Daniel Martin Varisco: Milking the Mosque Cow





[Daniel Martin Varisco is Professor of Anthropology at Hofstra University.]

As I child I have vivid memories of attending an avowedly fundamentalist revival meeting on the then hot Cold War theme of “The Impending Holocaust,” the theme being that the Russian communists were poised to invade America, knock down all our electricity networks and raze every church to the ground (imagine what they would do to God-fearing virgins). It was those commie atheists who could not stand seeing any house of worship. Now it is clear that the fearmongers among us have switched Satanic enemies. Islam has replaced Communism as the Devil’s international workshop (of course Islam long held that status before any German freethinker or British social theorist thought up the idea of communism). A church on every corner, a synagogue here and there and even an occasional Masonic temple, but “our” God preserve us from any mosques.

The current torrent of media hype about building a “mosque” near Ground Zero is part of a deeper Islamophobic fervor in direct lineage with the same unfriendly folks who have self-righteously hated Injuns, Negroes and Jews and found verses in the King James Version of the Bible to back up their hatred. Today’sNew York Times carries a story by Laurie Goodstein about efforts across the country to stop construction of Islamic places of worship. If this is yet another tempest brewed in Tea Party forums, it looks more like a lynch mob than a ladies aid society brunch. As Goodstein warns:

Feeding the resistance is a growing cottage industry of authors and bloggers — some of them former Muslims — who are invited to speak at rallies, sell their books and testify in churches. Their message is that Islam is inherently violent and incompatible with America.

Opposition to mosques is not new. In the past the usual reason stated was fear of traffic flow or similar civic concerns, but now, as Goodstein notes, the gloves are off. Hatred of Muslims did not begin with 9/11, nor with the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. It has always been there in Christian tradition, which once faced a legitimate political threat from Muslim armies. But it is also of the same cloth as the long history of Christian anti-semitism against Jews, who were obviously never a military threat to Europe or America. While many of the Islamophobes out there, like jihad-blinded Robert Spencer, the obsessive David Horowitz and other media-made hate advocates, constantly claim they are not against Islam but only Islamism, the disclaimers mean little, especially to those who are only too ready to find easy targets of blame.

Unfortunately, far too many people in the United States have a history of wearing historical blinders. Those who paste “America: love it or leave it” on their SUV bumpers seldom pause to consider that many of their ancestors would probably not have been allowed to even enter the country if such prejudice overruled the constitutional law of the land. And at the start of this democratic experiment all men were only created equal if they were men and for the most part neither “black” nor “red.” My Sicilian grandfather told me stories about how Italians were treated on the wrong streets of Manhattan at the start of the 20th century. Newcomers almost always faced hurdles unless they could show pure blood ancestors present at the first Thanksgiving. So what were those pilgrims really thankful for? That there were no Jews, no Muslims, no poor Italians or Irish, no illegal alien Mexicans? How about no Mormons?...

I constantly hear people complain that “moderate” Muslims do not speak out against terrorist acts perpetrated by Muslims. Well, many have and continue to do so. One of these is Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is the latest tar-and-feathered Muslim leader for daring to promote interfaith dialogue near a site that exposed the depths of the very need for such dialogue. Rightist commentators have searched for any quotes to brand Feisal as a rabid Muslim radical bent on turning America into a new caliphate. Few bother to read his major work, where his states a principle that his work over the years ably validates:

Islamic law is clearly against terrorism, against any kind of a deliberate killing of civilians or similar ‘collateral damage.’ The roots of terrorism lie not in theology but in human psychology and in the hatred born of violent conflict over politics, or power, and economic assets such as land.

Several years ago I appeared on a local Long Island Catholic diocese television program called Our Muslim Neighbours, moderated by Father Tom Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman, the dynamic duo of the God Squad. Appearing on the same show was Feisal Abdul Rauf, who was speaking about his newly released book, What’s Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West. I note on the back cover of the book that Rabbi Irwin Kula, President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, commented on this book: “A must read for anyone who wants to contribute to repairing our world post-9/11 – and that needs to be each one of us.” There are also tributes from theologian Hans Küng, former archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey and Karen Armstrong. Yet in all the vitriol being leveled against Imam Feisal as a shari’a maniac clothed in a Western suit, no one bothers to actually read this book or look at his life work.

There are estimated to be about 1900 “mosques” in the United States. This is about the same number as “Christian Science” reading rooms nationwide. Would you like to count Christian churches? The Hartford Institute suggests that there are about 335,000 Christian congregations, about 300,000 of which are Protestant. So it will take some time and quite a bit of successful missionary work (assuming Iran does not nuke us into a dark age and make all the women wear chadors) for Islam to catch up with its older sibling monotheism. Of course we all know that there is never any violence hatched in a church, only in mosques and some would claim in all mosques. Fortunately, as the Goodstein article notes, there is considerable interfaith dialogue addressing those who spew out hate of Islam. But I suspect that the mosque cow will be milked for some time to come, as long as Sarah Palin can cash in on her less than bear-minimum speaking engagements and Glenn Beck can find more Nazi parallels.



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