By Yasser Latif Hamdani (Courtesy Daily Times)
The mosque in Manhattan has stirred a hornet’s nest. The issue now threatens to test the very ideals of western secular democracy that we admire and cherish and seek to emulate in the rest of the world. It is important, therefore, to weigh in logically and as reasonable people — though reason is hard to come by these days — on the unnecessary provocation in Manhattan created by Imam Feisal Abdel Raouf and his wife Daisy Khan that they refer to as ‘Cordoba House’ or ‘Park 51’, a $ 100 million Islamic centre in New York City.
I say unnecessary not because I oppose the good imam’s right to profess and propagate his faith as he deems fit, but because at this key juncture of the Obama presidency, this saga has delivered to the Tea Party Movement its biggest stick to beat liberals and civil rights activists with. Those of you who are unfamiliar with the Tea Party Movement, it is a populist right-wing conservative movement that broke out spontaneously against perceived government interference in economic life and backed largely by the libertarian think tanks and organisations like Freedom Works, etc. The name itself comes from the famous Boston Tea Party where Massachusetts’s men had thrown tea sacks into the Boston harbour to protest the British government’s taxes and economic policies. The modern day Tea Party Movement has already made great gains — such as the unseating of Democrats from their traditional power base in Massachusetts from where the late Ted Kennedy used to get elected. It is now set to use the mosque issue to appeal to the right wing religious sentiment. If the Tea Party manages to pull the rug from under the Democrats and moderate Republicans, the consequences for not just the US but the entire world will be extremely grave.
President Obama and his government are now under great stress because of the difficult position the mosque issue has put the Obama administration in. Logically, there should not be a problem with building a place of worship, a right guaranteed under the First Amendment to the US Constitution, but the issue is much larger than one of freedom of faith. Let us be fair. There are several mosques in New York City and no one would have done even a double take had an Islamic centre been built anywhere else. To choose the site of a building wasted by the 9/11 attacks is an act of deliberate provocation, not because Islam was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, because that is not true. It is so because not only have the mosque’s backers, including the two aforementioned protagonists, failed to disclose the source of their funding, but have also failed miserably to win the confidence of a vast majority of New Yorkers and now indeed most Americans. Yet the issue of fundamental and constitutional rights is seldom subject to the whims of the majority.
That question is of course paramount. It is about constitutional rights, freedom of religion and all those big words that Muslims selectively appeal to whenever they are in a minority, but surely Muslims can better understand the feelings of Americans that have been outraged. Who else if not a Muslim, whose faith and religious sensibility can be outraged by something so seemingly benign as an Ahmedi saying Assalam-o-alaikum, can understand why church groups, right wingers and other anti-Muslim groups have reacted so strongly to the idea of having an Islamic community centre so close to the site of the World Trade Centre? Who else if not a Muslim can understand why equality sometimes means equality for all but that some are just inherently more equal, for, after all, constitutionally equal citizens of Pakistan who are from, say, a Christian background are forever barred from becoming president or prime minister of this Islamic republic of ours. Who else if not a Muslim can understand that neither religious freedom nor privacy are absolute concepts, for was it not in the holiest of holy Saudi Arabia, that 40 Pakistani Christians were thrown in jail for worshipping quietly in their own homes?
What about Park 51? Would this be a mosque — the mosque at Park 51 — for just one kind of Muslims or will it be open to all sectarian communities? Will it open its doors to the Shias or perhaps the Nation of Islam, which believes in the last prophethood of Elijah Muhammad aka Elijah Poole? Will Amina Wudud or Asra Nomani be allowed to lead prayers in this mosque? Will Ismailis, Bohris, Druze or the Ahmedis be allowed to worship in this centre? These are central questions that should be answered for the imam has pitched this as the great project for American Islam. It is a defining moment.
The truth is that Islam in the US is practised openly and freely, without any fear — or at least till there was a backlash by the Tea Party against the proposed project. That much is clear from the latest work of Dr Akbar S Ahmed, who not long ago travelled the length and breadth of the US visiting hundreds of mosques and communities, along with his team of enthusiastic students from American University. When asked about the Manhattan fiasco, his response was: “Here is a thought — Imam Rauf should say ‘enough of creating bricks and mortar’ and move for compassion. Let me give it [the money for the mosque] to those who need it, who are suffering and pray to the same God’, hand over the capital he plans to raise for the Park 51 project as a cheque in the hands of an interfaith American delegation, fly it to Pakistan, and contribute it to the relief efforts.”
Why not? Is that not what Islam teaches its adherents? Are the rights of people not a greater obligation under Islamic law?
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer. He also blogs at pakteahouse.wordpress.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org