Anti-Islamic fervor surrounding Manhattan’s Park51 is centuries old.
All historical writing should be understood as a rewriting of history, for the scribe who puts to paper their tale is biased—great war literature is told by victors. Facts become secondary to mythologies. Thus, as Pope Urban II was recruiting troops for his struggling Knights of St. Peter, he inspired poets to rewrite the three-century-old French tale of the king Charlemagne and his nephew, Roland.
Originally Charlemagne had journeyed to Spain to aid one Muslim leader against another. Urban, however, badly wanted to overtake Jerusalem, distraught that Islam ruled the city of Jesus, and so was willing to edit. The revised Song of Roland transformed a pesky turf war into a holy war, although in truth it’s difficult to find difference between two such battles (except for the invoking of a god). The great king led a divinely inspired charge of 20,000 Christian soldiers into battle against some 400,000 infidels. Through the supposed grace of their god, they miraculously win. The Franks push the Saracens into the Ebro river, and later all Muslim and pagan idols are destroyed.
As a religious leader, Urban was a great politician. He needed a war far away from home (and one that he would never actually fight in) to raise the morale of a Europe whose Roman inspiration had fallen. Invoking an enemy thousands miles from home in the burial place of their savior made a perfect excuse. Never mind that his first attempt failed so miserably historians renamed it the People’s Crusade and downplayed the effort put into it; nine more Crusades did help regain the holy land, briefly, before Muslims took it back after generations of Christians and Muslims marrying and starting new communities.
Imagine the consternation that fact brought upon Europe’s religious leaders. Not only were soldiers marrying the enemy, but as Islam reclaimed the region, they did not banish Christians and Jews. Jews returned, feeling safe that they would not be persecuted as they had under Christian rule. That remained the case until the journalist Theodor Herzel had a vision that has since created one of the bloodiest and greediest land struggles in the modern era.
Holy wars are always battles of pride, land and power, and the further away the enemy, the scarier they become: these two mantras fuel the fake controversy that has become known as the Ground Zero Mosque. Firstly, it is not on ground zero. Even worse, it’s not a mosque, which is defined as solely a place for worship and prostration. With its swimming pool and culinary school, Park51 is an Islamic community center that features a prayer room. A ‘mosque’ isn’t even a component of it, because a mosque cannot be a component.
The ‘nontroversy,’ started by a right wing nut that inspired others that care little about facts, eventually made its way into arguments by conservative politicians and ‘media’ entities like Fox as a great platform to herald, so that other issues, such as the economy and ecology, could be avoided. Even moderate liberals have chimed in, rousing a sleeping public into what is considered one of the hottest debates of the day. The problem is that there is no debate, which is why our mayor, Michael Bloomberg, shot through the holes with an ease of eloquence. Little surprise that most of the opposition is from people who live nowhere near Manhattan.
Not that all New Yorkers are pleased with the idea, but living in this city teaches you to live alongside, if not get along, with a variety of ‘others.’ I love hearing a dozen languages on the subway every day, and the fact that I can cycle and walk through the most diverse range of neighborhoods of any American city. It’s not like I’m stopping into Boro Park homes, but being in regular proximity affords me the opportunity to experience a sliver of cultures I do not partake in, proving their foreignness of lifestyle at the very least comprehensible.
When you don’t see the ‘other,’ though, it’s very easy to make them be whomever you want. Pope Urban had no problem speaking of the wickedness of the Saracens, because they were just concepts and not people. He wanted power in the name of Christianity and sent young me out to win it for him under the disguise of a divine banner.
When you’re in the thick of it, things are different. I’m constantly around Park51, and besides the recent idiotic protest, that block is a ghost town. I was in the Trade Center under an hour before the first plane hit, and for the past decade I’ve been in Tribeca weekly. I shopped in the old Burlington Coat Factory, and considered the fraying old building an eyesore on a lifeless block ever since. Erecting a community center there is the best thing that could have happened to the neighborhood.
Yet the same xenophobic fears that drive Arizonans to arrest and deport random foreigners (leaving aside the private jail scandal the politicians are dealing with) are fueling this fire of Islamic hatred. Those trying to stay within the politically correct bounds of ‘they have a right to build there, but…’ are even more disturbing than those who just come out and say it for what it is: we don’t know anything about you, so we want you out of here.
We’ve got to push past tolerance here, past even acceptance. We have to move into experience. Listen to, don’t even read, the Quran recited sometime. Done properly, it’s heartbreakingly gorgeous. Stop giving the Palins and Limbaughs a platform with which to speak their vitriolic hatred; push past Howard Dean with his nonsensical dialogue between faiths. Cloaking your god in the political ploy of the day doesn’t change the fact that any of these gods don’t mean a thing. It’s the humanity in us that matters, defined and demonstrated by our actions. The theories that fly in the wind will one day prove their weight as worthless.