The “Ground Zero Mosque” for nice Muslim people.

August 2nd, 2010

But first, a story from Toledo. Ohio, not Spain.

The department of creative writing was taking a visiting poet to dinner at a middle-eastern restaurant called Beirut. The dinner was arranged by one of our professors, Sharona Ben-Tov Muir, and right now I can’t remember the visiting poet. Sharona had just completed a book of poems about her father, who had designed weapons for the Israeli army. She’d reserved a smaller table, thinking few of the grad students would show up, but when we all showed up to the restaurant and waited outside, she went to the managers to request a table for twenty. She came back and ushered us all in. “It was no problem,” she said. “They’re nice Arab gentlemen.”

A few years after that, I began teaching in Dearborn, Michigan, home to the largest concentration of Arab-Americans. I hear Arabic spoken among groups of teenagers in the student union, take roll in classes where Zainab is as common a name as Jennifer, decide between pizza and falafel in the food court. As banal as the word “nice” is, I have to agree with Sharona: Arabs are nice people.

Of course, any characteristic of a diverse group of people has exceptions. That’s what diversity is. There are Arabs who are sort of jerks. Also there are Arabs who are not Muslims and Muslims who are not Arabs.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear that Sharona and the manager of Beirut Restaurant had a certain cooperative rapport. They both live on American soil, both with a long history in a foreign land. Together they can recognize that the wars in their homelands haven’t been good for either of them, that there’s no sense in harboring animosity or directing it at peaceful civilians in America. They have common ground; they’re in it together.

When I’ve seen the debate over the Cordoba House–the proposed Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan–I wonder how unusual my life experience is. A sentence caught me off-guard in Stephen Prothero’s (generally excellent) book God Is Not One: “Most Europeans and North Americans have never met a Muslim, so for them Islam begins in the imagination, more specifically in that corner of the imagination colonized by fear.” I paused when I read that and asked, “Really”? There’s no citation for it in the book, and in my experience it’s a little rare that I go out in Detroit or Dearborn and don’t meet a Muslim or two. You might as well have told me “Most Americans have never seen a sunflower” or “Most Americans have never met a person wearing glasses.”

But it may be right. Maybe Detroit is just that strange. I still can’t fathom, though, making an argument against building an Islamic center on the basis of knowing Muslims through their characterization on 24 rather than talking to them. Some of the arguments against building the mosque are arguments of extent–“too soon,” they say. But in the words of Morrissey, how soon is now? At what point will people stop associating an entire demographic group with their isolated members’ most abject act? Seven years? Twenty years? Fifty years? They say the space in Manhattan is “sacred ground,” but (a) it was a Burlington Coat Factory and (b) what better place for prayer and worship than sacred ground?

As a Buddhist, I know that Islam is not particularly close to my viewpoint and practice. But that doesn’t matter; we’re in this together. I recognize that 9/11 was horrible for all of us. Think of it from the perspective of a mainstream American Muslim: you see an act of terror unfolding in your own country. You’re shocked and appalled. Then some wackjob from Afghanistan shows up on your TV, telling you that he just won a great victory for your people, that you should be proud of what he did. But you don’t feel proud. People in your own country start treating you like an outsider, even more than before. You fear that you’ll get blamed for acts you didn’t do, acts you don’t approve of, acts that your family left another country to escape.

I know it’s a white people cliche to defend a position by saying “Some of my best friends are…” And I’d probably be overstating the case if I claimed “best friends”–I meet Muslims on a regular basis but I can’t say I have any on speed-dial. However, I think we miss the significance of “friends” if we don’t use them to become wiser. So I won’t defend myself or any ignorant views by claiming to have Muslim friends, but I will say that because I have Muslim friends, I want to help them prosper and be happy. When I imagine who will worship in the Cordoba House if and when it is finished, I imagine the people I know in Dearborn, the families, the students, some liberal, some conservative, some speaking English at home, some speaking other languages. Just like America.

In debates about Muslim issues, when we distinguish between mainstream American Muslims and the radical fringe, sometimes people will defend conflating the two, saying, “Why don’t mainstream Muslims stand up and denounce radical terrorism?”

But again, my experience leaves me feeling puzzled about this. Because the mainstream Muslims I meet do denounce terrorism. Have you ever asked a Muslim what they think about terrorism? Why don’t you?

The defense continues, “Why don’t we see mainstream Muslims denouncing terrorism in the news?” I always wonder if this argument is claiming that mainstream Muslims should take a TV news station hostage and force them to report their denouncement of terrorism. News stations report what they want to report, and if it bleeds, it leads, so you might see more violent Muslims than peaceful Muslims on the news. And yet… I don’t watch a whole lot of TV news, but off the top of my head I can remember two times seeing an American Muslim telling a reporter that they do not support terrorism, one in an interview with Barbara Walters and the other with Jon Stewart.

All of us need to improve our skills at listening to each other. Instead of assuming what American Muslims want, we should take time to listen, and be present for the real people who are here with us, rather than the phantoms we see in our nightmares.

One Response to “The “Ground Zero Mosque” for nice Muslim people.”

  1. Ron Krumpos says:

    I know many Muslims, both in the U.S. and abroad, and none of them support terrorism. When asked they will say that the Qu’ran is opposed to it.

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