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