Insensitive Rosa Parks

In general, I’m very happy with Obama, but I was disappointed about something he said recently relating to the proposed Muslim community center 2 blocks from Ground Zero. At first, I was elated that he’d finally spoke out about how Muslims have the right to build the center, and how we must affirm our values as Americans by allowing them to do so. However, the next day, he seemed to backpedal somewhat on the issue by qualifying his previous statements as being general to religious freedom and how people should be free to build houses of worship. In other words, the original statement was not to be taken as being particular to the proposed community center in Manhattan. The cynic in me started wondering “did he calculate out the sequence of these statements?” It certainly seemed his grandiose speech about religious freedom was

  1. targeted at the Muslim audience he was addressing
  2. carefully worded so he could back away later in case the public response made it necessary

Indeed, that seems to be what happened the very next day.

This got me thinking about the same topic that a blogged about a few weeks ago, and I came up with a few more points to go along with what I said before. The thing I find most disturbing is how people are saying this location is somehow an insensitive move. My reaction is one of chagrin, dismay, incredulity, and bewilderment. Even Akbar Ahmed, a prominent professor of Islamic studies, has discussed the issue in these terms. While people’s feeling of indignation to the location of the proposed community center is very real, I vehemently reject the legitimacy of those feelings, because they directly oppose the values we (claim to) hold dear as Americans. If those values fail to hold sway when our irrational unjustified emotions take over, there will be no America left for terrorists to destroy.

The notion that this location is an “insensitive” choice is as absurd the idea that Rosa Parks was being insensitive to the feelings of whites when she refused to give up her bus seat. Back then, it was considered an offense to white folks if a black person did not move to the back of the bus when a white person “needed” the seat. It was taken for granted that white people were to be given special deference when it came to bus seating, drinking fountains, and whether you’d be served at a lunch counter. Jim Crow was merely the formal codification of social etiquette. Fortunately, Rosa Parks had the courage to defy social custom and the law, safe in the knowledge that the practice was unjust and an affront to the Constitution. Fast forward to today, we stand on the precipice of resurrecting this ugly practice by asking Muslims to take a back seat in when it comes to where they can practice their religion.

There are a few honorable Americans who are willing to take a stand against this clear case of religious bigotry, but the sad reality is that 70% of us oppose the community center. This would have seemed normal up to the middle of the last century, but how is this possible in the year 2010? I think the biggest mental stumbling block in the minds of the anti-community center population is the false connection between the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and the religion of Islam. We don’t make the same connection when a Christian terrorist attacks an abortion clinic in the name of Jesus. In our minds, that person is an aberration within the Christian community. We do not extrapolate from their actions to the group as a whole. Yet in the case of the 9/11 terrorists, the connection is freely made.

A more charitable explanation for why we make the connection in one case but not the other is that most Americans do not know many Muslims. Because of this, they form their opinion of the group based not on typical members, but on the extremely violent ones who managed to get our attention. The same, however, is not true about the number and quality of Christians that we know. A less charitable explanation for the connection being made in one case but not the other is that deep down, we don’t like Muslims. Somewhat puzzlingly, we don’t like to think of ourselves as bigots. Many of the people who testified against the community center explicitly stated that they are not bigots, but those people are almost certainly in denial, at least imho. I guess it’s a sign of progress when we have to be in a state of denial in order to inflict religious discrimination, as opposed to doing it with a clear understanding that our actions stem from our negative attitudes toward a group.

I’m sure both of these explanations contribute to the staggering number of Americans who are against the community center, but the question is which is making a bigger contribution? In a sense, the distinction doesn’t really matter. Both are religious discrimination. On the other hand, one explanation presents a slightly more hopeful picture, because not knowing many Muslims is a situation that is easier to change than trying to change people’s minds about deep seated beliefs.

To revisit an idea I mentioned earlier, perhaps the way to open people’s eyes to their own ingrained attitudes toward Islam is to make them realize that their sense of indignation is as legitimate as the indignation felt by white people about not being accommodated by black bus riders. In 2010, I think all but a handful of Americans today would emphatically agree that what Rosa Parks was fighting against was thoroughly un-American. If only they would make the connection between her and the present persecution that Muslims face today, particularly those in Manhattan wishing to construct this community center for the benefit of people of all faiths.

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