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Mosque meltdown: God v. country

Beyond the shouting match: It's worth asking what people owe to their god and their country, and what happens when those loyalties conflict.
Supporters demonstrating in favor of an Islamic prayer center near New York's World Trade Center site.

Supporters demonstrating in favor of an Islamic prayer center near New York's World Trade Center site. David Shankbone

The other day someone asked, “Why didn’t you write something on the Ground Zero Mosque thing?” It sounded as if he was going to go on to say, “Everyone else did,” which would have been part of the answer to his question.

As that controversy boiled, I happened to be reading Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power by the philosopher Josef Pieper. At one point, Pieper makes the observation that, “The place of authentic reality is being taken over by infectious reality.” Pieper’s phrase, “infectious reality,” struck a chord.

Here’s more Pieper: “It is entirely possible that the true and authentic reality is being drowned out by the countless superficial information bits, noisily and breathlessly presented in propaganda fashion.”

Pieper actually wrote this pre-Internet. The Internet has exponentially increased the rapid and relentless spread of “infectious reality,” which is only tangentially related to authentic reality. Particularly successful communication is now described as a sort of epidemic, a story or video is said to have “gone viral.” What’s the inoculation against this virus? Do we have adequate supplies?

The Mosque story, of course, does raise some important questions. And yet the story was an instance of infectious reality overtaking authentic reality.

Moreover, it seemed to me this was a story principally designed to inflame the Culture Wars and galvanize their legions. I resist being conscripted in that war. I resist it because the Culture Wars, like some other wars, seem trumped up, based on faulty intelligence, and designed to bring power and wealth to the few and despair to the many, all the while not solving any actual problems.

I was heartened to read those who wondered which was the better analogy for this story: Was the Ground Zero Mosque this summer’s version of last year’s “Death Panels?” Or was it more like the “Balloon Boy?” (Remember him?) Those comparisons suggest we’re becoming more aware of the way that both media and politicians manipulate us by spreading “infectious reality.” They release a little highly contagious bacteria and sit back to watch.

In mid-August Ross Douthat, a conservative-leaning op-ed writer for The New York Times, tried to locate a middle-ground position on the mosque issue. In a column titled “Islam and the Two Americas” (Aug. 16), Douthat argued that there were two legitimate schools of thought at work — or in conflict — here. One, the religious liberty school, emphasizes freedom of religion. The other Douthat dubbed “cultural assimilation.” This perspective asks newcomers to adopt American culture, language, and values. That struck me as an interesting framing of the issue. Douthat's column aroused relentless attack from the liberal side, for it seemed to credit people like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich.

In truth, the question of how a religion relates to its host culture is a significant, and often vexing, one. That Christianity in America doesn’t more often find itself in tension with national policies and values may not be something Christians should feel particularly proud of.

All too often being Christian and being American are simply equated. Personally, I’ve always admired and appreciated those Christians who are not so assimilated to American norms, for example the Amish and the Mennonites. They remind us, as do Christians the world over, that “Christian” does not equal “American.” When I taught in Canada recently I found Canadian Christians particularly emphatic and sensitive on this point.

How a religious group manages its relationship to the nation and culture around it is a tricky business. Early Christians sought to be in but not of the world, which in their case meant the Roman Empire. They thought of themselves as “resident aliens” and claimed Christians should aspire to such a status. Being resident aliens meant residing in a place, taking part in its life, and contributing, but not totally belonging to it nor completely fitting in or assimilating. Their true home lay elsewhere. It would be an understatement to say that Roman officials did not always appreciate this position.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Sep 1, 9:49 a.m. Inappropriate

It is a huge pleasure to find such fresh thinking and writing in the market place of ideas. Thank you!

Posted Wed, Sep 1, 9:53 a.m. Inappropriate

Good piece. Another conversation worth having is the destruction and defilement of sacred spaces of First Nation Peoples in the Western Hemisphere by these Christian, Jewish, Muslim interloping Johnnie-come-latelys. The Abrahamic faiths do not have a pleasant record in regard to this respect.

