8:12 am Aug. 19, 20103
Over the last week the sprawling, awkward conversation about the “Ground Zero Mosque” got a lot bigger. There were the statements from President Obama that officially invited every politician in America into what had been a regional debate, and there was an unsolicited endorsement of the development from militant Islamic group Hamas, which prompted questions about the non-American Muslim view on the debate and its possible consequences.
In hopes of shedding some light on the wider Muslim world’s general view of the situation, former Pakistani ambassador to the United Kingdom Akbar S. Ahmed shared his perception of the international response with Capital.
“I’ve been an administrator in large parts of Pakistan, so I know how people act and react,” said Ahmed. Among those areas, Ahmed has worked extensively in Waziristan, a long-troubled region now host to the Pakistani Taliban and the site of many U.S. drone attacks. Beyond Pakistan, Ahmed is considered a leading authority on contemporary global Islam and has advised the likes of U.S. Special Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and General David Petraeus on Islam and foreign policy.
“The mosque and the controversy that’s surrounding it right now is of such huge proportions that it is unlikely that any Muslim who’s following the news is going to ignore commenting,” said Ahmed. “And the commentary, of course, is going to be all around terrible. Because in the Muslim world they see this as just a mosque and it is being attacked.”
Ahmed, who now spends considerable time in the U.S. teaching at American University, said that the Park51 controversy—and media coverage thereof—has presented the Muslim condition in America in an incredibly unflattering light.
“What the Muslim world is seeing is unfortunately only one aspect of the relationship [between Muslims and non-Muslims in America],” said Ahmed. That side of the narrative consists of stories of pastors in Florida planning to burn the Qur’an on 9/11 and other such tales perpetuating a cultural clash led by the West. They do not help reconciliation efforts.
“There is a lot of pressure on mosques and on the Muslim community,” said Ahmed. In his recent study of mosques throughout America, he came across many mosques whose windows had been broken, even a few that had been firebombed by detractors. Yet, Ahmed also said he has found that most Muslims in America, having fled oppression and dictatorship in the Middle East and beyond, still believe America is the best place in the world to be a Muslim.
“There’s a sense of irony here,” said Ahmed. “There are a lot [of American Muslims] who say, ‘our hero is Thomas Jefferson.’ There are a lot who respect and admire the U.S. Constitution.”
“But you just have to switch on the TV to listen to some of these talk-show hosts. Some of the nonsense you hear—they are saying things you will not hear about any other cultural group. And in the wider Muslim world, they ask, ‘why doesn’t this happen to any other community?' And that is feeding into the opinions of the Muslim world.”
Of course the Muslim world is massive and diverse and to the extent that it is focused on any developing international storylines, one might expect the attention-getters to be the media-fueled specter of an Iran-Israel war, a stubborn financial crisis in the Arab world, and one of the largest humanitarian crises on record, as opposed to an argument about a proposed, as-yet-unfunded community center downtown.
Yet Ahmed said that in his experience, if you ask a citizen of the much-discussed Muslim "street" about the largest problems for them on a global scale, the citizen is very likely to mention the distorted perception of Islam in America. That awareness of American opinion and its weight may already be, through the response to the mosque controversy, damaging American objectives in the region.
Ahmed offered this example:
“Consider yourself General McChrystal in a village near Kandahar. He turns up in a village situation and he talks to the village elders and they’re all following the world news and all looking to what’s happening in America. And someone says, ‘Is it true that there’s a mosque in New York’—because they’re not getting the full story—‘and it’s being attacked? And there is someone, a priest even, who is going to burn the Qur’an?’ Because this is a very conservative society and this is not going to help General McChrystal.”
“In order to defeat the Taliban, you need to marginalize them,” said Ahmed, echoing U.S. military policy. “To marginalize them, you need to earn their [locals’] respect and treat them with dignity. It’s as simple as that.” But the mosque debacle hinders the growth of that trust, providing the doubt and suspicion that fuels discontent and war.
“I think the genie is out of the bottle,” said Ahmed when asked if he thought the damage done to the Muslim world’s perceptions of America could be walked back. “Because it is not just about one mosque, and it is not just now.”
He said this perception in the Muslim world is reflected in American perception of Muslims.
“A lot of Americans, mainstream Americans who are not Muslim, had never met a Muslim [when we asked them during our study of American mosques], had never been into a mosque, and they had some strange understandings on what went on in them," he said. "They had some strange ideas about Islam. And vice versa. Vice versa, which means that Muslims, they’re living in their own kind of culture, and that is the root of the controversy and one hopes that both sides can be much more sensitive, much more culturally sensitive to each others’ needs.”
He also said he sympathizes with American objectors to the project, noting that Muslims, for their part, remain culturally ignorant of their non-Muslim counterparts, especially on the symbolic significance of and lingering emotions over 9/11.
“I think that the Muslim leadership is responsible—indirectly perhaps, innocently perhaps, naively perhaps, directly or indirectly, partly responsible, for precipitating this crisis in America,” he said. “A house of worship is bricks and mortar. The people inside this house are important.”
Ahmed still believes it's going to be possible to mend fences.
Reconciliation will happen "not on the basis of let’s make friends and we all love each other as you get in these broad meetings, but on genuine curiosity,” said Ahmed.
He believes that interaction between the various faiths and peoples of the world can facilitate an end to such crises and hostilities. He calls upon Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf to emphasize an interfaith aspect of the project if he intends to move forward. Better yet, he thinks, Rauf could turn the whole thing into a grand gesture.
“The case of those floods [in Pakistan] is biblical," he said. "The response of the world, including the Muslim world, has been lackluster. Here is a thought—Imam Rauf should say 'enough of creating bricks and mortar' and move for compassion. ‘Let me give it [the money for the mosque] to those who need it, who are suffering and pray to the same God.’”
Rauf could, suggested Ahmed, hand over the capital he plans to raise for the Park51 project as a check in the hands of an interfaith American delegation, fly it to Pakistan, and contribute it to the relief efforts.
“In one instant, he will turn it around. In one instant Jews and Christians will praise what he has done. And Muslims will approve because they are the ones who are suffering,” said Ahmed.
He added, “If he [Rauf] needs the brownie points from God, God cares more for charity and compassion than he does for buildings.”