Debates across America over Islamic centres and mosques won't soon be resolved. But this summer's hysteria is giving the upper hand to one nefarious force: the culture of offence.
Election-year politics, ratings-hungry media and deep personal fear foment raw emotion. In such an environment, "I'm offended" takes on the stature of a substantive argument. Too many Americans are mistaking feeling for thinking.
That's true not just among anti-mosque crusaders, but also among warriors for tolerance. Consider Bob, who feels so offended by anti-mosque activists in his state of Tennessee that these feelings alone drive him to support more mosques - without prior thought to what, exactly, he's supporting. "I found local citizens to be intolerant and un-American," Bob tells me by e-mail. "So as a gesture of tolerance and Americanism, I donated to the mosque building fund."
Before pledging a penny, Bob should have asked the imam: "Where will the men's side of this mosque be?" It's a discreet way of discerning whether the project will replicate segregation, and thus whether the mosque will wind up bolstering the intolerant behaviour that Bob can't abide.
I am not saying that Bob should cast his lot with anti-mosque demonstrators. I am simply saying he should not give them the power to commandeer his brain by hijacking his heart.
Now apply this point to Park51, the proposed multi-storey Islamic community centre and prayer space to be erected at the edge of Ground Zero. Let me be blunt about my own emotions: I am offended by its proximity to the site of 9/11. I am also disappointed that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf - who is not an Islamist - has nonetheless played crass politics unbecoming of a man of dialogue.
So far, the imam has rebuffed accusations of insensitivity. Yet, he made those very accusations about the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. In a February, 2006, press release, he announced that he was "appalled" by the drawings. He called it "willful fomentation" and "gratuitous" to republish them throughout Europe. In the following weeks, almost no U.S. newspaper printed the caricatures.
Four years later, it is the imam who the majority of Americans believe is engaging in "willful fomentation." Yet, his retinue has not publicly acknowledged that the feelings of these "appalled" Americans parallel how moderate Muslims such as Imam Rauf felt during the cartoon debacle.
But for all the restless offence I feel, I step back and force myself to think. As I wrestle with the issues, I realize that an opportunity exists for something more constructive than anger.
Namely, accountability. If Park51 gets built, thanks to its provocative location, the nation will scrutinize what takes place inside. Americans have the opportunity right now to be clear about the civic values expected from any Islam practised at the site.
That means setting aside bombast and asking the imam questions born of the highest American ideals: individual dignity and pluralism of ideas.
- Will the swimming pool at Park51 be segregated between men and women at any time of the day or night?
- May women lead congregational prayers any day of the week?
- Will Jews and Christians, fellow People of the Book, be able to use the prayer sanctuary for their services just as Muslims share prayer space with Christians and Jews in the Pentagon? (Spare me the technocratic argument that the Pentagon is a governmental, not private, building. Park51 may be private in the legal sense but is a public symbol par excellence.)
- What will be taught about homosexuals? About agnostics? About atheists? About apostasy?
- Where does one sign up for advance tickets to Salman Rushdie's lecture at Park51?
These questions aren't gratuitous. I, for one, remain haunted by the 300 Muslims chanting "Death to Rushdie" on Sept. 10, 2001. They gathered outside a theatre in Houston to protest against a visit by the novelist - the target of a 1989 death warrant from Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomaini. One Muslim told reporters, "The fatwa is valid even if the Iranian government no longer supports it." Another warned, "We have not forgotten about him and his evil act." That man affiliated himself with Houston's Islamic Education Center. Education or indoctrination? The question deserves an honest response.
Through engagement that emphasizes questions like these, Americans of all faiths and no faith at all may very well make the colourful neighbourhood around Ground Zero host to the most transparent, most democratic, most modern Islam - ever.
As a reformist Muslim, I think, and not just feel, that this would be a fitting salute to the victims of 9/11. It would turn the tables on the freedom-hating culture of al-Qaeda. And it would subvert the liberty-lashing culture of offence.
The Wall Street Journal
Irshad Manji is a professor of leadership at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. She is at work on a new book about how to advance liberal reform within Islam.