Not Like This

14 Sep

It’s Primary Day in New York State. Soon we’ll know how far to the Right the GOP has tacked in yet another state. The results, in other states until now, have been extreme. I’m a Republican, and even Conservative once in a while, and I want my party to win elections and policy debates. But I don’t want to win like this.

I’d like John Beohner to be the new Speaker of the House come November (and if you want any legislation passed between Nov 2010 and Nov 2012, you should too, but that’s another article for another time). But I don’t want to elect 50 Tea Partiers to make it happen.

I want to retake the US Senate as well. But we should do it with seven Scott Brown’s, not seven Sharron Angle’s.

I want the Islamic Community Center at Park51 to consider other buildings sites, that weren’t hit by aircraft debris in the 9/11 attacks. But I don’t want Muslim taxi drivers slashed, existing mosques to be intimidated, and property at mosque construction sites around the country to be attacked to make it happen. 

The country needs to have a discussion about Islam in America, nine year late. There has been no rise in this country of extremist Islamic-related violence, such as honor killings and female genital mutilation. There have been no open street riots of young Muslim men, as in France and other parts of Europe. Yes, there have been several attempted high profile terrorist attacks, but no more lately than in the last 20 years. There has been no new information that American Muslims are unable to integrate in our ethnic tossed salad. And yet, Islamophobes and their motivated apologist adversaries are waging a screaming match at the fringes out of touch with reality. But which responsible national figure can speak? President Obama can try, and should, but will be ignored (at best) or derided (not quite the worst) by the 58% of Americans who mistakenly believe he himself is secretly Muslim, or at least not Christian. How can you start an open and honest discussion when so many think you’re hiding something. But what Republican figure can speak? Guiliani? I don’t know.

The Republican Party is a rudderless ship. I do not believe Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are the leaders of my party. But that argument is harder and harder to make when the stage is bare. Nature famously abhors a vacuum. If Mitch McConnell or John McCain (or . . . . who?) doesn’t step forward to lead this party, then Palin runs it by default.

George W. Bush looks like Winston Churchill compared to the quality of leadership we have now. Ahh, the good old days, when Bush could barely speak, but also made it clear the United States was at war with Al Qaeda, not the entire Muslim faith, and certainly not the average Muslim American citizen, working a job and sending his kids to school like everyone else. President Obama says that we are not at war with Islam. True, but unhelpful. The better question is, how much of Islam is at war with us? Its a question no politician openly asks or answers.

Instead, Rush and Beck and Palin (and doubly unfortunate, Gingrich too) deliberately misinform, and are exceedingly unhelpful in the process of people of reasonable intent trying to make a good faith effort to solve delicate problems. There is no adult to tell them to shut up. So they prattle on.

Imagine if the Park51/Ground Zero Mosque debate had gone something like this:

A middle-of-the-road Imam (which means probably too conservative and Pro-Arab for the average American, but certainly not a threat or danger or deserving of mistrust) wishes to build a community center near Ground Zero. While a naturalized American citizen, he misreads popular culture, and the effect this will have. The building touches a delicate, sensitive nerve. Maybe not a nerve everyone is proud of, but nerve none the less. Where could this have gone?

We won’t know, because it has descended into screaming matches, protests, rallies, and a race to the bottom in the Republican gubernatorial primary.

A leader would recognize the legitimate issue beneath the raw nerves and affronted feelings. That issue: what is sacred? How did New York City decide one patch of ground was sacred (the site of the two towers), and other ground was not? Whether this question was assumed, misunderstood, glossed over, debated, or not considered at all, it was at least not adequately answered. Imam Rauf, among others, has noted the strip clubs and OTB parlors nearby, and asks how a house of prayer can be any worse. Good point, but it doesn’t change the fact that many NYers want to have a debate now, after nine years of rebuilding and not when the strip club reopened, about what is sacred. They are the general public – they get a do-over. Now, what to do about it?

