Tag Archive | ground zero

The Day the World Changed – Conversation – Edinburgh


Saturday 27 August, 9.30am – 10.30am

St John’s Church (Venue 127), Edinburgh

As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11 what is the legacy of that day and the conflict which ensued? Is the predicted ‘clash of civilisations’ being played out? We welcome Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the Cordoba Initiative in Manhattan and visionary leader of the so-called ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ – who was at the eye of the storm last September as US public opinion wrestled with the bitterness of 9/11, the threatened burning of the Quran, overseas wars in Muslim countries and growing Islamophobia at home. Can the US exorcise the ghosts of 9/11? In conversation withProfessor Hugh Goddard from the Alwaleed network of centres promoting mutual understanding between the World of Islam and the West.

In partnership with the Prince Alwaleed Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World at the University of Edinburgh. www.alwaleed.ed.ac.uk

 For further details and tickets:  www.festivalofspirituality.org.uk


Explaining Islam to the Public

I have just read the following superb post from Edward E. Curtis IV, entitled Explaining Islam to the Public. Whilst I suggest that you have a look yourself, I have pulled out what I consider to be the most relevant bits… mostly on Shari’a Law and Violence.

He begins with a cautionary tale on how Scholars of Islam were suddenly called upon to become public spokespeople in the decade since 9/11:

“Perhaps no group of scholars has had as much at stake in the public understanding of religion of late as Islamic studies specialists. The attacks of 9/11 indirectly created opportunities for career advancement for Islam specialists. […] The expectation that Islamic studies scholars were prepared to “cover” the Islamic tradition and speak to its beliefs and practices on a normative, global basis was stressful for many of us. The idea that we could speak with authority about the practices of 1.4 billion people who speak dozens of languages and have inhabited the planet for the last 1400 years is absurd, of course. Like other academics, Islamic studies scholars are trained in certain fields of knowledge; in the best of programs, they are trained to be exceedingly careful about claiming too much. The pressures to become the academic voice of Islam both on campus and in the media frequently led scholars to abandon caution.”

He continues with a response to the Ground Zero Mosque fiasco, ‘shedding light on Muslim contributions to the histroy of the United States’ and concluding that:

“It may be a strange, even perverse fact of history, but Islam in New York began on or near Ground Zero.”

He then enters into an extended discussion of a piece he wrote for the Washington Post on addressing their proposed ‘myth’, that “Mosques seek to spread shari’a law in the United States”.

Following the scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl, I responded to the myth about shari‘a by writing that shari‘a is an ideal, that it is not codified, and that the human attempt to realize this ideal is called “fiqh,” or jurisprudence. I said that most contemporary mosques don’t actually teach the shari‘a because it is too dry, too pedantic, too arcane. I stressed that mosques devote their weekend classes instead to discussions of the Qur’an and the Sunna and how they apply to everyday life. […]

My answer hadn’t exactly been wrong, but my response to the question was not sufficient. In addition, it did not respond explicitly to the public’s biggest fears, for instance, about the cutting off of hands and stoning. When a Middle East studies newsletter asked for permission to reprint the piece, I kept some of my original answer but added the following: “most mosques in the United States teach only those parts of the shari‘a having to do with religious rituals and obligations. They do not teach the part of the shari‘a having to do with criminal law.” And further: “Few Muslim Americans advocate a shari‘a-based theocracy. Instead, most Muslim Americans insist that democracy is the most Islamic system of governance in the world today.”

Getting rightly annoyed about the one way process of this question and answer approach, he continues:

Responding to the public’s misconceptions about Islam is part of what we do.  But if we cannot question the assumptions on which questions are posed, we cease to be critics. We must retain the ability to ask questions as well as to answer them. The problem with my Washington Postpiece was that I did not explicitly name the prejudice that was animating the question about the shari‘a in the first place. As recent legislation passed in Oklahoma demonstrates, there is a special animus on the part of millions of Americans toward shari‘a, which is viewed, like Islam more generally, as particularly dangerous.

