High horse at Ground Zero

SlightContradictionGiven that 30 Rock has cemented its place as a critical darling*, I imagine this joke from last week's episode was rather cutting:

Jenna: You've got to lie to her, coddle her, protect her from the real world.

Jack: I get it. Treat her like the New York Times treats its readers.

I didn't expect to revisit the Islam vs. the West issue so soon, but it along comes the New York Times right on cue trying to protect its readers from the complexities of the real world.

But before I can get into discussing what's wrong with wrong with "Muslim Prayers and Renewal Near Ground Zero" -- let it be said that the most of the occupants of the Times newsroom really do know how to write. Here's the lede:

On that still-quiet Tuesday morning, the sales staff was in a basement room eating breakfast, waiting to open the doors to the first shoppers at 10 a.m.

There was no immediate sign of the fiery cataclysm that erupted overhead starting at 8:46. But out of a baby-blue sky suddenly stained with smoke, a plane's landing-gear assembly the size of a World War II torpedo crashed through the roof and down through two empty selling floors of the Burlington Coat Factory.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attack killed 2,752 people downtown and doomed the five-story building at 45 Park Place, two blocks north of the World Trade Center, keeping it abandoned for eight years.

But for months now, out of the public eye, an iron gate rises every Friday afternoon, and with the outside rumblings of construction at ground zero as a backdrop, hundreds of Muslims crowd inside, facing Mecca in prayer and listening to their imam read in Arabic from the Koran.

The building has no sign that hints at its use as a Muslim prayer space, but these modest beginnings point to a far grander vision: an Islamic center near the city's most hallowed piece of land that would stand as one of ground zero's more unexpected and striking neighbors.

The article goes on to discuss how Sufi Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is leading the drive to build the Islamic center because it "sends the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11" and further quotes Faisal saying, "We want to push back against the extremists." The article notes that FBI has praised Faisal for helping the law enforcement agency in its Muslim outreach. As far as Muslim leaders go, Imam Faisal seems like a relatively decent guy and I'm all for giving moderate, tolerant Muslims their due so media attention isn't relentlessly focused on Islamic extremism.

But the article sort of unravels at the end. Here are the last two grafs:

Joy Levitt, executive director of the Jewish Community Center, said the group would be proud to be a model for Imam Feisal at ground zero. "For the J.C.C. to have partners in the Muslim community that share our vision of pluralism and tolerance would be great," she said.

Mr. El-Gamal agreed. "What happened that day," he said, "was not Islam."

Despite the article being exceptionally well-written for the most part, it seems rather clumsy at the end. Would the Jewish Community Center agree that what happened on September 11 was not influenced by Islam? I highly doubt it.

And while that quote about September 11 not being Islam makes for a nice pat ending in keeping with the article's emphasis on "renewal" -- should an assertion like that really be let to stand without being challenged?

conflictFor instance, I did a bit of quick Googling and found this article about Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf from the Sydney Morning Herald:

"The Islamic method of waging war is not to kill innocent civilians. But it was Christians in World War II who bombed civilians in Dresden and Hiroshima, neither of which were military targets."

Imam Feisal said the bombing in Madrid had made his message more urgent. He said there was an endless supply of angry young Muslim rebels prepared to die for their cause and there was no sign of the attacks ending unless there was a fundamental change in the world.

Imam Feisal, who argues for a Western style of Islam that promotes democracy and tolerance, said there could be little progress until the US acknowledged backing dictators and the US President gave an "America Culpa" speech to the Muslim world.

Whatever good Feisal may be doing, his views appear to be a lot more complex than the relentlessly upbeat and uncritical Times story would have you believe. Feisal's comments here are kind of disingenuous and ahistorical; however controversial Hiroshima and Dresden might have been -- it's pretty hard to argue these regrettable episodes were motivated primarily by explicitly Christian impulses given all of the secular political baggage of World War II. And even if you do consider them atrocities, whatever American wrongdoing was committed here still has to be weighed relative to the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Now let's talk about the Islamic method of waging war. "The Mohammedan conquest of India," wrote historian Will Durant in The Story of Civilization, "was probably the bloodiest story in history." The 12th Century conflict was driven pretty explicitly by a desire to spread Islam, killed some 80 million Hindus -- much of which amounted to the wholesale slaughter of innocents, and had zero to do with the pernicious influence of the West that Feisal claims is somehow responsible for turning what would otherwise be peaceful Muslims violent. Is this also not Islam? Obviously, I'm not saying Islam has to be inherently violent or the West hasn't wronged Muslims, but would be nice if the story spoke honestly about what can be done to ease tensions between Muslims and the West without uncritically included double talk about the moral superiority of one religion.

Times reporters Ralph Blumenthal and Sharaf Mowjood really should have probably asked some more complex questions about what is motivating the construction of prayer center -- but instead were too willing to buy into the symbolism of the story and take a lot of platitudes about tolerance from Imam Feisal and his associates at face value. While the development of Imam Feisal's prayer center near Ground Zero may be encouraging on some level, the reality of the story is much more complex and less reassuring than the Times would have you believe.

*I swear I wrote this a few days ago, before I was mentioned by name on last night's 30 Rock. Still have no idea why or how that happened, but can't complain about being a pop culture reference.

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