A leader would find a compromise. Mine? Form a commission of victim’s families, religious leaders of all faiths, local community leaders, and the National Park Service. Have them discuss (or re-discuss) what is the sacred ground of the 9/11 attack. Just the WTC? Any building hit by parts of a plane? Any building with human remains? How small? The Park Service is there to professionally lead the discussion, since they have experience caring for sacred sites across the US. The others are there to make the decision. Once a site is deemed sacred, they decide what to do about it. Kick out the current tenants, strip clubs and betting parlors first? If they could “clean up” Times Square in the interest of tourism alone, they can figure out a way to do this. Grandfather existing businesses in? Write new zoning laws? Open the door wide again to any legitimate business, reflecting the reality of a busy lower Manhattan? That would be up the commission to decide. But whatever the decision, the community would finally have the conversation that obviously has been simmering and waiting to happen. I am normally not a fan of busy-body citizen boards and endless public hearings. But if Buffalo can discuss Canalside for ten years, and then start over from the drawing board to chat all over again, then an issue this big deserves time it hasn’t had.

Will this happen? Of course not. The rudderless ship of my party does not have the imagination, political capital, or courage to do it. The Democrats would never give up their righteous indignation or self-identified moral high ground to have such a discussion. The fringes will argue until the issue fades after the November election, and die with a whimper when there isn’t enough money to build Park51 anyway.

12 Responses to “Not Like This”

  1. Mendola September 14, 2010 at 2:48 pm #

    It appears to me people like you need to stand up and sound intelligent before anyone looks in a direction other than the lying Becks of this world. Just like the Democrats have done a crappy job of mobilizing their voters for this primary, moderate Repubs (or at least moderate in tone) have taken to the rolling of eyes and “not me-ing” that I do when a whacky Christian tries to burn Korans (I’m Catholic and find this abhorrent). We have to step up and call extremists out for their divisive b.s. before it’s too late. I’m with you, even if I’m not with you.

  2. Christopher Byrd September 14, 2010 at 2:57 pm #

    The news and a lot people eat up the whack jobs…political discourse in this country is a three ring circus.

  3. STEEL September 14, 2010 at 3:04 pm #

    This is the best piece you have written with regard to your Mosque stance. However, Your position still smacks of the “Japanese in an internment camp” mentality. Their is nothing fringe about guarding equal protection under our constitution.

  4. STEEL September 14, 2010 at 3:29 pm #

    I mean there, not their

  5. Brian Castner September 14, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    @ Nick: I never expected the size of the reasonable Republican center to grow so small so fast. Both parties vacillate between “Centrist to get elected,” followed by a “We lost because we weren’t Liberal/Conservative enough.” We’re at the low point, I hope.

    @ STEEL: What part exactly “smacks” of Japanese internment camp? And guarding equal protection is fringe when it is not equal in its enthusiasm. The ACLU at least defends the rights of all, though I may disagree with them sometimes. Many Park51 apologists, on the other hand, have their heads in the sand and are selective about their First Amendment outrage.

  6. STEEL September 14, 2010 at 5:30 pm #

    The part where Americans who resemble our enemy in some way need to be treated as if they are our enemy. I am not even sure what a “Park51 apologist” is so I can’t respond to your second statement.

  7. Brian Castner September 14, 2010 at 6:18 pm #

    Since you didn’t actually quote any of my text, I’m going to go ahead and I say I implied nothing remotely resembling Japanese internment camps. Thanks for clearing that up!

  8. Brooklyn Reader September 14, 2010 at 7:30 pm #

    On the issue of the Park51 community center, I’d respectfully suggest that anyone who doesn’t live in New York City should be quiet and mind your own business.  This is our city, our problem, and we think we know how to deal with it.  Especially for Conservatives who believe in local autonomy, it is a colossal hypocrisy to be sticking your nose into someone else’s local business.  Without outsiders agitating for one thing or another, this wouldn’t be a problem at all.

    For what it’s worth, there were TWO Islamic worship centers in the World Trade Center when it was destroyed by terrorists.  Our fellow New Yorkers, our coworkers, our friends, were killed.  New York City Moslems are trying to give something back to the city, by building a downtown version of the 92nd St. YMCA, which is a vibrant community center.  And, like the Y, it won’t be open to only people of one faith.  New York may be one of the most diverse cities in the world, a couple dozen Christian denominations, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and more, all living together in relative peace, with more houses of worship than any other city in this hemisphere.  

