Islamic studies professors on the mosque: It’s complicated

A rendering of the Islamic cultural center planned for Lower Manhattan. ()
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It hasn’t been easy to characterize Muslim reaction to the controversy around a proposed Muslim-led community center at Ground Zero, even for people who make a study of such things.

“[American Muslims] all come from radically different cultures and social backgrounds,” said Peter Awn, dean of the School of Graduate Studies at Columbia University and an expert in the role of Islam in the politics and societies of modern Muslim populations. A Brooklyn resident and former Jesuit priest with strong ties to the local Muslim community, Awn spent three years before and three years after 9/11 conducting a large study to determine the size and character of Islam in the five boroughs.

“What impresses me is how different the reactions [to the mosque issue] are,” said Awn. “In many ways, they’re as doubtful as the non-Muslim groups.”

Even as a vigorous debate takes place over the right of an Islamic group to build a mosque downtown (among local officials, Michael Bloomberg has staked out one side, some attention-starved Republican candidates the other, and a bunch of Democrats have taken up residency somewhere in the uncomfortable middle), little has been heard from local Islamic groups about the project itself, for or against.

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One Islamic studies professor said part of the reason for the uncertainty among local Muslims about the Ground Zero project is that Faisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the project, did not do much promotion or explanation of the mosque beforehand.

“I first heard about a center from Imam Faisal Abd al-Rauf a few months ago at a reception,” said Columbia Professor Richard Bulliet, who writes about Muslim religious politics. “I remember thinking it was an ambitious undertaking that might not be the best idea, but I am surprised by the firestorm that has developed.”

Awn said this merely added to the disinclination of many Muslims to get involved in the debate.

“Some [American Muslims] are so gun-shy that anything that creates this type of reaction they want to go away,” he said. “The experience of recent years has taught Muslim-Americans that they cannot depend on their views being understood as they mean them,” said Bulliet.

Many American Muslims are recent immigrants, having arrived since the passage of the monumental 1965 Immigration Law. Most of this swell of immigrants has been composed of political and economic refugees—educated individuals with business skills and the ambition to integrate and move into the suburbs.

“They’re so successful, integrated so easily; you’ll not find that in the world normally, by any means,” said Awn. This is a diverse population not spoiling for a fight.

Bulliet suggested that for Muslims especially, there seems to be little percentage in speaking up in favor of the mosque at this point.

“Everything Muslim is absorbed into the 9/11 moment, just as two decades before everything about Iran was absorbed into the embassy hostage moment,” he said. “People of good will, both Muslim and non-Muslim, offer earnest correctives. But the tide flows against them.”

Bulliet saw the Anti-Defamation League’s decision to oppose the mosque as a particularly telling point in the debate.

“Rightly or wrongly, I see it as linked to the broad apprehension, both in this country and in Israel, that evil deeds perpetrated by Muslims, or suspected of being part of a Muslim master plan, pose an existential threat to the Jewish people,” said Bulliet. “Persuading Americans that a Palestinian suicide bomber in Tel Aviv is indistinguishable from a terrorist pilot directing an airplane into the World Trade Center or an Iranian scientist working on a uranium enrichment program has been a major policy success for Israel. Consistency in this effort might persuade some people of basic liberal sentiment that opposition to any effort to associate Islam with peaceful enterprise is off-message. But rights take priority over message. Always.”

Awn said the ADL’s rhetoric made as much sense as opposing a hypothetical synagogue in Dearborn, Michigan, home to a large concentrated Muslim population, because of the Gaza blockade.

“It really is a kind of silly argument,” said Awn. “I think this is really off the wall.”

He said he saw some irony in the conflation of various forms of Islam by opponents of the mosque.

“You know what the model really is? The Jewish community. Islam is structured like Judaism,” said Awn, noting the reform, orthodox and conservative strains of Islam. “It’s usually the much more open and embracing form [that predominates in the U.S.] and if it’s more conservative—it’s not political.”