Ground Zero Mosque & Koran-Burning: the Xian Right Learns ID Politics

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Just about anyone with a website has already commented on this. There is no doubt the Christian right has responded as predictably and disturbingly as one might expect. I have only a few thoughts.

1. The Ground Zero ‘Mosque’ is probably a bridge too far at this point. In his fumbling way, I think Obama got it right. The community center should be permitted legally as an expression of religious freedom, but so many Americans, especially Christians, find it uncomfortable at minimum, terrifying at worst, that it is probably not a good idea at the moment. It is clear misstep in a country still trying to come to grips with 9/11, Iraq, the GWoT, etc. And the hysterical reaction from the US right over it should be an obvious red-flag to Islam generally that it desperately needs to conciliate the rest of the world rather than insist maximally on its rights – an obvious lesson that should have been learned in Europe, India, or after Durban II. To many Americans, Ground Zero is practically holy ground (rightly or wrongly), and it is indisputable that its perpetrators acted in Islam’s name. It is also clear that the US is spending a great deal of blood and treasure pushing back on radical Islam, and that many Americans want to see a pleasant, conciliatory face on Islam before they can swallow something like this. So long as global Islam’s image is dominated by this guy, Muslims in American should really be working bottom-up outreach, demonstrating on 9/11 in solidarity with the victims rather than openly testing the patience of the majority culture, by blaming it on a few bad apples and dismissing the rest of the discussion as islamophobia.

American Muslims need to pick their battles just like any minority; civil rights movements for blacks and homosexuals have showed us that Americans will accommodate. Acceptance will come, but not by pursuing CAIR-style grievance politics that sees racism everywhere. I think most Americans are still waiting for the debate inside Islam on what caused 9/11; this would really prove that Islam accepts pluralism in its heart, not just when some firestorm occurs on CNN. But you only get that from americanized Muslims like Foud Ajami or Fareed Zakaria who are effectively isolated from the discussion. It is outsiders like Olivier Roy, Bernard Lewis, R M Gerecht, Ann Applebaum, or  Christopher Caldwell who have really exposed the pathologies behind 9/11 with no clear response from folks like Tariq Ramadan or Feisal Abdul Rauf, much less the reactionary clerical elites in Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc. Instead, the critiques are just ignored, as were the Arab Human Development reports earlier this decade. Just like Germany had to examine the Holocaust eventually, Islam needs to look inside 9/11 for a good house-cleaning before westerners will really be comfortable. Consider this counterfactual: if CAIR had organized a ‘Solidarity with America’ march on 9/11 every year or some analogously Oprah-style outreach, then I can’t imagine anyone would care now. But instead of introspection and an admission that pathologies deeply rooted in Islam created 9/11, the response of the US Muslim community has been quiescence or CAIR-style identity politics. I criticize America’s Christian right paranoia regularly on this site, but it is also willful ignorance to pretend the US is not a Christian-majority country, and as the Koran-burners show, they have learned identity politics too. How ‘bout everyone cool it on the religion for awhile?

2. The Koran-burning is the revenge of identity politics on the left. They are loopy and dangerous, but they also teach you just how dangerous stoking identity politics is. And for this you must blame the Left in the end. Starting in 1970s, civil rights-era equality was out, and identity politics was in. Non-white minorities in America were trained in multiculturalism by US universities and told to press group-fashioned political claims built around race or gender. The result was political correctness, in which free speech was assailed as permitting ‘disrespect.’ And no concept is more abused by ethnic ideologues than ‘respect.’ What better way to embarrass and delegitimize your critics than to easily cast them as ignorantly disrespectful of your culture, which you can casually invoke by just your last name. If they are racist, then you hardly need to listen to them, a tactic first rolled out against Daniel Moynihan’s famous DoL report 45 years ago. ‘Respect’ is wonderfully indefinable and elastic, its lack implies racist, vulgar stupidity, and it provides an easy out from the hard criticism liberal free speech permits. Pretty quickly, Israel’s defenders learned this; there is no better way to discredit Israel critics than anti-semitism charges. And Islam learned this too at Durban II. Now at last, white Christian Americans are learning this language as well. Regularly assailed as redneck racists, the easy answer is to adopt the pose of the opponent and ‘discover’ prejudice in the liberal anti-Christian media, e.g. This is why Fox News has such a siege mentality tone to its reporting, like the ‘war’ on Christmas. Here is a nice summary of how religious groups get trained to frame their demands as ‘rights’ they deserve as ‘victims’ of never-ending ‘prejudice’,’ i.e., free speech. But to be fair to the US right, it only went down this route after the ‘ethnicization’ of left-wing politics in the US in the last three decades. And for that blame the explosion of ethnic identity studies on US campuses.

6 thoughts on “Ground Zero Mosque & Koran-Burning: the Xian Right Learns ID Politics

  1. I don’t find your second point at all convincing. Blame the left for the right’s embrace of identity politics? Seriously? Heads I win, tails you lose. Identity politics on the left was, for better or worse, the organization of minorities into identity groups for the the purposes of social advancement, airing of grievances, etc. It is entirely different – entirely – when a majority engages in it for the purposes of attacking minorities.

    For example, there are political parties in the US that are covertly (GOP) or overtly (A3P) geared to the interests of white Americans. This is pernicious and ugly. But a white-interests party in Zimbabwe would not automatically qualify as inherently dangerous and disreputable. Whites are a minority in Zimbabwe and there are plausible legitimate reasons they might band together as an identity group (there are also plausible reasons even minority movements could be pernicious – Black Panthers here, white supremacists in South Africa, etc.).