    Please, let us continue to do this.  If you’re Conservative, worry about your own community.  If you’re Christian, remember to love thy neighbor, even if he isn’t Christian.

  9. BobbyCat September 14, 2010 at 8:28 pm #

    I’m confused. You begin your syllogism by concluding that John Boehnor should be Speaker, then list some very rational premises why the GOP is a rudderless ship. I think Boehnor one of the loose canons rolling around your ship.

    I too am amazed how quickly the right has lost all its “imagination, political capital (&) courage”. But the GOP’s recent history of success are the roots of its downfall. Newt’s very successfull “Contract With America” won back the Congress but was nothing but rhetoric, nothing but bullshit. But it succeeded!!!! How does the GOP follow that act?. Why, with more bullshit. It worked once, it can work again. So today, the GOP leaders have no platform other than more of the same. More taxcuts, more trickle-down, more military spendng, more wars and more rhetoric and catch phrases dreamed up by a cherubic little guy named Dr.Frank Luntz, a/k/a Dr.Bullshit, who discovers through sound research which myths are believed by most Americans and proceeds to spreat the BS. Voila! 58% believe Obama is a Muslim. Shall we name the ten most popular myths, thanks to Luntz? Meanwhile American is in trouble for any number of reason and we can’t agree on facts vs fictions. That’s the heart of the GOP strategy: more bullshit.

    It must be lonely for rational Republicans who have nowhere to turn.

  10. STEEL September 14, 2010 at 9:45 pm #


    Yes you actually did and do it quite often.  You note that muslims over there are our enemies and do nasty things then you say that Muslims over here should be treated differently.  You take special note of their religious and recreational facilities and proclaim that there are certain places they should not put them.  I have heard you voice no such concern for religeous facilities for other groups. Why the special attention on Muslim facilities in America?

  11. Antigone September 15, 2010 at 3:20 am #

    Your column reflects quite a few popular misconceptions. Here’s a few:

    That Abdul Rauf is a “middle of the road Imam” – he is far from it, he’s just about as progressive as one can get. At Daniel Pearl’s memorial he said, “I am a Jew, I have always been a Jew” and “not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one.” You won’t find many religious leaders willing to make public statements like that about other faiths.
    ( )

    That the street riots in France have been by “muslim men” – the riots in France have been about poverty, not religion because (a) plenty of non-muslims rioted too and (b) none of the muslims who had made it out of the ghettos rioted. France’s own governmental investigation into the riots came to that conclusion as have pretty much every sociologist studying the french ghettos.
    ( )

    That Rauf “misread” the public reaction. His wife, Daisy Khan, went on Fox News in December of 2009 to discuss the project. She was told by the host of the show, Laura Ingraham, that, “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it … I like what you’re trying to do.” A few months pass during which the NYC community board for that neighborhood unanimously votes in favor of the project. Soon after that, the narrative of “Pam Geller” (a previously obscure blogger with open ties to neo-nazi and other racist groups such as the English Defense League) regarding the mosque is adopted by rabble-rousing politicians and columnists. That narrative is hugely distortive – which is to be expected given its origin and the use it is put to. But, as they say, “if it bleeds, it leads.”

    What Rauf misread was the extreme political opportunism that would set in – that the complete crazy of Pam Geller would not only be given a public voice in the debate, but that people of the stature of Giuliani and Gingrich would adopt it. Just as nobody would have thought that the complete crazy of a koran-burning preacher in Florida would become headline news for most of last week either.
    ( )

    And now my opinion, which is as well researched as I think it can possibly be but I welcome supportable, factual corrections: Since 9-11, the area around ground-zero has transformed from a business-only district to a mixed commercial/residential area. The neighborhood has a growing population, including includes muslims who have been under-served by the currently available religious facilities (the nearest mosque is only open 1 day a week and with a capacity of about 65 people must hold multiple prayer services because it can not accommodate all of the people who show up). Saying that building a mosque in the neighborhood where they live is “offensive” is tantamount to saying that it is offensive for muslims to live in the neighborhood at all. That kind of thinking should get any American riled up because it is in contradiction with our fundamental principle of egalitarianism.