Posted Wed, Sep 1, 10:32 a.m. Inappropriate

"Infectious reality" -- I like that. It has a nice ring to it. It carries a sense of a plague spreading inexorably through the madding crowd. But whether the alternatives are truly authentic or just less egregiously contrived is also a topic for exploration. As for me, I'll have the Mosque Meltdown with American cheese and a side of Freedom Fries. Lots of grilled onions but hold the mustard, please.

woofer

Posted Wed, Sep 1, 10:52 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for the thought provoking piece. Having talked with a number of devout Muslims over the years, I have come to realize that the "in the world but not of it" attitude is quite common among the American Muslim community, much more so than it is among American Christians. I suspect the reason for this is the obvious one: Christianity is the dominant religion in the US, especially among the ruling class, and it is possible to identify Americanism with Christianity in a way that is impossible for other religions.

I think that there are a number of parallels between the identity of Muslims in the United States today and Christians in Rome prior to Constantine. Christianity was not just an exotic religion that came from the far reaches of the empire; it developed out of a climate of political and religious turmoil and was associated with such. Probably as a result of the numerous problems that Rome faced in putting down insurgencies in the Middle East, the loyalty of Roman Christians was often in doubt, and the attitude of "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" was not always satisfactory.

Getting back to the twenty-first century, I think that American Muslims have unique challenges in dealing with their religious and national identities due to contemporary geopolitical issues. I've known some who, for instance, are quick to condemn acts of violence associated with Islamic extremism, yet deeply resent having their own loyalty questioned if they disagree with American foreign policies. I've also heard some say that they follow the laws and pay their taxes, but consider the sentiments of patriotism to be folly and wonder why they would be judged on that basis. I've known still others who came to the US with deep resentments toward their home countries and fully support hardline policies toward them.

Posted Wed, Sep 1, 2:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Love the term "infectious reality" as opposed to "authentic reality," and I understand the tension between one's duty to God and duty to country. It's especially painful for Quakers and other pacifists in time of war. But I'm having trouble relating your essay to the issue posed by the proposed mosque in New York (except, of course, as a peg for the discussion of the culture wars from which you are a CO). I don't see any conflict for either the Muslim or Christian religion when it comes to building a mosque and community center at any particular location. The mosque surely does not signify that the Imam and his congregation are in any way opposing their country, adopted or otherwise. They may feel as an article of faith that the other world religions from Zoroastrianism to Christianity are misguided and their practitioners infidels, but they surely are not disloyal to the United States by virtue of their religion. As for the Christians, again they may feel that other religions from Islam to pantheism are misguided and even blasphemous, there is nothing in their religion that makes it intolerable for them to worship down the street from Muslims, is there? To me, the controversy is not about religion at all, but about fear and prejudice. That other countries are theocratic only makes it all the more important that the United States not become a religious state. For the record, religious persecution occurred in the colonies before the Bill of Rights was adopted. At least three Quakers were hanged in Boston in the 17th Century for no other crime than the blasphemy of being Quakers.

arizonan

Posted Wed, Sep 1, 10:26 p.m. Inappropriate

"True and authentic reality is being drowned out by the countless superficial information bits, noisily and breathlessly presented in propaganda fashion."

True and authentic reality?

I am no fan of postmodernism, but I will say this: who's to say people 100, 200, 1,000, 2,000, or 4,000 years had a better idea of what was true and authentic — in spheres outside those with which they were intimately involved — than we do? There have been those who would seek to define reality for others for millennia. Pieper certainly knew that "propaganda" comes from Pope Gregory XV's Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, or Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.

That having been said, the discourse does seem lately to have taken a sharp turn toward the unproductive. Thank you for this piece. There are certainly middle grounds to be found.

Quinn, I don't want to see theocracy of any sort in the United States (or anywhere else, for that matter), but the siting of the mosque is a matter of free speech (well, free exercise of religion) and American (property) law. Has anyone called for legal action against it? That would be contrary to what I would consider to be some pretty fundamental principles of our democracy. No less than Ron Paul has pointed out that this is an issue of private property rights.

I think most people, if asked, would say that the proponents of the mosque have every right to build it where they want, and a subset of those people would say "but I wish they wouldn't build it there." It would then be up to the Cordoba Center to decide on a course of action.

Not being religious, but being very interested in religion, I find this article and comment thread fascinating, and do hope it grows.

