The Manhattan tolerance test
This has to be one of the most talked about planning applications ever. The “ground zero mosque” application in lower Manhattan seems to have whipped up an almighty controversy in the US and is now swimming its way across the Atlantic and around the world.
The first two problems with the ground zero mosque controversy is that it is not actually about a mosque and it is not actually in ground zero. Ground zero refers to the site where the Twin Towers stood – a large area, fenced off, currently undergoing a lengthy reconstruction – one I viewed myself when I visited New York just a couple of months ago. The building in question is not at that site. It is not even in the same block as that site. It is in fact a whole two city blocks away which would likely take a good ten minute walk. On the way you would pass a betting shop, numerous grocery stores, a strip club and several fast food outlets. Hallowed ground this is not, so let’s dispense with that particular hyperbole for a start. The next exaggeration is the idea that we are talking about a mosque. What is being proposed is a community centre for Muslims and non-Muslims to visit and the plans include a gym, food halls and a swimming pool. I don’t know many mosques that incorporate swimming pools. There is a prayer area within the proposed centre but that is as part of a wider community centre.
The final hysteria to confront is an idea emanating from the American right that the organizers behind this planning application are somehow Muslim radicals. Nothing could, in fact, be further from the truth. The director of the mosque is actually paid by the FBI and the State Department to travel round the world and promote the virtues of America to Muslims. He espouses the values of a secular democracy to friend and foe alike and – before anyone gets any ideas about this being some naïve, socialist, lily livered, profligate programme by the Obama administration – he was actually first employed by the George W Bush administration. An example of extremism he is clearly not. He is, however, a wholesome example of the opposite; the kind of Muslim who stands up to and against extremism.
And that brings us to what, for me, is the nub of the argument. There is a difference between extreme Muslims and those who are not. The vast majority of Muslims are in the latter category, preferring peaceful coexistence to violence in any form. It is one thing to refuse to allow extremists to build anything in New York (or indeed anywhere for that matter) but it is quite another to say the same should apply to all Muslims. Doing so simply conflates the two, suggesting that all Muslims are the same as extremists. That is, of course, exactly what the extremists want.
When researching the biographies and ideology of Islamic extremists I found that a core mind set they wanted to infect potential followers with is the idea that all Muslims are detested by the West and so the only way of survival is to fight back. In their warped view, the attacks on 9/11 were supposed to be a form of self defence. They try hard to spoon feed this twisted, black is white notion to vulnerable potential recruits who may have experienced some form of racism or rejection in their personal lives. So to create an atmosphere where peace loving Muslims feel unwelcome because they are considered the same as terrorists makes it a lot easier for some of the more suggestible and easily led, members of the religion to fall prey to the recruiter’s dangerous but potentially seductive rhetoric.
The best argument against that world view is, of course, that America – like the rest of the democratic West – is a place of freedom and tolerance. Demonstrating this at every opportunity is truly the best way to fight radicalism, that way the bogey man they construct can be shown up for the pure fantasy and projection that it certainly is. The US has an opportunity to do just that right now, not by banning this centre, but by enabling it. I am extremely proud to see that this is exactly the direction in which President Obama has pointed. As has New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
Tolerance is the very virtue we defend. What ever else the extremists may deprive us of, we must all make sure that this is something they do not take.
Dr Russell Razzaque is a London-based psychiatrist and author of ‘Human Being to Human Bomb: The Conveyor Belt of Terror’. Picture: Getty Images.Tagged in: Americas, Ground Zero
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