As I reflect on my moment of high-profile public scholarship, and on teaching religion more generally, I want to conclude with two further responses to the “myth” that “mosques seek to spread shari‘a law.” First, perhaps my response to the myth should have been: Yeah, but so what? Most American religious organizations seek to educate others about their ethics and rituals, and that is exactly what most of the shari‘a taught in American mosques is all about. Second, most Muslim Americans are not “spreading” shari‘a; they are trying to figure out how to apply it to their own lives.

And finally, on the widespread conception that Islam is a very violent religion, and the clash of interests between the USA and ‘Islam’:

There is a clash of interests between the U.S. and those whose lives it seeks to shape, often in its own image. But this story does not begin in Mecca; it begins in Washington. Middle Easterners, including Osama bin Laden, were not fantasizing when they saw the U.S. establish military bases in the Gulf region nor when it restored the Kuwaiti amirate to power in 1991, when it intervened on behalf of both the Iraqis and Iranians in the Iraq-Iran war, when it shelled Lebanon in the 1980s, and the list goes on. This is not primarily a story about religious fanaticism but a story about secular, imperial power.

[…] we should spend more time exposing the political contexts in which popular understandings of Islam and religion more broadly are generated, disseminated, and used. And if we must produce a sound-bite about Islam’s role in making violence for the media, then let it be this: “Islam is not the cause of violence, but it does offer one means of resistance to U.S. political, military, and economic domination in Muslim lands.”

A thoroughly engaging post, which contained almost nothing I could disagree with. Here’s hoping as many people as possible read it. I’d also suggest reading some sections from my Very, Very Short Introduction to Islam. Enjoy.

Respect to you, President Obama: On the utter ridiculousness of objecting to Mosques in Lower Manhattan

I know this has been a regular item in the news for quite a while now, but after seeing President Obama’s great speech on the BBC News website today, I thought I should put in my oar also.

Here are the three main reasons why I think it is utterly ridiculous to object to a mosque being constructed a few blocks away from Ground Zero. If I think of any more later on I will add them on:

1. What does hallowed ground mean?

Obama states:

“We must all recognise and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan, Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”

Now, at this point we could get into a big discussion on the notion of the sacred and the profane… a debate which infuses the discipline of Religious Studies and shall probably continue to do until the end of time. This would, however, be tangential and somewhat academically dry. Whilst people may debate with me on the specifics, I don’t think anyone is going to argue that Ground Zero is not, in some sense, hallowed. But calling a piece of ground sacred or hallowed is simply a means of stating that it has great significance in the lives, hearts and minds of the community of people who hold this piece of ground to be hallowed. It is an acknowledgment that an event occurred at this site which binds people together through shared grief, pain and commitment to renewal and the national identity. This “hallowedness” may even have a spiritual element, and individuals may choose to interpret this “hallowedness” through their own religious stance, however no one person or religious group holds the monopoly to the “hallowedness” of this site. The site is, in a sense, sacred… it is, in a sense, hallowed… but it is hallowed to the nation and has an oxymoronic sense of national secular sacredness. This is a sacredness that is perhaps felt more strongly by American citizens… but it is the same sacredness that any human being will feel upon visiting the war graves of the Somme, or the memorial at Auschwitz even if they have no personal connection to the horrors that took place their themselves.

Religious people are entitled to interpret this feeling of hallowedness/sacredness through their religious beliefs. But they do not have the monopoly to claim that their interpretation is the only valid one. And there is nothing oxymoronic about an agnostic, atheist or nonreligious person experiencing and fully appreciating this hallowedness also. Ground Zero is a hallowed site. But most definitely not in an exclusively Christian sense. If people have a problem with one religious building being constructed in the near vicinity, then they should have a problem with ANY religious building in this area, and not the buildings of one particular religious tradition.

2. How near is “near”?

This is a fairly basic point but one which carries a lot of weight.

Where exactly do people draw the line? I believe, with President Obama, that “Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country” [the USA]. However, even if someone was able to convince me that there was a justifiable reason for keeping mosques away from Ground Zero, how far exactly would be deemed far enough away to not cause offence?

According to the Washington Post (Bloomberg News), New York currently has more than 100 mosques (compared with just 10 in 1970). Of these mosques 17 are in Manhattan (see here). I suppose it was only a matter of time before people threw up a stink about this… but seriously, where do you draw the line? One block, 10 blocks, 20 blocks, a different island, a different city, a different state, a different country? Everyone has different subjective boundaries in their heads… but the fact is that there is a specifically designated memorial area at Ground Zero, and apart from this it is all down to individual idiosyncrasy.

