Monday, September 13, 2010

The Islamic Center near Ground Zero and Muslim-American Public Relations

Last week, prior to Rosh Hashanah (may you all have a sweet new year!), I had the latest of a running exchange with Hussein Ibish of the ATFP, this time about the Islamic center project near Ground Zero. The issue has received sufficient attention in the media that it requires little setup. Personally, I've found the media's analysis to be lacking, and had been working on a post examining what I see as a true point of interest - the decrepit state of Muslim-American public relations - when I discovered that Hussein Ibish addressed the matter, albeit less directly than I would have.

Here, then, is what I had thought to publish prior to my conversation with Dr. Ibish.
Most everyone has now had something to say about the Ground Zero Mosque controversy. I wouldn't want to disappoint the many millions who are waiting in desperate anticipation for my opinion on the drama, so let's get that out of the way first: I don't really care.

Yes, of course, building the Islamic complex so close to Ground Zero - hallowed American ground if ever there were - is a provocation. For a culture and faith so steeped in symbolism, and so insistent that others respect their symbols, it would be delusional to pretend that the planners did not anticipate a reaction from erecting a symbol of Islam beside the most horrific act of Islamist terror on American soil. Whether the organizers involved are extremists or not, they intentionally poked a stick in the raw public nerve center of America to demonstrate they could.

The Islamic center planners have acted perfectly withing their rights. Should they meet the requirements of the building permit process, no law can or should constrain them. Everyone involved knows this, and no one that I've read has seriously suggested applying the laws in a manner discriminatory to Muslims. The two forces driving this debate are a peaking public anger at the arrogance and unrepentant insensitivity of the Islamic center's planners, and the populist mobilization of that anger by political actors - both Republicans and Democrats - for November's elections.

Given that media attention appears to be moving on, leaving the issue on a slow simmer among the many who care - I not among them - I thought it timely to examine the performance of national (Arab/)Muslim-American institutions during what, in the Jewish community, would be called a period of crisis.

Indeed, it is only by looking through the experience of the organized Jewish community that we can appreciate the dismal state of (Arab/)Muslim-American public relations. The two communities - American Jews and Muslims - are of roughly equal size, concentrated in highly urban environments, well educated and generally not impoverished.

However, the responses of these two communities to similar events is remarkably different. In my hometown of Milwaukee, I know of two situations in which Jewish community construction projects were opposed. One involved an Ohr HaTorah modern orthodox shul; the other a Hillel building serving Jewish students at a local university campus. Unlike the Islamic center near Ground Zero, where mere public concern has been voiced, both Jewish community projects faced structural opposition with potential to derail the construction.

In the case of Ohr HaTorah, I'm not privy to all the details, but the main issue as I understand it was that neighbors claimed they did not want additional foot and car traffic in a residential area. The new Hillel building was to be constructed in place of two 60-70 year old homes, which had already been purchased. Late in the planning process, nearby residents decided that the homes in question had historical value and applied with the city to preserve the homes as historic building sites.

These may seem like minor issues compared to the Islamic center at Ground Zero, but again, they constituted structural impediments that had to be overcome before construction could begin. Nothing of this gravity is holding back the Islamic center project from moving forward.

To cut this short, I then detailed how the two cases in Milwaukee were resolved by the Jewish community - essentially though a mediated consensus that addressed the concerns of those opposed to construction, to the extent those concerns were amiable to reason and compromise. The orthodox shul was built after legal and community consultation, without major changes to the original plan, while the Hillel House was moved to a nearby parking lot, preserving the historic buildings which had so animated neighborhood opposition.

Needless to say, both cases contrast starkly with the public relations approach of the Islamic center builders. It is here that my conversation with Dr. Ibish is joined. As is my custom, I will publish my comments to him, and will paraphrase his remarks in turn without quoting them directly, as I did not seek permission from him to publish our dialogue.
As a sidenote, your article on the Islamic complex near Ground Zero was right on the mark. You left off not sure how to remedy the situation. I don't know how familiar you are with the Jewish community Federation system. You were involved with ADC for many years, but from what I know of ADC, it has very informal, volunteer chapters. You'd do well to call a Jewish Community Relations Council at a prominent local Federation (Boston, Chicago, etc.) and wargame a parallel scenario. Jewish community projects get blocked all the time, on more firm grounds - zoning, permits, neighborhood character, etc. - than the Islamic center, opposition to which is not even structural, but purely public sentiment.

