The Moderate Muslim's Fate

Emotions run high in the "Ground Zero Mosque" debate, and the stakes are significant. They're just not what many on the left and the right of the aisle think. Faisal Devji explains.


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Image: World Economic ForumAS CONTROVERSY over the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” in Lower Manhattan takes up more and more airtime in the US, the arguments deployed by both sides have become ever more narrow. On the one hand, those defending the proposed Islamic centre talk about the threat of anti-Muslim prejudice to constitutional freedoms, while at the same time endangering efforts to promote the kind of “moderate” Islam represented by its director, a New Age sufi called Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. On the other hand, pleas for Muslims and all those backing the project to heed American “sensitivities” are coupled with dark hints about Rauf’s true intentions, sources of funding and indeed the problem represented by Islam itself in the West. Although this public debate generates an enormous number of new facts, interpretations and other details every day, these are all squeezed into a shrinking circuit of concepts and categories, very few of which are able to address the controversy’s larger and more lasting implications.


Interesting about the nature of this debate, in its very narrowness, is that it marks the first time Islam has become a serious domestic issue in the US, frequent invocations of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban or Iran notwithstanding. Indeed it is the centre’s opponents who are concerned with Islam as a domestic issue, whereas its supporters routinely back it by referring to the importance of promoting “moderate” Islam abroad in a way that once would have been called imperial. But this concentration on domestic politics, including the allegedly Muslim background and sympathies of President Obama, have little to do with a Republican effort to reclaim votes in mid-term elections by the use of a wedge issue. Crucial instead is the fact that those opposing the centre, far more than its backers, appear to have realised that the Global War on Terror is effectively over, and that the US faces no existential threat from terrorism, despite the continuing possibility of random attacks at home and the need that still remains to deal with some insurgencies abroad. 


The fear that marked public reaction to the 9/11 attacks has vanished, together with the remarkable tolerance then displayed towards American Muslims, who might have been profiled and more readily picked up by agencies of the state, but didn’t suffer large scale violence against their persons or property. Indeed if anything the Bush administration was far more outspoken about the evils of “Islamophobia” and encouraging of “moderate” Muslims including Rauf than its Democratic successor, something that indicates more than disingenuous politicking either then or now. For the popular outcry against American Muslims cannot be attributed to the calculations of party politics without falling into the realm of conspiracy theory. Instead it might be more productive to recognize that Muslims can be reviled today precisely because they are no longer feared as a global threat, having become domesticated into a minority like many others who faced discrimination in the past: ethnic Germans, Italians and Japanese during one or both World Wars, Catholics and Jews among religious communities, and today the Latin populations targeted as “illegal immigrants” alongside those old favourites for criminal profiling, African-Americans. 


However novel the circumstances, anti-Muslim feeling in the US, whether justified or not, falls into a received pattern of domestic prejudice against minorities. This marks Islam’s baptism by fire as an American religion, which is exactly what Rauf and his backers say they want, after all. Ten years from now there are likely to be books written and television programs made about the shameful history of anti-Muslim sentiment in the US, by which time Islam will have become naturalised within it precisely because of today’s debate. The truly interesting thing about the controversy, in other words, is neither Islam nor even “Islamophobia” but the transformation of right wing politics in the United States. 


Sharing a great deal with the Tea Party phenomenon in American conservatism, though open to a more diverse set of supporters, the anti-mosque movement represents a networked mobilization outside the planning and control of the Republican Party – thus forcing its establishment to follow a protest over which it exercises little leadership as yet. So even though Obama’s presidential campaign was touted for its use of social networking sites and electronic fundraising, it turns out to have been his rivals who have ended up embracing the possibilities of technological mobilization with more ardour.


Of course the most successful (or at least the most celebrated) example of such mobilization against traditional structures of authority is that of militant Islam in its global form as al-Qaeda. The Internet-savvy and self-motivated soldiers of a franchised jihad share a great deal, at least organizationally, with their right wing American critics in Tea Party-style activism. The latter, however, are far less adventurous, still linked as they are to institutional politics and its domestic arena, something that Islamic militancy is unable to do given the weakness of political institutions in much of the Muslim world. Weak or discredited states and the rise of religious entrepreneurs among the laity have led to a crisis of authority within Sunni Islam, which like most religions outside Christianity, lacks institutional form. It is this crisis that militancy in part represents. In the US, on the other hand, the crisis of authority among conservatives might have moved against political institutions but certainly not beyond them. What has been lost in the debate has been any claim to authoritative speech or knowledge, as demonstrated by so many of the arguments against the “Ground Zero mosque” or about President Obama’s religion and place of birth. This is simply the consequence of a media-driven society with multiple sources of information that can no longer be contained within any effective hierarchy of knowledge.  


Matching the warnings about Muslim fanaticism and terror by the mosque’s opponents, its supporters have begun worrying about “Islamophobia”, which has even made it to the cover of TIME magazine this month. Yet it is important to point out that ‘Islamophobia” is not some generic phenomenon. Its manifestation in Europe differs significantly from what happens in the US, however much activists in the latter learn from the narratives of their European sympathisers. Thus the presence of Dutch politician Geert Wilders at an anti-mosque rally in New York on September 11th may boost his popularity among supporters at home and admirers abroad, but the politics of Islamophobia in Europe has little to do with its American form.


In the Old World anti-Muslim sentiment no longer possesses a nationalist character, with Islam seen as representing a threat to Europe, itself a fairly new and still ambiguous political entity lacking traditional institutions of sovereignty. In the New World it has become part of a debate on nationality. And while in Europe the threat posed by Islam appears to have trumped the old fears of race, this is far from being the case in America, where African-Americans and Mexicans represent formidable threats in the perceptions of many. A quasi-political entity defined by “civilization,” Europe is threatened by Islam, an equally formless civilization. America, meanwhile, still has the nation state and racial politics to think about.     


Whatever the sympathy he deserves, we should perhaps be thankful that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s New Age brand of government-sponsored Islam has been put on the back foot for the moment  – not because there is anything sinister about it, but in light of the ill-effects that Islam’s politicization by Western powers has given rise to in the recent past.  The litany: Napoleon’s attempts to encourage a jihad against the British Empire during his conquest of Egypt, to similarly destructive but unsuccessful moves on the part of Kaiser Wilhelm during the First World War, Hitler during the Second and finally, this time with spectacular success, Ronald Reagan’s jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. 


This long history of Christian-Muslim partnership in holy war saw the increasing militarization, on an international and eventually global level, of the Muslim groups involved. The consequences for their sponsors, in our days Saudis and Pakistanis as much as Americans and British, were often disastrous. The different thing about today’s conflict, however, is that for the first time Islamic militancy does not just represent a means towards some other end, but has become the object of politics in its own right. This means that promoting any kind of Islam is to participate in a potential civil war within a religion undergoing its most severe crisis of authority in many centuries. In such a situation the task surely should be to de-politicise Muslim groups rather than the reverse, which is what sponsorship of any one of them will end up doing.     


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Faisal Devji is University Reader in Modern South Asian History at St. Antony's College, Oxford University, and the author of two books, Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality and Modernity (2005), and The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics
(2009).