I put it to those who object to a mosque being constructed in the vicinity of Ground Zero that their “sensitivity”, whilst being grounded in a real relationship to a traumatic event, is based largely on prejudice and misunderstanding and is a small step away from the “sensitivity” that would see mosque construction being opposed throughout the USA.

As President Obama said:

“This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.”

3. Finally, and most importantly, MUSLIM does not equal TERRORIST!!!

I can’t beleive that, in this day and age, I am still having to write this.Yes, the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks were Muslims. There is a lot of debate in the Islamic community as to whether they can even still be called Muslims for carrying out such a heinous crime. And of course there is a minority who believe that their actions were righteous. For a much fuller discussion on the matter of contemporary Islam and terrorism, please see the final section of my previous post “A Very, Very Short Introduction to Islam”. How Muslim or non-Muslim the terrorists were is not really the issue here… the fact is that equating Islam with terror is exactly the same as making sweeping statements like “All Catholics support the IRA” or “All Southerners are in the KKK”. Seriously, what if the 9/11 attack had been carried out by the IRA? I’m sure the USA wouldn’t have gone to war with the UK and the Republic of Ireland for harbouring terrorists, but would the reaction be the same if a group of Irish American Catholics wanted to build a chapel in the vicinity of Ground Zero? Well, who knows…

And lest we not forget, Muslims – whether American citizens or foreign workers – were also the victims of the 9/11 attacks. According to a 2002 BBC News article, there were an estimated 70 Muslims killed in the Twin Towers. Also, a blogger who seems to have done quite a bit of research conservatively estimates 28 innocent Muslims died that day. By objecting to the construction of a mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero, opponents of this development spit in the faces of the families of those innocent Muslims who died that day. If these opponents were truly representative of Western society, is it any wonder that terrorists feel justified in their actions? Sarah Palin, a fine example of this hatred and ill-education wrote “to build a mosque at Ground Zero is a stab in the heart of the families of the innocent victims of those horrific attacks”. I put it to you, Sarah, that your narrow-mindedness, prejudice and petty pandering to the lowest common denominator is a perfect example of one of the gravest ills affecting Western society today, and can only serve to perpetuate division, oppression, victimisation and an end to freedom and liberty.

This is not a defence of Islam. I have many issues with Islam as a religion, and I am very aware that calls to violence and aggression are present throughout the Qur’an, the Hadith and the founding principles and stories of the faith. But I am also aware that it is not my place to judge a group of people on the basis of the literature and traditions that they hold dear. Just as there will always be Christians who think homosexuality is an abomination, that the world was created in six days and that it is okay to bomb abortion clinics, just as there will always be atheists who would fight tooth and nail to remove all traces of religion from our cultures, leaving music, art, literature, philosophy etc as but pale shadows of what they once were, so too there will always be those in the Islamic community who believe in violence and terror as a valid means of protest against the “Western” way of living. Do we assume that the same debate that ensues in non-Muslim contexts surrounding these and other issues, does not occur within Muslim communities across the globe? Do we assume that Muslims not only all think in exactly the same way, and have exactly the same opinions on every issue, but that also our caricature of their beliefs, thoughts and practices is universally applicable in all times and places? Erm… no…

So, before you go calling for restrictions on “other” people’s freedom, at least give the above three points some thought.

If you still come out feeling justified in your opinion then let’s talk some more.

“The writ of the founders must endure.”

Respect to you, President Obama!

Informative Links

For an excellent satirical spoof on this story, see OUTRAGE OVER PLANS TO BUILD LIBRARY NEXT TO SARAH PALIN

For coverage on the worrying publicity generated by Pamela Geller, see The US blogger on a mission to halt ‘Islamic takeover’

A quite amusing, Taiwanese take on the whole thing

And a BRILLIANT, 12 minute berating of those who would object to this “Mosque” by Keith Olbermann

And an excellent article on tolerance in Lebanon: The Ground Zero Synagogue in Lebanon