debate.  Among the ‘national’ organizations that have expressed their strong displeasure at the proposed construction of the Islamic Center and mosque is the Anti-Defamation League.  So just what is it that rankles Abraham Foxman and the League about this mosque?  Unless Jews, or more precisely Zionists, have some proprietary interest in this matter, why should their opinion matter so much or at all – their opinion, that is, as Jews rather than as human beings who may, like any one else, feel invested in this subject — and why should they even presume to suppose that their have more of a vested interest in this mosque than Hindus, Buddhists, or Sikhs, all of whom are represented in not insignificant numbers in contemporary America?  At a demonstration last month against another proposed mosque in Nashville, Tennessee, protestors appeared waving American and Israeli flags.  All such evocations of jingoism are nauseous, but should we not be mystified at the presence of demonstrators carrying Israeli flags?  Should we suppose that this signifies that America is fundamentally a country built on the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and are Israeli flags meant to put Muslims on notice that any assertion of Muslim identity, even if this is taking place in a country purportedly built on the edifice of individual liberties and religious freedom, will be taken to be an affront not only to the US but to Israel as well?

That the word ‘Muslim’ itself signifies acute discomfort in the United States is also signaled by what, to people with a modicum of intelligence, must appear as the rather comical and persistent confusion about whether Barack Obama is a Muslim or not.  According to one poll conducted last week, almost a third of all Americans now believe that the American President is a Muslim.  The word ‘now’ is underscored since the figure increased from 18% only a short while ago:  Obama’s apparent defense of the right of Muslims to build a mosque ­at Ground Zero has fostered the impression that he belongs to the Muslim faith.  If other words – at Ground Zero, for instance — in my own discourse have to be underscored,  it is only a sign of the fact that nothing in this discourse is as it seems.  Far from being a Muslim, Obama, according to a White House press release, is a practicing Christian who consults daily with spiritual advisors.  We can marvel at a more apt moment about Obama’s intense religiosity and pray that he does not turn into another Tony Blair, the once boyish-looking Prime Minister turned into an evangelist.  I suspect that the degree to which Obama has now become a fervent and emboldened Christian has some proportional relationship to the degree to which he is imagined to be a Muslim by a good number of Americans.

There are, then, many elements of the discourse surrounding the proposed and inaptly named ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ that need to be parsed in substantial detail; and I shall do the same in subsequent posts over the next few days.  In the meantime, however, the larger meaning of this controversy should not be obscured.  The ‘debate’ – a rather dignified word to describe some of the squabbles in front of the ‘hallowed’ ground, not to mention the rantings of the right that have filled the airwaves – implicates many of the central questions in American history since the ascendancy of the European colonists.  Just what is signfied by the ‘American way of life’?  Why does every dispute become an occasion to affirm, for those on either side of the divide, an American exceptionalism?  Is American exceptionalism itself the pretext for permitting Zionism a special place in American politics, a place that exempts it from the critiques that one might direct at other ideologies?  Why, and in what respects, is religion so critical to the American imagination, and does the United States truly know how to live with religious and cultural difference?  Is the United States at heart a Judaeo-Christian civilization, and, if so, what does it portend for the more recent wave of immigrants?  Is American-style multiculturalism the only template for contemplating diversity and pluralism?  Can American Islam assist in shaping the future of Islam worldwide?  What role if any might Muslims in the United States play in the arguments that seem to inform most contemporary discussions about Islam?   As we begin to unravel these questions, much will be revealed about the meaning of ‘America’ – a meaning in which, for better or worse, every nation is heavily invested, considering the nonpareil symbolism that American presents to the human imagination.

See also Part II, Some Notes on the Politics of Place and Name