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A Ludicrous Kerfuffle, and then some

Surprisingly, Your Humble Blogger has something to say about this whole ludicrous kerfuffle about a Mosque in Lower Manhattan. The response of Left Blogovia is on the whole to be amused that there is a kerfuffle at all, which of course the Other Party contributes to (as with Sarah Palin Calls On ‘Peaceful Muslims' To ‘Refudiate' Ground Zero Mosque). And, of course, it is useful to point out that when the leaders of that Party attack the idea of a Mosque in Lower Manhattan, they are doing so out of a combination of their own bigotry, racism and xenophobia and a kind of contemptuous assumption of bigotry, racism and xenophobia on the part of their base.

Still, I do have something to say about it. Dangerous, probably.

First of all, let me say that of course if I have no problem with there being a mosque in the area of the old World Trade Center, or for that matter in whatever gets built where the George W. Bush Memorial Hole now is (Note: YHB has not been to the site lately; I understand it is substantially less hole and more girders and scaffolding, which I suppose isn’t bad after only nine years). While I don’t actually subscribe to the message-to-the-terrorist philosophy, I must say that responding to the attacks by putting a mosque in when we rebuild would be about as nasty a message as one could send.

I mean, the point, and I would think it would come across pretty clearly, is (a) anyone who wants to do real damage to this country is going to have to do a hell of a lot better than that, and (2) any people who wants a place to practice religion unmolested by the authorities would do better to come here to the US rather than submitting themselves to Al Qaeda. I mean—you want a mosque, you can have a mosque. You want to kill people, then we will fuck you up.

Having said that, I have sympathy with the folk who have an immediate negative reaction to the idea of a mosque in the old World Trade Center block. Yes, there is no proposal for such a thing, but people are being told that there is such a proposal, and it is that fictional proposal that people are reacting to. I don’t have sympathy here for anyone claiming to do policy analysis, as those people should find out what they are talking about, but people who are told the news by a co-worker or uncle, or who hear it on the radio while they are getting a haircut, or who see a headline on a newsbox as they walk by, they are responding to the thing that isn’t happening, the mosque at Ground Zero.

Now, why do I have some sympathy for those people and their negative reaction? Wouldn’t it be better if everybody responded that of course the people putting up a mosque have nothing to do with the damage to their city (whether they are New Yorkers or not, NYC is our city as Americans, I think) and wouldn’t a mosque be a nice addition to the neighborhood? Well, probably, yes, it would be better. But the fact remains that there was a bunch of damage done and a bunch of people killed, and the madmen who did it claimed to do it in the name of Islam, and so the name of Islam will be, for a lot of people, connected with the deed. Is this fair? No. Is it just? No. But it is understandable.

To track myself aside for a moment: I do not know that the madmen who actually carried out the attacks made any such claims themselves; I know that the link between the madmen who carried out the attack and the claims made by other people who knew them is strong but not beyond question. If one were to be rigorous about this, and it’s a good exercise now and then to be rigorous, the gaps in between things tend to look pretty big. Which is not to say that the general outline is wrong. And of course the more one tries to be rigorous about, well, anything, really, the less likely one is to be really upset by the idea of a mosque in Lower Manhattan. Or, perhaps, by anything, really. So let’s stick to the general outline, here.

So. There’s a Yiddish expression a shanda fer de goyim, a shame or disgrace in front of the nations. The cultural touchstone is that a Jew can never disgrace only himself, but rather makes all Jews look bad in the eyes of non-Jews. I don’t know what phrase African-Americans use for the concept, but there’s a connected phrase credit to his people that touches the reverse of that idea. Now, if you read a lot of stuff about Jews in America today, you will come across quite a few arguments that our focus on a shanda fer de goyim is counterproductive, unhealthy, provincial. Sure. But it is also a practical response to human pattern-matching tendencies. People associate people with people. We mentally divide up into groups, we label, we stereotype, we assume.

So, when a group of Moslem men do a despicable thing, it is natural to draw the association between their act and their religion. The association goes two ways, so we wind up associating back the religion to the act, and so passing by a mosque, I have sympathy for those whose minds go something like mosque-Islam-Al-Qaeda-Attacks on the World Trade Center and then trigger that emotional response that so many people had on that day. Perhaps the whole point of the project, of course, is to provide some alternate context, so that people’s minds go something like mosque-minaret-spire-Chris Speier-Wendell Kim-news about Wendell Kim being diagnosed with Alzeimer’s-Worry about aging parents-etc, etc, etc. And that’s an admirable goal, and I support it. But it is a goal of the project because it hasn’t been achieved yet; it is a goal precisely because people do have the first response. So mocking people who have the first response seems to me to miss the whole point, to support the project without really understanding the need for it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,