Unveiling Fear & Prejudice

Embracing the Cordoba Mosque Initiative could create a more progressive path for US-Islam relations.

An innocuous building in Lower Manhattan could have housed the Cordoba Initiative Mosque and Cultural Centre, a venture with enormous progressive sybolism for US-Islamic relations[Reuters]

What if Cordoba House in Lower Manhattan (ground-zero mosque) was given the green light? Would not that ‘single building’ have done wonders to the repair of seemingly irreparable US-Islam relations and to the US’s own image in the Muslim World? The cultural centre may never be established. But what is already created in its stead is an image of an anti-Islam America in the minds of millions of Muslims the world over.

Against conventional wisdom, this commentary argues that America stands to shape the future of Islam and of US-Muslim relations by resisting restriction against the creation of Cordoba House. 

New York’s Ground-zero is a place of devastation. Indeed, it is a memorial for thousands who have suffered bereavement from an act of lunacy and hatred. But ground-zero stands also as a metaphor for the state of US-Islam relations, which have hit their nadir since the tragic events of 9/11. To reciprocate hatred at the expense of America’s well-known standing for free worship demeans the US’s historical role as a beacon of humanity and tolerance.

Increasing Fear

The chorus of protests against the mosque may attest to increasing fear of Islam and prejudice against Muslims in the US. As a Mecca of religious freedom, the US must not fall prey to negative emotions, namely, fear, hatred and prejudice.

Construction of the project would furnish the building blocks for a brand of Islam reared in the heart of New York and reflecting the ‘American way’: rational, cosmopolitan, multi-cultural, peaceful, tolerant, open, equal, de-gendered, diverse and voluntary. However, short-sightedness deriving from fear and prejudice seems to deny all Americans this potential and opportunity.

It would have been a win-win outcome. Billions of dollars are spent on shoring up the continuously sinking image of the US in the Muslim world but to no avail. Where would humanity be today had not societies been able to forgive each other, in the wake of the montrous atrocities of the twentieh century?

America is not asked to forget the events of 9/11. But to forgive by embracing the mosque project, which could show a different path for the greater sake of mutuality, equality, reciprocity, tolerance and co-existence.

The renovation of the cultural centre is no surrender to Islam. Acquiescence to fear, hatred or prejudice is capitulation. America has always in moments of darkness, such as during the two great wars, made a difference to the world. It helped defeat Nazis and Fascists, it spoke in favour of de-colonization, and it funded European and international post-war reconstruction. The construction of Cordoba House would have written a new chapter of enlightenment in ‘America’s book’ from which others could have taken a leaf or two.

Poisoned Relations

Europeans could have needed a leaf. Their fear and prejudice are conspicuous. Like Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in the 1980s, in the beginning of the third millennium the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, burqah and minaret restrictions have poisoned Islam-Europe relations.

September 11 is a moment when the benighted mind of dozens of Muslims seems to have hijacked not only passenger planes. But also, and more importantly, such an ignorant mentality today hijacks a whole religion.

In reciprocity or not, benighted acts ranging from the ill-treatment of the largely Muslim detainee populations in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay to the Danish cartoons, Dutch MP Geert Wilder’s call for the ban of the Qur’an, the Holy Book of Muslims, blatantly feed off fear of Euro-American Muslims and prejudice against them.

Led by French President Sarkozy, parliament in France has since July 2010 outlawed the burqah (or niqab – full face-covering garment). The legislation violates the constitution and the EU Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The law stands to confine women to the private sphere where they usually do not veil. Veiling is a means for gaining mobility and presence in the public realm.

France has always tended to be less liberal and tolerant than neighbouring Britain, and for that matter the US. Damian Green, the UK coalition government’s Immigration Minister, has allayed Muslim fears of a similar ban in Britain and won plaudits, simply saying that a ban would be ‘un-British’ and against traditions of mutual respect and tolerance. 

Like the 9/11 acts, various European displays of prejudice, hatred or ignorance demean their authors. They play into the hands of all those who misuse this state of affairs to their own nefarious ends and schemes, Muslim and non-Muslim.

Establishing Identity

One question begs answers in the post-9/11 world: Are Muslims living in the West American or French citizens who happen to be Muslim? Or are they Muslims who happen to be American, Australian or French? These are questions aimed at the establishments in the West. They are equally questions only Muslims of different Western nationalities can address according to the local reality, law of the land and within the realms of what is possible and not.

What is vital is that Muslims living in the West must keep in mind two points. One is that adaptability is the function of intelligent creatures. Islam has historically been very adaptable. This is the secret to Islam’s success in spreading to all corners of the globe. The Swiss Muslim community has absorbed the ban on minarets gracefully and intelligently.

After all, worship in Islam is an inner act of faith. It is substance not form that matters most. A mosque is primarily a house of spiritual submission to and unison with God.

The second point is that often cultures – and not constitutions – which in practice serve as the main frames of reference when determining the substance of rights even in consolidated democracies. Western cultures are predominantly Christian even if politically tend to be secular.

Christian sensibilities are not altogether ignored in the crafting of some policies. France, for instance, favours today Christian migrants from Eastern Europe whose assimilation is easier than Muslims from North Africa.

Today there seems to be reciprocal Muslim and Western fear. The anti-Muslim prejudice that tempts the benighted mind inside Western individuals or agencies in positions of power must be resisted by all. This is vital lest Euro-American Muslims become the victimized masses at the margins of the new millennium. They are human beings who happen to be Muslim, and not Muslims who happen to be human beings.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

More from Author
Most Read