COMMENT: Mosque in Manhattan —Dr Syed Mansoor Hussain
One of the fears expressed by the opponents of this project that such a centre will eventually become a hotbed of Islamic extremism is entirely misplaced. If and when the centre is up and running, it will probably become one of the most closely watched places of worship in any part of the country
The planned Islamic centre in Manhattan near ‘Ground Zero’ has become quite controversial. The facts are straightforward. The planned centre will, among other things, include a mosque. The project has passed all local zoning laws and has been approved by all relevant authorities. As such there are no legal impediments to building such a centre. More importantly, the proposed building will not even be visible from the site where once the twin towers stood.
The opposition to the project is thus based on the perception that it will somehow offend the sensibilities of the families of those who died on 9/11 after the twin towers came down. Interestingly, most of the opposition to this project is coming from the ‘conservative’ members of the Republican Party and their allies among the Christian right as well as Jewish opponents of President Obama’s perceived stand against Israeli policies.
This is an election year in the US and the Republicans have a chance to regain control of the US Congress. President Obama has become increasingly unpopular with his poll numbers falling almost every day. Even though he is not up for re-election himself, the Republican Party has and will make the upcoming election a referendum on his presidency. The Islamic centre issue thus ties in neatly into the Republican strategy of attacking President Obama personally.
President Obama came out strongly in support of this project. By attacking the project his opponents have not only attacked President Obama politically but have also indirectly raised the question about his religious affiliations. Recent polling in the US suggests that an increasing number of Americans have started believing that President Obama is a Muslim. This helps the anti-Obama lobby by conflating Islam, terrorism and Obama.
Whether American Muslims like it or not, sadly the building of this centre has become a political issue. As such, everything about it is going to be examined in great detail by a relatively hostile pro-Republican media and opposed by all candidates up for election who wish to oppose President Obama or from his own party who wish to show their independence.
Within the US, most American Muslims instinctively support the right of Muslims to build a mosque at any place as long as it does not violate the law. If there is any discussion among them, it is about whether this particular mosque/Islamic centre should be built so close to the place where the twin towers once stood. Difference of opinion though runs along social and political lines. Frankly, I do not have a handle on what American Muslims in general feel about this project but I do have some knowledge about how the Pakistani-American Muslims think of such things.
The Pakistani-American Muslim community is not a monolith. Roughly it can be divided into two broad categories. First are the relatively well-to-do professionals who are established within the general American communities. These include physicians, educators, people involved in finance and other business activities. Most of them are obviously well-educated and aware of their constitutional rights. Then there are the less educated and often self-made people who are usually involved in small businesses and depend on the goodwill of their neighbours to make a living.
The first group is generally supportive of this project because they understand that it is their right under the US Constitution to build such an Islamic centre. Since most of them are well established in their professional lives and have lived through the aftermath of 9/11 without any adverse effects, therefore they feel quite comfortable at present with their American identity. As such they expect that they, as Muslims, will also be afforded the same rights as any other religious denomination in the US.
The second group is made up of less educated and less well established people. This group tends to worry about how they will be treated and what financial disadvantages will result if they are ostracised as a group and possibly victimised for being Muslims. Many of them, especially in the New York area, suffered considerably after 9/11. For them, the basic idea is that it is best not to make waves and not have their communities thrust into the limelight unnecessarily.
The question then is whether this mosque/Islamic centre will ever be built at this particular site. The US midterm elections will be over in a few months. The US public has a very short attention span. It is also definitely going to happen that some new issue will in time take up the attention of the general public. Once that happens, the mosque/Islamic centre will become yesterday’s news and the spotlight focused on it at present will move on elsewhere. Ultimately it will be mundane matters like financing and local realities that will determine the future of this project.
One of the fears expressed by the opponents of this project that such a centre will eventually become a hotbed of Islamic extremism is in my opinion entirely misplaced. If and when the centre is up and running, it will probably become one of the most closely watched places of worship in any part of the country. And I am almost inclined to believe that it will probably be avoided by most ordinary Muslims as a place to visit regularly. For all I know most of the worshipers who will frequent it will probably be either members of the FBI or FBI informers.
However, it might also not be all bad if Muslims make a grand gesture of reconciliation and offer to move the mosque to another place. This will considerably diminish the political pressure on President Obama and other liberal supporters of this project and more importantly take this issue off the table as far as the upcoming midterm elections are concerned.
Personally though I would rather see most of the money destined for the mosque being donated to the flood relief effort in Pakistan.
Syed Mansoor Hussain has practised and taught medicine in the US. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org