How Liberal Mosque Defenders Are Playing into the Hands of the Islamophobes

In the past weeks, we have seen how liberal defenders have responded to the "fear and trembling" that the mere idea of a mosque induces with a series of disavowals. Instead of challenging the racist assumptions that buttress such rhetoric, many liberals have decided instead to offer "clarifications." Time and again, the public is reminded of the fact that Park51 is not in fact a mosque but an Islamic community center that promotes interfaith dialogue.


Daisy Khan and Imam Rauf, the leading figures behind the Park51 initiative, have not only repeated this mantra, but have in fact produced it. When liberal defenders have wittingly or unwittingly referred to Park51 as a mosque, the response from folks at the Cordoba Initiative has been gratitude in the form of this corrective: Thank you for your support, but Park51 is not a mosque.

Desperate attempts to render inaudible the community center’s Islamic origins have also included several name changes. What was once referred to as Cordoba House became the Community Center at Park Place, and most recently, the amorphous namesake, Park51.

But these efforts -- to present the community center as innocuous via nomenclature -- are just part of the problem; the very same rhetoric is being materially reproduced in the architectural plans for Park51. The structure, as it is currently imagined, literally looks nothing like a mosque. What we see instead of minarets or a crescent moon, is an eyesore that screams of capitalist excess. There appears to be some Islamic influence in the geometric art that may be visible through its glass exterior, but the aesthetics of this structure overwhelmingly suggest that its design is a carefully constructed attempt at attracting as little attention as possible. The gaze of those working and visiting the area will seamlessly move from Park51 to the other glass monuments that line the financial district, and it appears that this is precisely the point.

In all of this, it is clear that the kindergarten logic of “hear no evil, see no evil” is being used in order to sway public opinion in favor of the center, but while the success of these maneuvers remains to be seen, its damage is immediately apparent. The message is loud and clear: if Park51 sounds nothing like a mosque, claims to be nothing like a mosque, and, looks nothing like a mosque, then, and perhaps only then, does it emerge a defensible endeavor within the United States.

Apart from the fact that these maneuvers do little by way of providing Americans with a reason to be self-reflexive – that is, to ponder the possibility of co-existence with Muslims without requiring, first, that those Muslims sanitize their identities and their places of worship – yet another danger exists in the fact that if these additives, this supplementary discourse (of community center and interfaith dialogue) continues to be the basis upon which Park51 emerges worthy of defense, then on what grounds will other mosques – which do not claim to be anything more or less than a mosque -- be defended?

Other red flags emerge when we take note how Imam Rauf and Daisy Khan’s personal relationship to Islam – a relationship that associates itself with Sufi ideology and is being described as moderate Islam – has been ascribed upon Park51. When these disclaimers are represented in the media, they are not just interesting facts about two individuals, but are invoked as one of Park51’s most appealing features, a major selling point in the subsequent liberal discourse.

The narrative of fitting in, of assimilation and integration that is being created through Park51 produces a dangerous set of "if, then" contingencies we should all be wary of, because they index the precise problem of this moment in American history -- a moment in which the very terms and conditions that are being articulated in the mosque debate have also come to determine who will be recognized as the "right" kind of Muslim in America. These preconditions (of recognition) become even more problematic when they, in turn, determine which Muslim claims will be recognized as legitimate or worthy of defense.  

As a Muslim, I take no pleasure in stating that I see no part of myself in the Park51 initiative. The precise public identity that has enabled it to emerge a defensible endeavor in liberal discourse, has also had the damaging effect of alienating many Muslims – particularly those of us who do not wish to describe our relationship to Islam through language that seeks to moderate not simply words, but the very conditions of our existence. To accept this insidious terminology would be tantamount to reinforcing the spurious claim that Islam, as it stands on its own -- un-moderated -- is already problematic.

However, while I will gladly pass on aligning myself with the liberal rhetoric I have critiqued here, it would be remiss to confuse this ideological disagreement with what remains my unwavering conviction that Park51 has every right to exist. Why? Because Muslims, like adherents of all religions, express their relationship to Islam in a multiplicity of ways. The problem of Park51 is not that it expresses one of those possible relationships, but that it produces its own relationship not simply as the "right" relationship (read: the most tolerant, enlightened and progressive relationship), but that it presents that so-called right relationship as the basis through which its existential claims emerge legitimate. I cannot, in good conscience, accept or reproduce this caricature as truth.

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