Posted Thu, Sep 2, 7:42 a.m. Inappropriate

So the answer to religious conquest by Muslims is religious conquest by Christians? Is another Crusade (War of the Cross) the only possible response to fanatics and terrorists? We have to forswear (good Medieval word) our values and liberties in defense of those values and liberties?

arizonan

Posted Thu, Sep 2, 10:33 a.m. Inappropriate

Quinn,

Do you believe that muslims should be allowed to practice their faith in America? I understand that you don't trust Muslim organizations and that you think that the Muslim faith is striving to convert the whole world to it's laws. Do you think that Muslims can be good American citizens? In an ideal world, what do you think should be done to protect the USA from islam? Limit the areas where mosques could be built? Limiting the money available to islamic organizations? Would you propose a new amendment to the constitution allowing the federal government to ban islam or to limit muslim speech? What about stripping muslims of their citizenship and deporting them back to muslim countries? I am honestly curious - where would you draw the line?

I would point out that each and every accusation you have made against islam could be made against fundamentalist christianity. They strive to convert people to their faith - they send missionaries to foreign nations and finance churches in Africa, Russia, China etc. They want to change the laws of this and other countries to conform to their faith. They want to ban abortions, ban birth control, force public schools to have official prayers and to teach their faith as science. They want to only elect "godly" candidates. They want to control the media, ban non-religious movies and TV shows, ban rock and roll and hip-hop. Promise Keepers and others like them talk constantly about how men should dominate their household, and how women should be subservient. Historically Christianity and Christians have been as violent as any religion. Just ask the natives of south America how it felt to be conquered by and forcibly converted by Christians.

I will admit there is a difference between a promise keeper saying that the man should rule the household and an imam stating you should beat your wife. I would never, ever want to live in Saudi Arabia. Fundamentalist Christians are certainly not as foreign and frightening to me as a member of the Taliban. However, both religions make no bones about converting the world to their views. So how do you make the distinctions? What's the difference other than one religion was practiced by our ancestors, and the other was not?

I would like to think about the symbolism of naming the islamic center after Cordoba. After muslims conquered spain there were a few centuries where jews, muslims and christians lived in harmony. The jews and christians were second class citizens, but only barely - which is amazing given the savagery of the world in 700 - 900 A.D. The golden age of muslim spain fell apart when more dogmatic and less tolerant muslim rulers came to power. Then the muslims fought savagely amongst themselves, and their christian and jewish subjects rebelled. This allowed the tiny christian kingdoms in the north of spain to re-conquer the entire peninsula. Perhaps we can learn a lesson from that.

sdstarr

Posted Thu, Sep 2, 10:41 a.m. Inappropriate

All this reminds me of the 1950s. Substitute Islam for Communism and all we need is another McCarthy. When will the HUAC interrogations resume? I often wonder how weak is the Christian God that he/she is threatened by -isms from all sides? An Anglican bishop (J.B. Phillips) made the point years ago in a book titled, "Your God is Too Small." Or are we talking not about Christianity but about the United States. If the latter, then I think we won't need help from outside to bring us down. We are capable of that all by ourselves.

arizonan

Posted Thu, Sep 2, 10:43 a.m. Inappropriate

By the way, Quinn. I have questioned your reasoning and your ideology but I have not insulted you. I do not need to be the object of epithets from you. I would not take "Sheik Ariz" as an epithet if it were not for the arguments you've been presenting.

arizonan

Posted Thu, Sep 2, 12:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Of course it's beyond property rights. "Civic sanity" is a good way to put it.

As far as shariah-compliant finance goes, that makes as much sense to me as eruvim. But I think we all digress.

One question is, if religious folk should strive to be in the world but not of it, and they make up the majority, just what is left to assimilate to?

Posted Thu, Sep 2, 12:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Quinn -

I must say one of the stupidest arguments I've heard against this Mosque is that it shouldn't be allowed by our government until they allow the construction of churches in Riyadh, Teheran and Damascus.

By this kind of upside down logic, the U.S. should legalize stoning of women and killing of gay people since that's how it is over in the Middle East too. By what kind of crazed logic would we cede our Constitution and our laws to those of crazed Middle Eastern countries?

