Ground Zero and The Founders' Civility

Akbar Ahmed is getting some praise for his piece at Salon that works to portray both Terry Jones and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf as men “adding fuel to the fire,” both exhibiting an insensitivity to a “civil” society that’s decided to make them media headlines.

Jones, you know by now, planned to burn the Quran yesterday, then decided he could get more publicity by putting the fire away and flying to New York for 9/11 events. He arrived at 11 pm Friday night wearing a Harley Davidson t-shirt.  Definitely a tough guy.  Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf  is the sometime government  go-to on Christian-Muslim relations who made plans to buy a vacant building downtown and got caught up in a storm of anti-Islam noise by proposing to open a community center in it.  He’s been criticized for not explaining his intentions for the privately-owned site.  Silence too can inflame, I guess.

Ahmed writes:

Jones’ Quran burning means to expose what he calls the “evil” religion of Islam. Rauf wishes to create an Islamic center that would attract interfaith activities and promote understanding. The pastor’s purpose is to provoke; the imam’s to build bridges.

Jones may have underestimated the deep wellspring of religious pluralism in American society, just as Rauf may be guilty of overestimating it. Both men are protected in their actions by the U.S. Constitution.

The Constitution allows the pastor’s freedom of expression to burn books just as much as it protects the imam’s right to build a center of worship.

Yet both have transgressed on civility in American society, a concept very important to the Founding Fathers.

Civil society was what our founding father’s desired?  Not a chance!  Washington may have abided by rules of etiquette enough to write, as Ahmed notes, “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” but he also helped give us a first amendment that invites the most egregious expressions like, say, protesting gay rights at funerals for soldiers.  There’s nothing civil about the first amendment; our rights to freedom, assembly and speech are a profound call to disharmony, to cacophony of competing and opposed ideas.  It’s the substance of that cacophony, the objective of those competing ideas (and ideologies), that’s missing from our current discussion about our post-9/11 world.  Ahmed continues:

Jones has upset those Americans who believe that burning books is disrespectful, abhorrent in American culture and recalls the excesses of the Nazis in 1930s Germany.

And Rauf has refused to bend to the sensitivities of those who believe that ground zero in New York is hallowed ground.

I’ve yet to find a clear articulation of what makes Ground Zero “hallowed ground,” yet the phrase has become a trope in our discussion of the site.  And why should a private investor be sensitive to an overblown media storm?  Ahmed seems to be making Islam the thread of polarity between these two men.  One’s not sensitive to society’s distaste for Islam, the other too brazenly challenges it.

I think what Ahmed misses — with his lining up of these two men and his eventual suggestion that they get together and tour the floodlands of Pakistan (holding hands and singing?) — is that the conversation may appear to be about Islam, but it isn’t.  Not really.

Hatred of Muslims didn’t start with Rauf’s or Jones’ move to newspaper front pages.  It didn’t start with 9/11, either.  But it does currently leaven the patriotic (and strangely nostalgic) bread that our politics and media feed on.  Rory O’Connor, a specialist in “shock jocks,” does a better job of directing us to the broader issue that Terry and Rauf have been amalgamated to represent: a lack of substance or truth in the discussion.

Ultimately, this contrived controversy isn’t about Ground Zero or Islam or even offenses to civility.  It’s about national insecurity:  a floundering economy that’s exacerbated class divides; an increasingly diverse populace and related immigration policy issues, a globalized world, changing social mores, ecological disaster, the foundering cost of two unnecessary and unproductive wars (which have taken well more lives than 9/11).  It’s about the state of America.  And when American (or any other nation’s) identity is in flux, some outside “enemy” or minority group is bound to get the blame.

Ahmed wrongly decides that “the actions of the pastor and the imam have generated a bitter controversy around Islam that has divided homes and communities across America.”  Rather, one’s position on the merits or evils of Islam is just a proxy for an underlying division.  Who are we and what do we do now?

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