Manhattan Mosquerade

My little corner of the world wide web has over the past year fallen into a shocking state of neglect. Un-updated, un-beautified and seemingly uncared-for, it’s hardly surprising that so few internauts have wound up trapped in these gossamer threads. And, who knows, my little Babylon may yet fall again. But in the meantime, I feel that I have something to say. And so long as the wall is my own I see no reason why the writing should not, at last, be on it.

At this moment in time, I happen to be writing from my hotel in Manhattan. In twenty-four hours I will be taking off from JFK aiport, and god knows how many hours later in whichever time zone seems relevant, I will be back on the respectable side of the Atlantic.

Ordinarily, my visits to this colossus of American cities follow a fairly predictable pattern. The shows may change, the exhibits may move on and the dollar may become gradually more expensive, but the structure of my little Manhattan walk-abouts effectively remain unchanged.

Today, however, I happened to have lunch with a friend of mine who is based in the city. Towards the end of our meal, the conversation turned to the subject of the new mosque which is to be built close to the site of Ground Zero. Neither of us had anything planned for the afternoon and so, rather than talk, we got on the subway and decided to see the area for ourselves.

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The issue (and this is where readers who are less than fascinated by the social highlights of my summer season may skip to), for those not keeping a close eye on American politics, is this. Property developers have decided to sell a parcel of land, within a few blocks of the site of the former World Trade Centre, to a group keen to use it to build a mosque. This decision to establish a Muslim presence so close to America’s greatest memorial to Muslim extremism has understandably struck a chord with Americans of all stripes and stars.

The situation was not helped when President Obama made it absolutely clear that no legal or constitutional argument exists to prevent the current plans from going ahead. This, as with so many of President Obama’s pronouncements, has had the effect of a starter’s whistle on athletes just coming out of the changing rooms. In a frenzy of half-baked hysteria, Republicans have begun using the issue to batter the Democrats, Democrats themselves appear divided over the issue, and senior figures are too busy retracting and re-retracting ill-advised comments to offer any guidance.

We’ve now reached the stage – if the polls are to be believed – where a large chunk of the population is uncertain as to their president’s religion. Whereas a year ago only 11% suspected him of keeping an Islamic heritage under wraps, now over 18% believe he is a muslin Muslim.

This is absurd. As is so often the case with the West’s response to the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, this is an embarrassing, misdirected, inappropriate and overblown overreaction.

The mainstream liberal opinion on this issue seems to be: ‘the motivations behind building the mosque there may or may not be suspect – I don’t know. All right – maybe they could have built it slightly further away from the site. But they have every legal right to build it where the Hell they choose, and by their God and mine I’ll fight for their right to do it.’

This is an admirable stance. And ties in very neatly with one of the most common-place pieces of rhetoric on twitter this week: ‘after all, if there’s a McDonald’s in Hiroshima…’

As with all such matters, though, the real opportunity for insight only comes when the theorising is folded away and the facts on the ground are seen in their proper context. Today I had an admirable opportunity to do just that, as I emerged from the subway at Park Place in lower Manhattan.

For the past 9 years the 12 acres surrounding the old World Trade Centre have been a construction zone. After both the rubble and the new building design had been cleared, the foundation stones of the new 105-storey ‘Freedom Tower’ were officially laid. The building is now 9 storeys high, and at the current rate of progress should be completed within the next 3 years.

The site of the proposed mosque, by contrast, is a small aging building a few blocks from the site of Ground Zero. Surrounded by neighbourhood shops and apartment blocks, the structure’s only distinguishing feature was a banner draped across its front declaring ‘Religious Freedom For All’. Two seemingly all-American students with seemingly all-American placards were being interviewed outside the house, doubtless insisting on the inalienable right of Muslims to worship wherever they choose.

Quite honestly and sincerely, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.

Because the message I got from the facts on the ground was this: That the city is moving on. Inexorably, predictably, as the shore re-emerges from the ebbing tide, the past is remembered and put to rest. In the shadow of the Freedom Tower there will be electronics shops, newsagents, police stations, banks, sex shops, hot dog stands, subway entrances and a church. The idea that a mosque, of all things, should not be allowed to benefit from this humbling lesson in American resilience, seems both anti-Freedom and anti-Common sense.

The uproar over the issue has been entirely self-fueling – although Barack Obama’s comments certainly helped stoke the flame. Discussion and debate is productive and necessary. Cynical manipulation of emotionally resonant imagery for political purposes is nauseating and despicable. You have to decide what you’re listening to.

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There is much more that could (and arguably should) be said on the topic, but not now and not by me. Good night all.

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4 thoughts on “Manhattan Mosquerade

  1. My biggest suprise at this was how anyone could criticise Obama’s comments. Did they think it was insensitive of him to only take one side? I don’t see what else he could have said!

  2. It seems that this whole charade exemplifies a very powerful but depressing point: That the most beautiful philosophical ideals, the ideas that renew your faith in humanity, the powerful arguments that persuade us to live in harmony and peace, are irrelevant and meaningless to a great deal of people (many of whom are coincidentally Republican Americans.)

    It is utterly bewildering to see people flee from the moral high ground with such abandon.

  3. Republicans and particularly the Tea Party are always blowing their horns about the American government interfering and extending its reach into places where it has no constitutional legitimacy. Philosophically and ideologically they believe that the government has no right to interfere in the private affairs of individuals; remember according to them, tax is theft.

    But here we have a private organisation, purchasing private property to provide a service to the community and suddenly they cry “Stop them!”

  4. OK, so I feel like a bit of a broken record on this now, but the place is not a mosque. It’s an Islamic Cultural Centre.

    The building houses a 500-seat auditorium, theater, performing arts center, fitness center, swimming pool, basketball court, childcare area, bookstore, culinary school, art studio, food court and prayer space that could accommodate 1,000–2,000 people.

    Yes, part of the building is dedicated to prayer, but that doesn’t make the place a mosque any more than a chapel on an ocean liner makes it a giant, floating church.

    Whilst some might think that I’m splitting hairs on this, I genuinely believe the distinction is important – the range of facilities in the building are geared towards sharing and celebrating Islamic culture and embracing the needs of the growing number of muslim Americans. There’s a basketball court, for heaven’s sake. There’s even a planned memorial for the September 11th attacks.

    It seems clear to me that the building was designed to be something to help improve muslim/non-muslim relations, but due to a tornado of ignorance, misplaced offense and mob mentality, it’s had just the opposite effect.

    The whole debacle is an embarrassment to humankind.

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