By McLeod Sims
An “Islamophobia” event was held at Beuth last week to discuss the sudden rise in fear of Islam and its practitioners throughout Europe and America. The discussion centered on the new mosque whose home is to be in close proximity to Ground Zero. Across the nation, Americans took offense to the fact that the mosque was to be built so close to the site of an attack committed by men whose supposed impetus was religion.
The large turnout at the event speaks to the importance of Islamophobia here at Union. Two professors began the night by discussing their views on the subject. I assumed the professors would advance opposing sides of the argument, but instead they both argued why the mosque should be allowed. Professor Eshragh Motahar of the Economics department began by asking how the mosque became an issue.
When the mosque project was first announced, there was little fervor. Soon, ‘right wing bloggers’ decided to make it an issue because an election was nearing; these bloggers sought to prey on the fears of Americans. Motahar spoke of the hateful climate in America fostered by the media and cited the sinister and vague use of the pronoun ‘they’ employed to refer to the parties financially tied to the project. He then went on to address some of the common arguments from the pro-mosque side: that there are already several mosques closer to the site, that the “Hallowed Ground” argument should not be counted because a Gentleman’s club is closer to the site than the mosque would be, etc. He closed by saying the mosque was essentially going to be a YMCA and, as I listened, I thought his arguments, while not original, made sense.
Professor Tom Lobe of the Political Science department, the second speaker, undid all the work of Professor Motahar. Instead of continuing in the vein of understanding and compromise, Lobe used the exact same tactics that Motahar warned us against.
Attempting to incite passions, Lobe called the mosque’s detractors Fascists and Nazis. On my high school debate team, there was a running joke that the way to win any debate was to compare the opponent to the Nazis. Whenever we could not come up with a rebuttal, we would just link the opponents’ arguments to the Nazis. Lobe also cited some of the outlandish arguments from the opposing side in an effort to construe the entire movement as radical. He ended with two main points that he wanted to get across. First, that former President Bush had stressed after 9/11 that Americans should not take out their anger on Islam as a religion—that it was the fault of the men on the planes rather than the religion they practiced. Second, that American Jews should be more supportive of the Muslims’ plight, considering how anti-Semitism remains a problem.
The floor was then opened for questions and discussion. A few halfhearted comments were raised but they generally had a pro-mosque attitude and were well-received.
Then controversy reared its head.
A student raised his hand and asked what I considered an entirely reasonable question. He stated his unfamiliarity with Islam, asked about the militaristic nature of the religion’s inception, and referenced Muhammad’s history as a warlord. His question was met with a forest of raised hands from students eager to respond. He was told he was wrong about his Muhammad-as-warlord comment and was called intolerant. A quick search on the Internet proves that in 630 C.E., after eight years of fighting with Meccan tribes, Muhammad led a force 10,000 strong to conquer the all-important city of Mecca.
I was not impressed by what I saw at this debate. Even though society today preaches tolerance and acceptance of other people’s ideas, that is often not what happens. Instead of promoting discussion and learning—the enemies of ignorance—the event pointed out the very problems that plague all of American politics. From the beginning, when both professors argued the same point, I felt that having a different opinion was not accepted at the discussion. It’s almost like saying, “Everyone is entitled to their own thoughts and feelings, as long as they agree with me.” It’s a trap that is easy to fall into: the second you are assured that your way of thinking is the correct way, you become immune to logic and discussion. Today it seems that if people disagree over a subject, they are automatically enemies. It is a hard balance to maintain, but if we are going to buy into the ‘climate of tolerance,’ we are going to have to deal with opposing views. It is easy to be accepting of those who agree with you; it is difficult to accept those who disagree.
To fix the problem of Islamophobia in America, we have to hear from both sides of the argument—even the parts that may hurt to hear. If we refuse to address alternate opinions, especially ones that arise from ignorance, there will never be true acceptance. Instead, we will be left with an uneasy tolerance that masks an ugly mistrust. I was unable to stay for the entire discussion, but I heard afterwards that tempers continued to rise to the point where a faculty member I respect greatly walked out of the discussion. As a debater, I’m used to arguing opinions that I do not necessarily hold myself.
While I believe that the law is quite clear on this, and that the mosque should be built, I understand some fears from the opposition. The Imam has gone on record saying he does not believe Hamas to be a terrorist group, and that Israel in our lifetimes will “become one more Arab country, with a Jewish minority.” Those two facts made me somewhat distrustful, but we cannot allow fear to make policies. We must be careful when we try to tell a private business what it can and cannot do, and we must be even more careful not to create scapegoats for the many problems we face as a nation.
This response is the writer’s own and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Concordiensis.