    So, no, I think it’s implausible in the extreme to “blame the left” for the right’s embrace of a majoritarian white-Christian identity politics.

    I’m also queasy about this notion that “ground zero” is “holy ground.” The mosque is already in the vicinity, for starters. Second, it’s really a community center, not a mosque. Third, it’s to occupy a former Burlington Coat Factory, for goodness sake. Additionally, the center’s Imam recently stated that if he had any idea how pissed off people would be come he would never have suggested building a mosque there. He probably thought of himself as an American first, silly him. Kind of difficult for us to bleat to American Muslims that they should think of themselves as American first, when we think of them as Muslim first. Marty Peretz even recently stated that Muslims are unworthy of first amendment “privileges.” Uh, Ok, then total intercivilizational war it is, then.

    I’m an atheist. I find a lot to dislike about most religions, including Islam. I detest the burka, the treatment of women and girls in many traditionalist Islamic countries (although it’s not much different from what many Christian theocrats would come up with if they had free rein).

    But to successfully combat Islamic extremists, it’s essential to divide true extremists (who must all be killed or imprisoned eventually) from the mass of ordinary Muslims who will either tolerate and support extremists (on one hand) or turn them into the authorities (on the other hand).

    This campaign against the Coat Factory community center that’s not even on “ground zero” to begin with couldn’t possibly be better calibrated to convince ordinary Muslims that the extremists have a point. It’s a terrible loss for this country at an important time, a huge strategic blunder.

    I find it depressing (and surprising) that these important considerations have been repurposed into ammo against, of all possible things, college campuses and “the left.”


    • I thought this might provoke you a bit. I am chewing over your response. I think your strongest point is the minority ID politics is qualitative less dangerous than majority ID politics. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but that sound right, which does damage my claims. I must think more about that.

      I also dislike the idea of ‘holy ground.’ I am opposed to the idea of making 9/11 a national holiday for the same reason. It would entrench the idea that Islam is the opponent of the US for time immemorial.

      On the other hand, it is willful ignorance to overlook that continuing and deeply-rooted Christian-majority character of the United States during the GWoT and when that was a central reason behind OBL’s targeting of the US. The US Christian right scares me as much as you. I criticize them relentlessly here. But they need to be addressed too in our political life and simply dismissing them as thugs or zealots is EXACTLY why Fox News and the Tea Party exist.

      This is why I argued for a gooey, Oprah-style grassroots outreach effort first, and some of that must involve an admission of the pathologies inside Islam that created 9/11. And here, the silence has been deafening, even from the US Muslim community. Show me the respected Muslim intellectual who has been willing to make that claim? Ramadan is supposed to be this ‘bridge figure,’ but even he won’t say this sort of stuff, and Feisal has said the US is partly responsible for 9/11. And that tells you why people freaked out so much. To ignore this and simply insist on ‘rights’ just misses the reality of American life.

      This will change, and I support the secularization of American life too. But just like the ACLU’s otherwise excellent work is tarred by its silly pursuit of Christmas trees every December, the community center has done nothing but provoke and convince US Christians all the more that it is a civilizational war.


      • I just have a lot of trouble with the assumptions you use to arrive at your conclusion. My opinion (and it’s just that) is that the vast majority of those objecting to the “ground zero” “mosque” are not aggrieved at the desecration of their holy ground. They’re political opportunists who have discovered what a wonderful cudgel 9/11 makes when whacking a despised minority over the head, into submission. Their hurt feelings are supposed to trump the rights of Americans to use their own private property to engage in religious and community activity. Well, bullshit to that. I don’t believe their feelings are hurt, and if they are, that’s too bad.

        I feel the same way about fundamentalist Muslims who want to keep their faces covered when sitting for driver’s license photographs. Too bad. Your feelings are hurt? Too bad. You’ll live.

        Another bad habit picked up from the left. Hurt feelings are unfalsifiable. Feelings get hurt in liberal, tolerant societies. Have a beer.


      • Yeah, ok. I agree with that, especially the bit about using ‘hurt feelings’ as a gimmick to shut down free speech one dislikes. That is the most worrisome trend of multiculturalism – putting religion and ethnicity beyond the pale of criticism under the rubric of ‘respect’ – and the Christian right is learning this from its opponents. It’s bad all around. Perhaps I am too far away from the discussion in the US to see the way the right is, predictably, is manipulating it for gain and to promote the ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative. I will grant you that.

        But as I so frequently mention on this blog, that Islam’s defensive, ‘its-partially-your-fault’ attitude toward 9/11 just begs for this sort of backlash. If Rauf and Ramadan and the rest put genuine zeal into an internal reformation of Islam’s illiberal tendencies, this would all go down a lot easier. But I don’t see that. Particularly, I was struck by just how little impact or discussion was generated by the Arab Human Development reports earlier in the decade. They just slipped away as one more UN report no one read…


  2. I should clarify that I agree that a lot of identity politics on the left was stupid and unproductive and that the right has adopted a lot of the worst habits of the left. I just think treating them as the same or, even worse, blaming the left for the sins of the right is not a great idea.


    • Here I must disagree more strongly. The move from redistribution and equality to identity was a fundamental shift in leftist politics in the US that has its clear roots in US universities. And everyone else has learned from that. In the end, it is the left that taught the right to re-understand itself as a ‘victim’ in order to claim the moral highground that victimhood entails. Hence the bizarre posture of Hannity and the rest that white Americans are besieged in their own house.


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