Randy's Corner Deli Library

19 August 2010

What it Means to Be An American - A Commentary on the Mosque at 51 Park Place

What is it that distinguishes Americans from the rest of the world's populations? Answer: All of us come from someplace else, except for native Americans who were chased off their lands by white men looking to conquer the entire continent. Those who arrived on these shores at Jamestown in 1642 were looking to escape religious persecution themselves, as were the millions upon millions who followed them here. Irish, Germans, Russians, Polish, Jews, and of some consequence nowadays, Muslims from every land in the world.

As a Jew, I think back on the times I know about, albeit not personally, that Jews in this country were denied access to universities, housing, jobs, land, everything that everyone else arrived in America to seek: a better life for their families and their descendants. I ought to know. I am one.

The conversation about the mosque/community center in lower Manhattan has turned absolutely black, ugly, bringing back as it does memories of discrimination faced by Jews for many, many years. It is truly bothersome to me and, I hope, to others, that the ugliest of nativistic and xenophobic tendencies all too common in today's world have taken hitherto rational people and turned them into sounding boards for the most ignorant, yet the loudest, among us such as the Glenn Becks, Rush Limbaughs and other purveyors of divisiveness and hate. That includes Abe Foxman of the ADL, who has stained that organization with his knee-jerk reaction against the construction of the community center/mosque/Muslim gathering place.

This is a difficult time in America. Our economy is swirling around the global toilet bowl, people's trust in a system that has worked, and worked generally well for over 200 years is bashed and scraped, and confusion about what's next reigns supreme. And then we have a group of (from all I can tell) well-meaning Muslims who just want a part of the American dream and all that goes with it, including freedom from and of religion. The Young Men's Christian Association was a funny place for me to play basketball in when I was a kid (not that I would have played any better in a JCC) but it never bothered me that the organization was there as a place for wayward souls, demarcated Christian.

The fear, and let there be no doubt that the fury that has arisen because of the proposed Muslim Center in Lower Manhattan is precisely because of the fear of the fact that "Muslim" in today's world, connotes "terrorist". So people are afraid that there will be meetings of jihadis within the walls of the building at 45-51 Park Street, in the shadow of what was once the World Trade Center, where good old fashioned American litigation and greed have held up the construction of a simple memorial to the 3000 that died that fateful September day not to mention the reconstruction of the towers that stood there since 1976. Their failures are stoking the controversy on lower Manhattan: that is without doubt. That a Muslim organization could get its act together before the various parties who own "ground zero" is a stain on them and us.

Whose fault is this? In part, it is the fault of well-meaning Muslims who have not been forceful or loud enough in their condemnations of suicide bombers and other forms of terror that some of the more fundamentalist Muslims use as a means of going home to meet Allah. Had this country's imams and other Muslim leaders been louder and forceful in their condemnations of Muslims who tolerate this kind of trash in a free and liberal society, the word Muslim might, might, not be a synonym for the word "terrorist". They never truly tried. They too reap what they sow.

When we were treated to scenes in Muslim lands after 9/11 of people partying in the streets at our carnage and our horror, the only possible outcome for Americans was disgust and hatred of a religion that would tolerate and even celebrate such barbarity. We can talk all we like about the plight of the poor Palestinians and other oppressed minorities, but the bottom line, at least for me, comes in the form of what the writers Bat Ye'Or and the late Oriana Fallaci called "Eurabia".
For the vast majority of Americans who do not have a passport and have never been to Europe, allow me to tell you that the face of Europe has changed, and changed forever, due to very lax immigration and welfare laws, all put in place after WWII so that there could never again rise the sort of social tumult that gave us the Third Reich.

Go to France, where their history is very much alive, and you will see tens of thousands of "pieds noir" - "black feet" - who came to France from its former colonies in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria and with them, their Islam. And they have not assimilated. They have fought it tooth and nail, which has given the right in Europe, France and Britain in particular, a strong base from which to launch anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim measures, not the latest of which was the French ban on the burqa which, to this writer's sensibilities, has no place in a liberal society, nor do Islamic laws that call for the treatment of women as cattle. I have walked to synagogue and gotten very mean looks from idle Arab kids in Cannes who didn't apparently like the fact that I was wearing a outward sign of my Jewishness - a kippah - on Yom Kippur. And I stared right back into their black eyes. If looks could kill, we would both be dead. I am sure of that.

Suffice it to say that I, like so many other liberals, am torn between the American way, the way of toleration, freedom, respect of others and the like. But I am also very aware of what has happened to Europe in the last 30 years with the influx of Muslims there. It is a dangerous situation in Europe that, frankly and honestly, I do not under any circumstances want repeated here.

The jihadi elements, the fundamentalists among the Muslims in this country, would be more than happy to use our own freedoms (as they did in Europe) to change the face of this country, change the face of our politics and none of it will be good. The evidence lies across the Atlantic. I hope and pray that the Muslim community center, mosque included, will be a step forward for the American Muslim world to join the 21st century. This is why, I am convinced, that most Muslims even came to this country - for the same reasons that all our forebears came here - to get away from the centuries old hatreds, prejudices and intolerance that they felt and got in their own lands and to just live their lives in peace.

I am reminded of a small incident in an Arab-owned pizza place right here in San Diego, where the owner for some reason knew that my lunch companion and I were Jewish - I think we asked for pizza without pepperoni. He began conversation about what trash there is running the country from which he and his family fled, Iran, as I recall, how he was able to start his own business here, and was trying to live out, as we all are, the American dream, whatever that is in 2010. One thing is for certain: we can never give up trying to make the American experiment more perfect, and if it takes a little pain in granting a people whom we (and that includes American Jews) do not know at all, then that is the price we must pay for living in the greatest country on earth.

This is not to say that the American-Muslim community should not do more to tell the world, to tell America, that they denounce the violence carried out in the name of Allah. That they denounce the denial of the Holocaust. That they do not wish to establish a country within a country, that the ummah is a dead concept, that there will never be another Caliphate here on these shores. When I start hearing Muslim leaders in the mainstream media say these things, and tell their followers that jihad has no applicability for 2010 America, I will feel a lot safer every time a building permit for a minaret is pulled, no matter where. I will know that they have about as much evil intent as a church or a synagogue, which is to say none. But the leaders have left us to guesswork about their intent, and American Muslim leaders are at fault for not framing themselves in the best light possible, a feat that I don't know can be achieved, at least in the shadow of the World Trade Center, at least not now. We will see what transpires.

Randy Shiner

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