The 2nd stupidest argument against the Mosque at Park Place is that it's somehow indecent to build it near Ground Zero. Some people call the site hallowed ground. Yet they have no problem with a 100 story commercial building being built right at Ground Zero.

If you've ever seen the sight, there's nothing hallowed or sacred about it. Nothing has been rebuilt yet except WTC 7. The main trade center area is just a big construction pit. When it's all done, it's going to be filled with office workers and commuters running to catch their trains.

Posted Thu, Sep 2, 3:54 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm all for God and Country, just so long as we don't get the two mixed up.

Posted Thu, Sep 2, 4:44 p.m. Inappropriate

Why are we asking what other countries do? Are we to model our laws, policies - indeed our culture - on some kind of tit for tat? You stop beating your women and we'll stop abiding by the First Amendment? I'm with Jon Stewart - radicals of every variety will be angry no matter what we do, so why don't we stop worrying about what other people think and adhere to our own values. For that matter, why are we engaging in some kind of race to the bottom? Whose religion is more cruel and oppressive? Religions do not make for good governments, period.

arizonan

Posted Thu, Sep 2, 8:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Not to say that I haven't read enough about this to make up my own mind, but even if I hadn't, the fact that the Jewish mayor of New York thinks this controversy is ridiculous would be fairly convincing. In this world today, the Christians howling about this Muslim community center aren't the ones who should feel most threatened by any supposed fundamentalists Islamists involved. If Jews don't think this place will be dangerous, the rest of you should just calm down and worry about the really things this country's facing.

sarah

Posted Thu, Sep 2, 9:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Arizonan -

Exactly my point!!! Why are the Tea Partiers asking that our actions be based on some Muslim countries? So are the Tea Partiers going to be asking to stone women in America since that's what they do in the Middle East? It's pure lunacy and it should be called out as such. We have our own Constitution and that's what should be our guiding law. This developer has met all of the applicable laws of New York City and the City Council has approved it. They have millions of dollars left to raise so the construction of the new building is far from a done deal. However, the decision to site it should be ruled by our laws not the laws in some Middle Eastern country.

Posted Thu, Sep 2, 9:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Quinn -

You mention Governor Patterson as a calming influence in this debate. Why does this conversation need a compromise when the church involved is doing nothing wrong in any way? How would you like it if you were drummed out of your home or your place of business simply because FoxNews and Glenn Beck needed some ratings?

Patterson's motives are also questionable because he's embroiled in his own scandal involving some baseball tickets and him lying about how he received them. So he's trying to wrap himself around another issue to deflect the light away from him.

Patterson's proposal to provide this Muslim group a state funded site is completely illegal. It completely violates the separation of church and state. The government has no right to spend taxpayer money to support this Muslim Mosque. They should raise they own money.

Posted Fri, Sep 3, 8:48 a.m. Inappropriate

Regardless of how the state government is getting involved, I think it's inappropriate for them to wield their muscle in chasing a religious group out of a location that they chose. Governments are classically BAD at doing real estate. Maybe if the developer is really smart, he can sucker the government into a discounted price, buy the state-preferred land, then immediately resell it and make millions off of a quick real estate flip.

Pardon me for pointing out the obvious but if the Muslims have a need for a place of worship in the Lower Manhattan neighborhood, what use is Bernie Madoff's building on the Upper East Side? So now we're going to let Governor Paterson choose an 'appropriate' location, even though that location isn't where the people live? Sounds pretty ridiculous for me.

Posted Fri, Sep 3, 10:01 a.m. Inappropriate

I still can't understand how people seriously want the state government to force a church into a location that the government essentially is choosing. That's my point. That seems to be ok to you. I find that completely ridiculous. Namely, that you trust the government in choosing a location for a church.

Would you give Governor Gregoire a free hand to pick the location for a disputed church in Seattle?

Plus, let's not forget that the root of this debate is tainted with Muslim-bashing or Muslim-phobia. We would not be having this conversation if a Catholic or Jewish church wanted to build near Ground Zero would we?

Posted Sun, Sep 5, 3 p.m. Inappropriate

Quinn -

Every Church has these strict doctrines. And I think the general worshippers just ignore it. When you say, "Every Moslem is required to uphold and implement it in the public sphere", I think you overstate your case. It's like saying the Catholic doctrine on birth control is never to use contraception and practice the rhythm method of birth control. Millions of Catholics has given the Pope the big finger on this doctrine. I doubt many Muslims follow things as strictly as you allege.

