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You know what we don’t talk about much here at Kippah and Collar?

Islam.

Funny, that. It’s almost like there are no Muslims living here. We’ve got to get a roommate, or something.

But two days in a row, Alas has featured stories about two of my favourite Muslims. One’s a nice supportive piece about the work that one of my colleagues, Amanullah De Sondy, is doing on Islam and masculinities. It’s great to see Aman being recognised as an important thinker… and not just because it confirms my own (deeply biased) judgement!

The other is a slightly less happy piece about my former employer, Imam Feisal Rauf, and his attempts to open a community centre near the World Trade Centre in New York City. Or, rather, about the ADL’s bizarre statement in opposition to this project (you knew there was a Jewish angle to this, right?). This is apparently controversial, because:

a) People (I’m looking at you, Abe Foxman) cannot tell the difference between a community centre and a mosque.
b) People cannot tell the difference between a mosque and a terrorist training camp.
c) People cannot tell the difference between ‘Improving Muslim-West Relations’ (the official tagline of the Cordoba Initiative) and ‘Biding Our Time Until We Can Kill You All’.

In short, there has been a large public outcry against the utter inappropriateness of letting Muslims anywhere near the site of the September 11th attacks, because even if all Muslims aren’t really terrorists, it’s too much to expect other people, some of whom might have lost family in the attacks, to recognise the difference. Those Muslims who might have lost family in the attacks remain pretty much invisible in this conversation.

One of my students last term was the exact twin of the guy that raped me when I was seventeen. Same hairstyle, same dress sense, same facial expressions, same movements. Different voice, which probably saved the situation. I would have preferred to not have to look into that face ever again. I would have preferred to not have to meet with that student one on one, to not have to evaluate their performance objectively, to not treat them exactly like any other student who deserved the best education I could give them. I would have been thrilled to send that student to do an independent study with any other member of staff, just so I wouldn’t have to fight against my instinctive flinch every time that student came closer than about ten feet away from me.

Instead, I taught him. Just like every other student in my classroom. I took deep breaths, I forced myself not to flinch, I asked a colleague to read over the papers I marked just to make certain I was being fair–which is good practice, and something I do if time permits, anyways. Because that student had done absolutely nothing wrong. Because the problem in the classroom was my problem, and I was the one who needed to make adjustments.

I’m not saying this because I think I deserve a medal for teacherly fortitude. And I’m certainly not trying to say that people traumatised by the September 11th attacks should be over it, already. I am, however, raising my eyebrows at the idea that the hypothetical feelings of trauma victims (at least, I don’t know of any actual September 11th survivor who has made a statement about the role Cordoba House might play in their recovery, or the delay thereof) should be the sole guiding principle in discussions about land use. Personal feelings, no matter how strong, and no matter how much respect is due to the people who hold them, are not a sound basis for public policy. Especially when deferring to those feelings means imposing clearly unreasonable restrictions on people who have not actually committed any wrongdoing.

That’s the real heart of the issue, here: the inability to distinguish between the Muslims who flew planes into the World Trade Centre and the Muslims who want to put a building up near the site–and the feeling, made explicit in this statement by David Harris of the AJC, that it shouldn’t be an outsider’s job to make that distinction. “Do the center’s leaders reject unconditionally terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology?” Harris asks. “They must say so unequivocally.” Harris may have been interested in The Cordoba Initative’s mission statement:

Cordoba Initiative aims to achieve a tipping point in Muslim-West relations within the next decade, bringing back the atmosphere of interfaith tolerance and respect that we have longed for since Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in harmony and prosperity eight hundred years ago.

Perhaps Harris doesn’t find this statement sufficiently unequivocal–“tolerance”, and “respect” are terribly unclear words, aren’t they? And that whole notion of “liv[ing] together in harmony”… it must be a code. Or perhaps Harris was so busy meditating on the tricky question of whether the Cordoba Initiative is a terrorist front group that he forgot to Google it. Either way, he appears to have no problem demanding that Imam Feisal make a clear and unequivocal statement on…. something he’s been making clear and unequivocal statements on for as long as I’ve known him. Because, while it might be OK to let a “facility” (Harris’s word) be built by the right kind of Muslims, it is their job to provide, continuously and on demand, proof that they are, in fact, the right kind of Muslims. Just like the burden is always on the black kid to prove that he didn’t steal that car, or on the Hispanic girl to prove that she is a legal immigrant, or on the Jews to prove that they aren’t really planning to kidnap, kill, and eat that baby.

This is an issue of privilege, pure and simple. A member of a minority group is being asked to justify their presence by differentiating themselves from other members of that same group–to justify their existence by appeal to their similarity to the member(s) of the majority group making the demand. It’s an assertion of power.

It’s also completely counterproductive. The Cordoba Initiative’s mission of inter-religious understanding puts it in a difficult, marginal position: as an explicitly Western-friendly initiative, it is unlikely to find much support from the sorts of dedicated anti-Western Muslims that David Harris appears so concerned about. It has to work hard to remain credible in the Muslim world if it’s to have any hope of achieving the sort of world-changing that it aims at. At the same time, any steps it might take to insure its effectiveness are bound to be scrutinized by anyone who takes it upon themselves to act as a gatekeeper, determining whether the Cordoba Initiative has a right to operate in Western space.

See also The Velveteen Rabbi’s piece on this issue. Just because she’s super-smart and I pretty much agree with everything she says.

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