Navid Zarrinnal, Student Writer, The Journal of Gender, Race & Justice
Imam Feisal Rauf, a Sufi Muslim, has recently decided to build an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan. Much of the “mainstream” media has falsely labeled the proposed cultural center the “ground zero mosque.”[i] However, this name is misleading because the cultural center, if built, will be at least two “city-blocks” away from ground zero. Therefore, the better title for the proposed construction is the Islamic cultural center.[ii]
After Rauf’s plan to construct an Islamic cultural center became public, many people in New York began to hold demonstrations to oppose this plan. Protest against and open animus towards Islam and Muslims spread across the country, and both public and private actors opposed Muslim presence, sometimes through violence. For instance, public actor Ron Ramsey, the lieutenant governor of Tennesssee, used analogous arguments to those opposing the lower Manhattan Islamic center to oppose the construction of a different Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee,[iii] while others such as private actor Michael Enright have shown their opposition to Muslim presence through acts of violence.[iv]
This opposition, however, does not rest on legal nor rational grounds. Currently, there is no legal basis that would prohibit the Islamic cultural center’s construction. In fact, the first amendment to the United States constitution–“Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]–”[v] provides the right for Muslims to build places of worship.
Additionally, there is no rational ground to oppose the Islamic cultural center’s construction. The opposition is instead rooted in Muslim racialization, which in turn, is based on irrational fears and false assumptions. The error of those opposing the Islamic cultural center lies in assuming that because all of the September 11 terrorists were Muslims, all Muslims must also be terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. This false assumption leads opponents to racialize Muslims as the monolithic and terrorist “other.” Moreover, through mass protests, they publicly announce their conviction that the Muslim “other” is unworthy of the full protection of the law (i.e.: free exercise of religion).
Racializing Muslims as the monolithic and terrorist “other” is a false construct when we take a look at social realities: Muslims encompass over a billion people who spread across the globe from Indonesia to Gambia in West Africa, speak many languages, come from many different ethnic backgrounds, and live under diverse social institutions.[vi] Moreover, the overwhelmingly majority of Muslims do not approve of acts of terror against the United States[vii], even if they oppose United States foreign policy such as invasions of Muslim countries, or torture of Muslims in Guantanamo Bay.
In order to deracialize Muslims and unmake the construct of the monolithic and terrorist “other,” two possibilities come to mind. First, if we are “racial idealists,” we can argue that racializing and discrimination are matters of thinking, mental categorization, attitude, and discourse. If this is true, we can unmake racialization by changing the system of images, words, attitudes, and social teachings that construct Muslims as the monolithic and terrorist “other.” This approach would, for example, require the “mainstream” media to present Muslim experiences in a social and historical context, the absence of which has been responsible for creating the image of a terrorist as representing the entire Muslim population.
On the other hand, if we are racial “realists” or economic determinists, we may argue that discrimination against Muslims is based on contemporary and historical economic and military conditions. Based on the economic determinist thesis, countries that seek domination over others generally dehumanize their subjects to justify and sustain their domination over them. In recent history, the United States has been seeking economic and military domination over many Muslim regions. Therefore, the United States has generally racialized and dehumanized Muslims, giving rise to the construct of the Muslim population as the monolithic terrorist “other.” In order to deconstruct this image of Muslims, there needs to be change in economic and military conditions, which would mean a radical change in the United States foreign policy.
Both of these theories have their advocates and opponents.[viii] However, whichever theory we endorse, one thing is clear: the opposition to the construction of the Islamic cultural center has been successful in attaining two distinct and perhaps unintended outcomes: 1) It has served as a useful tool for terrorist groups to recruit new members[ix]; and 2) It has created another episode of irrational fear and prejudice against a minority group in the United States.
[i] See, e.g., http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20013655-503544.html. The article is entitled “Obama: Ground Zero Mosque within Muslims’ Rights.” This article misleadingly uses the term “ground zero” without putting it in quotations, even though the President himself referred to the proposed building as “place of worship…on private property in lower Manhattan.”
[ii] Referring to the Islamic cultural center as a mosque, on the other hand, may be appropriate because the English word mosque comes from the Arabic word masjid, which means “place of prostration” (i.e.: place of prayer), and the cultural center’s purpose is accommodate people who want to perform salat (prayer). However, the cultural center will not only be a masjid, but will serve other purposes such as hosting community events and interfaith dialogue.
[v] See the U.S. Constitution: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/bill_of_rights_transcript.html; then scroll down to Amendment I.
[vi] See Daniel W. Brown, A New Introduction to Islam 5-9 (Wiley-Blackwell 2nd edition, 2009) (mapping the Muslim population and explaining the vast social and linguistic diversity amongst Muslims.)
[viii] See Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory 16-20 (New York University Press, 2001) (providing a nice summary of “racial idealism” and “racial realism.”)
[ix] See, e.g., http://www.newsweek.com/2010/08/30/taliban-using-mosque-controversy-to-recruit.html (quoting Taliban operative Zabihullah: “By preventing this mosque from being built, America is doing us a big favor.”)