The controversy over the Park51 Islamic cultural and religious center in New York has generated controversy that is way out of proportion to any rational assessment of its importance. The so-called "Mosque at Ground Zero" is neither – it is a community center with a prayer space located three blocks from Ground Zero. If you're not familiar with New York, three blocks is much farther than it sounds – the density of buildings and population means that there is an awful lot between the two sites, including churches, businesses, strip clubs, and all the accoutrements of life in the big city.
Try as I might, I can't attribute this flap to anything but religious prejudice, whatever fancy rhetoric it's cloaked in. It's been nine years but we aren't building a memorial at Ground Zero – we're building new buildings – offices, restaurants, apartments will once more occupy the site, so how is it hallowed ground? And even if I buy the "hallowed" argument as anything other than a shibboleth for anti-Muslim bias, to whom is it sacred? There were American Muslims who died in the towers, there were American Muslim first responders who risked their lives and were injured or killed, so doesn't any "memorial" include them? And why isn't the site of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City "hallowed ground," or the IRS office in Austin?
I'm not sure how important this issue is taken on its own, but in a larger picture I think it's very important. First of all, some 56% of Americans according to the polls seem prepared to sacrifice the First Amendment to bias. Yes, all Americans have the freedom to worship when, where, and how they choose unless they are the designated enemy du jour. Secondly, that same proportion of Americans seem to be willing to tar all Muslims with the terrorist brush despite all the evidence that, as with every faith, Christianity and Judaism included, the extremists who would wipe out those of other faiths or forcibly convert them are a small majority
Most disturbing to me, however, is that we seem to be moving in the direction of a clan-based culture. The "culture wars" touted by O'Reilly, Beck, Limbaugh, Coulter, and others on the Right seem eerily similar to what Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes as the clan culture of her native Somalia.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in case you don't recall who she is, was born a Somali and went on to become a Dutch citizen and a member of the Dutch Parliament. She co-produced with Theo van Gogh the film "Submission" that cost van Gogh his life at the hands of an assassin and led to threats against her as well.
Ali's book, "Infidel" is a memoir of her growing up in Somalia and Kenya and her gradual distancing herself from Islam to the point of becoming one of its leading critics. Her criticism of the religion of her birth is couched in terms of her personal struggle with what began as a deep and unquestioning faith and became apostasy. Witnessing that struggle, we are privy to her thought processes as well as her emotional conflict, and it's not always pretty or easy reading.
One of the themes running through Ali's book and life is the rigidly hierarchical clan system in Somalia, which while not based in Islamic law, is closely intertwined with the religion, its practices, and its traditions. Ali's family belongs to a high-caste clan that has traditionally led and governed in Somalia. At the time of her growing up the country is ruled by the brutal dictator Siad Barré, and Ali's father was a leader of the resistance that was ultimately successful in overthrowing the government. Sadly, the result of this revolution was not freedom but vicious civil war among the clans, a war based in old rivalries and prejudices, that is still dominating Somali life today.
When Ali came to the Netherlands and got involved in politics there, she found similarities between the system of political parties there and the clans in Somalia – much the same stereotyping, rivalry, and refusal to cooperate, under a more civilized and peaceful facade. Reading her account of life in both systems, I became increasingly uncomfortable with what I perceived as similarities to life in the US today as we seem to be moving toward increasing polarization and enmity between Right and Left, non-Muslims and Muslims, "native" and immigrants.
It is axiomatic that the United States was founded on principles of individual freedoms (speech, assembly, even the right to bear arms), group freedoms (religion, freedom from discrimination), and protection of minorities under the rule of the majority. More importantly, another critical principle is that these freedoms are based on rights that are "inalienable," that is impossible to take away.
In 1947, the then Department of War made a short film that was rarely if ever shown. The film, called "Don't Be a Sucker" showed how easily the Right in Germany hoodwinked the German people into supporting murderous racism, a process that was echoed in Pastor Martin Niemoller's famous statement ("First they came for the Communists…"). We would do well to remember our Virgil – "the descent to Hell is easy," and to keep in mind that while it may be the Muslims now, sooner or later "they [will come] for me and there [will be] no one to speak up."