by BAR editor and senior columnist Margaret Kimberley
If American whites practiced what many of them preach to Muslims, they would ban themselves from building cultural institutions of any kind in much of the United States, since so many places are sites of depraved atrocities and mass killings of people of color by whites. Or, are only white folks’ “sensitivities” to be respected? Where is “hallowed ground” for descendants of Black slaves and Native Americans?
Freedom Rider: “Sacred” Ground Zero
by BAR editor and senior columnist Margaret Kimberley
“Should white people have been forced to move away from the locations where they committed terrorist acts?”
The controversy generated by the so-called “ground zero mosque” is both illuminating and terrifying. In case there were any doubts, it proves that America is still a vast wasteland of ignorance created by racism and the belief that white Americans must be dominant and measured by standards that apply to no one else. If that were not the case, the planned construction of an Islamic cultural center would be a simple matter that is only of interest to those involved with the project.
There is nothing about the planned center that ought to create any opposition. The center is a project of the Cordoba Initiative, an effort to foster inter-faith and inter-group dialogue. The property has been legally sold, the project won the approval of a community board comprised of area residents, and has followed all relevant New York City regulations.
The level of vitriol directed at the Cordoba Initiative is but the latest example of white nationalism personified by the Tea Party movement, beliefs that president Obama is Muslim who wasn’t born in the United States, and a crusade to end birth right citizenship.
If opposition to the cultural center prevents it from being built, the demonization and marginalization of an entire religious group will have succeeded.
“America is still a vast wasteland of ignorance created by racism.”
Arguments against the center focus on the role of “jihadists” in the September 11th attacks. We are told that opposition is justified because the attacks were carried out in the name of the Islamic faith. While the attackers were Muslims, their action was political in nature. Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders were quite clear. The attacks were a response to the Israeli and therefore American sponsored occupation of Palestine, and the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia. In one of his many video messages, bin Laden says he wanted to attack Americans ever since the Israelis made one of many incursions into Lebanon in 1982.
It is easier to think of a religion foreign to most Americans as being the cause of terrorism rather than American actions themselves being responsible. The United States was hated enough in 2001 to inspire the terror attacks which took place before the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli attacks on Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008, and the United States destruction of Somalia. That resentment has only deepened after the deaths of so many thousands of Muslims. Instead of vilifying people who want to build a cultural center which comes equipped with a Muslim prayer room, Americans would be better off acknowledging their government’s complicity in inciting that hatred.
“The attacks were a response to the Israeli and therefore American sponsored occupation of Palestine, and the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia.”
The closeted bigots have opened the doors, unafraid to publicly declare their hatreds. At a time when Mexican infants are derided as “anchor babies” who should have their rights of citizenship taken away, it shouldn’t be surprising that one section of Manhattan might be cordoned off to any Muslims because of an act committed by a few of their co-religionists.
If “ground zero” is as some say, sacred ground which can’t be violated by anyone who shares an affinity with the terrorists, then the same logic should be applied to the sites of other atrocities. Lower Manhattan is “ground zero” for the many acts of violence perpetrated against black people during the era of enslavement.
In 1991, workers building a federal courthouse in the same area as the disputed cultural center discovered the bones of 400 enslaved men, women and children. The African Burial Ground was used as the place of interment for black people in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even in death the enslaved were not accorded any respect, being buried outside of what were then the city limits.
In 1712 and 1741 slave insurrections and even rumors of slave insurrection caused both enslaved and free black New Yorkers to be hanged or burned to death. These events took place near what is now known as the September 11th ground zero. The terrorism inflicted on those people did not prevent their killers from building on grave sites and scenes of depraved violence. Should white people have been forced to move away from the locations where they committed terrorist acts? If so, there should be another debate. If the center’s opponents are correct, then only black people should be allowed to live in lower Manhattan.
“White nationalism still rules.”
The spectacle created by this controversy is making for strange bedfellows. Democratic Governor David Paterson insists on meeting with Cordoba Initiative representatives to discuss a compromise location. They have refused. Former presidential candidate Howard Dean also thinks the center should be located elsewhere because, “There is no point in doing something that’s good if it is going to meet with resistance from a lot of folks.“ Meanwhile billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg has been steadfast in expressing support for the center.
Let us not forget Barack Obama’s double talk on the issue. At a White House Ishtar celebration of Ramadan, the president at first asserted that the center should be built as planned. “I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.” Less than 24 hours later he backtracked. “I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there.”
Marginalizing the “out” group, usually one of color, for political gain has a long tradition in America. Mosques have been opposed not just near the World Trade Center site, but in cities and towns all over the country. The battle over the so-called “ground zero mosque” is but the latest example. White nationalism still rules, this time in the guise of fighting “Islamists,” but never far below the surface.
Margaret Kimberley's Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at http://freedomrider.blogspot.com. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgandaReport.com.