I live in NYC and we have over 600,000 Muslims and I have yet to hear of any reported outbreaks of Shariah law or complaints about it. I think my search for Shariah law in NYC would be about as fruitful as a search for the key to the Midway.

So what are some examples of Shariah law that must be upheld in the public sphere?

Posted Mon, Sep 6, 8:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Quinn -

None of these cases you cite alarm me in the least and hardly rise to the level of a Muslim takeover of the United States which the Tea Baggers and the Evangelicals seem to indicate is the goal.

For starters, I don't believe any of these alleged stories without backup. I assume them to be false because largely, they are.

Funny you should mention the Newburgh Four. I've actually met a lawyer who is involved in that case and here in New York, that case has been completely discredited. It was, in fact, entrapment by the FBI and the government lawyers have been withholding documents because it would hurt their case against these 4. So just scratch that off your list. If anyone should be indicted, it should be the FBI. Here's a link to a story by Democracy Now.....

http://www.democracynow.org/2010/6/15/headlines/trial_of_newburgh_four_delayed

Another phony story that the anti-Mosque crowd is spewing is that the building where the muslims currently worship, the old Burlington Coat Factory, was hit by the landing gear from the plane that hit the trade tower. Obviously, this is made up since the planes flew into the buildings and no plane debris was ever recovered from street level. Nothing. What are they trying to claim, one of the unextended landing gears just randomly dropped off the bottom of the jet? Yet again, the tea crowd makes up this phony stuff. I had a guy try to tell me this yesterday. I just laughed in his face.

Posted Tue, Sep 7, 8:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Psychic marker? More like a lying marker. It's pretty much impossible to have an honest conversation when you're so comfortable with lies. The landing gear lie by the Tea Bagger crowd just sends out a huge flag of desperation in my book. The people in New York know it's a lie. It's just used to manipulate the less informed and less intelligent crowds to get them inflamed. And to make them think this Mosque is anywhere near ground zero, which it's not. You can't even see Ground Zero from the Park 51 building.

The overall fraud to your whole argument here, Quinn, is that the entire Muslim community is somehow implicated by the actions of a few.

Posted Wed, Sep 8, 4:18 a.m. Inappropriate

I have no problems with disagreement, Quinn. I have a problem when groups make up stories, like the landing gear story, just to inflame people who don't know any better.

The description of the Mosque at Ground Zero, was also incorrect. It's not a Mosque, it's a community center. And it's not at Ground Zero, it's 2-4 blocks away, depending upon how you measure it. These kinds of lies concern me. I'm not the least bit surprised by your anger for me calling out the lies and then trying to blame me.

This part of town is also not a burial ground or a sacred site. It's a construction zone with cranes and trucks all over the place.

Unlike you Quinn, I've been to these rallies. I'm entirely correct when I call them Tea Party rallies. I've talked to some of these people. I've personally seen the Don't Tread on Me flags. I've seen the anger they have toward all Muslims. As a result of these rallies and the commentaries on Fox News, violence has escalated against Muslims across the country. Here in New York, a cabby was stabbed by a young man after he was asked if he was Muslim. Gunshots were reported at other Mosques around New York City.

I've heard the speeches, where they've essentially declared war on the entire Muslim population. It seems similar to encampment of the Japanese during World War II and I find that pretty frightening that we could repeat that dark part of our history.

Posted Wed, Sep 8, 8:12 a.m. Inappropriate

Quinn -

I guess I'm not familiar with the tactics of the Tea Party as you appear to be. I didn't call the Tea Party my enemy.. you did. I enjoy talking with them and they treat me fine since I'm white and middle aged. Their rally here was quite funny actually. There was a black guy with a white skull cap who was a Tea Party supporter. But somehow the crowd thought he was Muslim and the crowd turned on him and the Police had to step in to protect him. That's how weird these rallies are.

I made no mention of a 'Personal Apocalypse'... you did. Pretty melodramatic I must say. You should come to the protests on Sept 11th. Bring your 'Don't Tread on Me' flag.

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