  12. Brian Castner September 15, 2010 at 1:28 pm #

    @ Brooklyn Reader: Thanks for reading and commenting. I am in favor of local control, and have no desire to control anything. I do have opinions, however, and I share them, for readers who care to listen and discuss. Since NYC’s reaction to Park51, and the country’s, says something about all of us, that is what I try to concentrate on. If you’ll note, my recommendation (which all are free to take or leave) is to grant greater local and community control by openly discussing the nerve that was touched. NYC is a very diverse community, and there are many Muslims (and people of all faiths) in need of this center. To me, it seems there needs to be a discussion about the entire 9/11 attack site, not just the WTC, and not just Park51.

    @ BobbyCat: Boehner is not filling the leadership void, but he is also not a loose cannon. He’s a martini drinking, over tanned socialite, who brings consensus and decentralizes control (perhaps to his own detriment). I’d rather have a relative moderate like him as Speaker than Pelosi (certainly) or many other options. As for the substance, I have to disagree strongly that the Contract with America was all BS. Welfare and tax reform were two major pieces of legislation to come from it. The R’s need a CWA again – some policy to be for, and not just against Obama’s bad ideas.

    @ Antigone: Thank you for the comment – I always appreciate links (i.e. facts) to back up opinions – its how I try to operate as well.

    My point about Imam Rauf being a “middle-of-the-road” Imam was that a liberal Muslim who follows the basic tenants of the faith would be middle-of-the-road in secular America. He is more pro-Arab (or pro-Arab government) than most Americans, and more socially conservative. I appreciate his sentiments you quote (though I disagree – the three faiths are different, and simply rhetorically merging them does a disservice to each’s identity and history), but for each quote like that I can pull up one’s that fail to denounce terrorism, or say the US brought on 9/11 itself ( I did not quote him, because I think such “gotcha” quotes prove little about his over all intent, which I think I accurately described.

    I agree the riots in France were not a “jihad” or about Islam specifically. It was about the poor conditions and lack of jobs or opportunity in the suburbs. But I referenced it because it shows a failure of immigrants (North Africas and Muslims from the Middle East in large numbers) to assimilate, or at least find sufficient success. We, thankfully, have not had a similar problem in the US. I am trying to indicate a strength of our country, and show that the current bout of misplaced Islamophobia is not due to a tangible reason in our communities.

    On your third point, I stand by my claim. Imam Rauf failed to anticipate the political backlash, which is now largely synonymous with the public reaction. In 2010, with our range of technologies, and ADD public mentality, I think the reaction to Park51 and the Koran book burning was entirely predictable. I mean, there have been charges Obama is a Muslim for 3 years – what did he think would happen?

    I disagree with your opinion, but you are free to it. Zoning laws prescribe where all sorts of restrictions on businesses and buildings. I can’t put a gas station on my residential street, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a right to fill my gas tank. You can not build a church or synagogue on any piece of property anywhere in the nation – and though I can’t build a church in the middle of Old Fort Niagara near my home, that doesn’t mean it is discriminating against the Christians who live 100 feet away. If we are willing to restrict all manner of free enterprise in various “districts” because of something as shallow as the width of sidewalks, or correct architectural details, we can restrict the use of this land without telling any community that they shouldn’t live there. As I said in my article – to me, an outsider, it appears that the people of good faith on each side (leaving off the screaming Islamophobes or the reflexive Liberals who are only involved because of Sarah Palin) disagree about what is sacred. It seems like many consider the ground sacred. Others do not. What should be allowed on sacred ground? Then it stops being a discussion about blocking one Islamic community center, and turns into a discussion about what land should be saved, and reserved, and what land should not. In my opinion, such “saved” land should be devoid of strip clubs and OTB parlors as well. But as BR points out, that is a decision for the community there to make, not me.

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