If a JCRC fumbled its job as badly as whoever is running public affairs for the Islamic center project (if anyone is?) they'd be out on their butts (and they often are). The Jewish community is great at understanding that it's operating within a larger community, whose acceptance and acquiescence are important for the Jewish community's future. The entire approach to this has been, we have the permits, we don't need anyone's permission. That's exactly right, you already won, no one can stop you from building it. So why spend the rest of your public affairs dollars taking a confrontational tone that feeds controversy and negatively affects your community's image? If the project were structurally blocked, that would be one thing, but it's not, you won, it's over. Now fix your community's public image.

The charge of Islamophobia is right on - much of the public is afraid of Islam. Have the people in charge of PR for the project done anything except reinforce those fears over the past few weeks, with knock on effects around the country? Are they approaching this based on what's effective and best for their community in the long run? I think Arab-Muslim organizations take the wrong lessons from the "anti-semitism" charge. Spending your resources trying to prove that 70% of Americans are Islamophobic is ineffective - it's not offensive or hurtful, and it won't silence anyone, it's descriptive.

The anti-semitism charge works because anti-semitism is widely considered irrational, baseless hatred. It wasn't always that way. Christian communities in the middle ages considered it perfectly rational to hate Jews; they had a list of reasons why hating Jews was the most natural thing. Calling them "anti-semites" at the time would have met with bobbing heads: "Yes, we are, so what?" In fact, the phrase was coined by anti-semites who were proud of their Jew hatred. Anti-semitism is considered irrational today because each of the reasons was proven (to most reasonable people) to be baseless and illogical, leaving only irrational hatred. Very few people - and even fewer Americans - are willing to be hateful for its own sake.

Islamophobia today is more like anti-semitism was in the middle ages - people feel they have a rational basis to fear Islam. The Islamic community - or whoever represents sections of it - needs to stop trying to prove that 70% Americans are bigoted and normalize its image in the public mind by addressing the reasons for Islamophobia in a calm, methodical way.

In his response, Dr. Ibish strongly affirmed my remarks, expressed outrage at the damage the Islamic center builders are doing to the Arab/Muslim-American community and honed my Middle-Ages anti-semitism analogy, proffering instead the age of political Anti-Semitism (proper noun) of the 18th and 19th century. In other words, he suggested that public concern, however rational or otherwise, could soon translate into electoral potential and political power, which could manifest Islamophobia through punitive measures of state, such as were used against the Jews of Europe and the Middle East - discriminatory laws, ordinances, etc.

I'm not sure we're there yet, or that America could ever be such a place - at least not without substantial public trauma resulting from ongoing, bloody acts of Islamist terrorism - but were I a Muslim I would be erring on the side of apprehensive caution also. The question I have is whether the larger Muslim community - diffused and fragmented as it may be - is drawing the right lessons from this experience and acting wisely to diffuse tensions and improve its public image. To date, what I have seen amounts to an aggressive assertion of legal rights, idiotically juxtaposing those rights against what has become a broad-based public sentiment. This is not an intelligent way to sustainably navigate a minority community's welfare within American society.

Is there a point at which the Jewish community and other minority groups must get involved to prevent the erosion of public and political respect for minority group rights as a whole? Yes, but we're not there yet, and bailing the Muslim community out now would be disastrous. There is a learning curve to peacefully coexisting in American society, rather than appearing to run roughshod over it, and Muslim-American organizations must meet the challenge to their community with self-sufficiency, humility and realism, as all other groups have, without special treatment or protected status.

As an immigrant and a visibly observant Jew, I can attest that America, beyond merely tolerant, is welcoming and highly encouraging of diversity. It is quite a feat to turn a plurality of this country around, against its nature and core principles, to embrace anxiety and xenophobia. The present Muslim-American leadership must be held to account for their disgraceful disservice to their community. Dr. Ibish is right to characterize Arab and Muslim Americans as "passive" and "unorganized", not for their docility in the face of rising Islamophobia, but rather for their silence and acquiescence at the mismanagement of their communities.

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