Saturday, September 11, 2010

Maintaining the Melting Pot

On the eve of the 9th anniversary of the September 11th attacks our news is filled with stories of the American struggle to negotiate through a collision of culture.  The Melting Pot Theory for our country forces many of us to encounter, on a daily basis, the difficulties of diversity.  We have come an extraordinarily long way fifty years removed from the Civil Rights movement, but there are many factors working against us.

The news story which has been unavoidable this week is Terry Jones, Pentecostal preacher from Gainesville, Florida planned to honor Sept 11 with "Burn the Koran Day".  No one, including the majority of the 50 members of his church, believed this was a good idea.  Thankfully, he has canceled the rally.  Over the last few days, it has brought more fuel to the burning fire surrounding the "Mosque" that is planned to be built  two blocks from the World Trade Center.  Both of these issues have caught national attention, and that attention has caused them to be infinitely more dangerous to the world, than if they impacted only their local purview.

In my last entry I mentioned the notion that villains rarely wear black hats and that our global culture requires a patient, nuanced, rounded view that should occasionally be turned inward in order to understand our impact on the world culture.  These recent issues have highlighted many of my frustrations with our media outlets; their focus on sensationalism and a preoccupation with wedge issues that have divided the country into convenient blocks of Red and Blue.  If it were not for our national media outlets, I would not have heard of either of these issues, sitting here forty miles from Ground Zero.  By no means am I endorsing the idea that we should live with our heads in the sand, but the tone with which these issues are addressed is key to how they are received worldwide.  I sincerely hope that the rest of the world, especially the tumultuous Middle East, does not define their opinion of American culture by the actions of this misguided lunatic from Florida.  I imagine the majority of the Muslim world feels similarly when looking at the terrorists responsible for 9/11.  It's not difficult to see that a demonstration like this is extremist behavior and could easily cause a domino effect placing all of us in danger.  While Jones may regard his demonstration as peaceful, it is considered an act of war in the Islamic culture.  The extremists of the Islamic culture rarely demonstrate so peacefully. 

-"Islamic extremist is to Islamic as "_______ is to Christianity." 

No one responds. Josh turns around and writes "KKK" on the dry 
erase board, and circles it.

That's what we're talking about. It's the Klan, gone medieval and global. It 
couldn't have less to do with Islamic men and women of faith of whom there are 
millions upon millions. Muslims defend this country in the Army, Navy, Air Force, 
Marine Corps, National Guard, police and fire departments. So, let's ask the 
question again.

Why are Islamic Extremists trying to kill us?

That's a reasonable question if ever I heard one. Why are we targets of war? 

Because we're Americans.

That's it?

Because of our freedom?

No other reasons? 

Freedom and democracy.

I'll tell you, right or wrong-and I think they're wrong-it's probably a 
good idea to acknowledge that they do have specific complaints. I-I hear them 
every day-the people we support, troops in Saudi Arabia, sanctions against Iraq, 
support for Egypt. It's not just that they don't like Irving Berlin.

Yes, it is.

No, it's not. 

No, not about Irving Berlin, but your ridiculous search for rational 
reasons why somebody straps a bomb to their chest is ridiculous.

You just called me ridiculous twice in one sentence. 

Hardly a record for me.

And you just made my list.

[to the kids] Nothing happens on the list.

It's a serious list. But she does have a point, albeit college girlish.

Watch now, as he's going to put me down and make my point at the exact 
same time.

Hardly a record for me. What's Islamic extremism? It's strict adherence 
to a particular interpretation of 7th century Islamic law as practiced by 
the prophet Mohammed, and when I say "strict adherence," I'm not kidding around. 
Men are forced to pray, wear their beards a certain length. Among my favorites 
is there's only one acceptable cheer at a soccer match: Allah-uh-Akbar-God is 
great. If your guys are getting creamed,then you're on your own. Things are 
a lot less comic for women, who aren't allowed to attend school or have jobs. 
They're not allowed to be unaccompanied, and often times get publicly stoned 
to death for crimes like not wearing a veil. I don't have to tell you they 
don't need to shout at a soccer match because they're never going to go to one. 
So what bothers them about us? Well, the variety of cheers alone coming from 
the cheap seats at Giants stadium when they're playing the Cowboys is enough 
for a jihad, to say nothing of street corners lined church next to synagogue, 
next to mosque, newspapers that can print anything they want, women who can 
do anything they want including taking a rocket ship to outer space, vote, 
and play soccer. This is a plural society. That means we accept more than 
one idea. It offends them. So yes, she does have a point, but that 
certainly doesn't mean you should listen to her."

-Aaron Sorkin, taken from the Isaac and Ishmael episode of The West Wing

I feel that Aaron Sorkin made my point far better than I could.  There is nothing more opposed to Islamic Extremists than pluralism.  A Muslim place of worship in the same neighborhood as a Christian church highlights to me what makes America a great place to be, and why this grand experiment is so challenging. 

This mosque is intended as a multi-cultural center...a pluralist, very American vision.  The very fact that it has been referred to as a mosque in the news is deceptive and symptomatic of how selective presentation of fact can be incendiary.  It seems to me that most people are upset more by the proximity to Ground Zero, than by the existence of the place itself.  To me, there is no stronger statement about our unification than to show that we will not define a religion of 1.5 billion people by the actions of the extremist minority, in the same way that most Americans don't feel represented by the actions of the KKK.

Also, a lot of discussion has pointed toward the point that one of the ways to show ownership in the Islamic faith, is to build a mosque on vanquished ground.  The people that believe this are the same people who view the events of 9/11 as a win for their cause.  These are not balanced, logical people.  If we start buying into their interpretations of reality we give them more fuel. The symbolic meaning of Ground Zero is visceral and personal for all of us.  To me it represents many things.  Above all it represents a great sadness, and a statement about the resiliency of the American spirit.  As awful as the attacks were, we are determined, perhaps more than ever, to continue the American way of life, embracing hundreds of cultures and striving for an unprecedented level of freedom for our citizens.  This is much harder philosophically and practically than I ever imagined when I was first taught the meaning of freedom in elementary school. 

So, how close is too close?  Looking on a map, the distance between the World Trade Center site and West Broadway /Park Place doesn't look like much, until you consider how much is packed on to a single block of NYC real estate.  This could be the equivalent of 10 miles in the suburbs.  If the site of the cultural center is too close to Ground Zero, I ask the question, what is far enough?  The entire Island of Manhattan is just short of 14 miles long, 2 miles wide at its widest point, and houses about 8.5 million people. There is anywhere between 800,000 and 1.2 million Muslim people in New York City, around 14% of the population..  There are about 100 mosques in the city, whereas there are over 1,000 synagogues serving a Jewish population comparable in size.

Currently, there are two mosques within about 5 blocks of Ground Zero and there is no national story about closing them.  Cultural diversity is frequently uncomfortable and requires us to maintain a sometimes superhuman level of empathy for our fellow citizens, native or not.  Pluralism is a challenge to all of us.  Taking in so many different points of view and so many cultures that seem not only strange to us, but threatening, it's understandable why we feel a porousness in our security.  If we ever hope to overcome this challenge we have to dedicate ourselves to a higher level of understanding of all the cultures housed within our borders.  Also, some meaningful interpersonal relationships with people outside of our own culture change dramatically our understanding of the issues at hand. 

Today, I remember the events of nine years ago.  I remember the faint smell of metallic burning that reached the suburbs in the afternoon.  There was a feeling that if we supported each other, it would somehow soften the after-effects.  The events of September 11th 2001 are permanently etched in my memory.  The day is defined not only by the horrible images on television, but by our personal experiences.  I spent the afternoon in a fog, occasionally taking in the shock to cry for a moment or two, then composing myself, calling family and friends.  Mostly, I spent the day trying to take in every detail, aware that it would be a day referenced over and over again for the rest of my life.  For the following weeks, we treated strangers like distant brothers and sisters; ones who had shared in this very traumatic experience. I hope that I can continue that spirit in some way, regardless of the religion or color of the brother and sister Americans around me.  It's harder than I ever expected it could be.


  1. Here here. One thing I want to call out in your post is acknowledging it's OK to feel discomfort around people who are different, but we can strive to work through it. That was a great point. A bad result of the Political-Correctness movement is feeling like we have to deny our feelings, which may come back to haunt us... remember when George and his Dad join the self-help program requiring them to shout "Serenity Now!" every time they feel angry? A lot of people are shouting "Diversity Now!" for the past couple decades. It's amazing ... you reference Civil Rights ... you could almost believe that movement was successful and racism had been eradicated. People are just stuffing it. It would be cool if some Muslim and anti-Ground-Zero-Mosque representatives could have a healthy, no-holds-barred debate. Boy, actually, that kind of sounds like Congress doesn't it.

  2. Agreed, Eric. Discomfort is an inevitable by-product of diversity, and it doesn't mean there is something wrong. And it also doesn't mean that we are wrong in seeking out situations we find more comfortable. However, it does mean that we ALL have the right to seek out what is comfortable for us. There is no legal suit here whatsoever because building the mosque breaks no laws. And truthfully, those who oppose it have the right to demonstrate about it peacefully. Racism is alive and well in our culture, it's just a little less accepted to proclaim it.