Saturday, July 31, 2010

Privileging Suffering - Anti-Mosque Sentiment in New York

Hatred and ignorance, two of the three poisons, are flying all around the United States these days. In fact, I'd say the third poison is also present in the form of a "greed for ease and comfort" attached to the other two. If you have heard about what's been going on in Arizona when it comes to immigration laws, you've probably been off the grid lately. In addition, there has been an uproar over a proposal to build a mosque near the site of the former World Trade Center. The usually right wing suspects - Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Fox News commentators - have been stoking the barely latent, commonplace bigotry towards Muslims for weeks now. However, the most ridiculous statement I have heard yet came yesterday from the leader of the Anti-Defamation League.

“It’s the wrong place,” Mr. Foxman said. “Find another place.”

Asked why the opposition of the families was so pivotal in the decision, Mr. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, said they were entitled to their emotions.

“Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational,” he said. Referring to the loved ones of Sept. 11 victims, he said, “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”

Wow! This is rich. I am going to say something that might upset some people. The Jewish holocaust is not the only act of genocide that has occurred in this world, and anyone who has been to a major city in the United States knows that there are a plethora of peoples who have lost family and friends in genocides all over the world. There are a certain segment of the American Jewish population that privileges their suffering over everyone elses', and this statement is a perfect example of that.

The sad thing is just as the percentage of violent, hateful Muslims is pretty small, so too is the percentage of Jews who think nothing of oppressing other people so that they can live comfortable. And yet, both of these groups have gained a lot of power, precisely because they cater to the unexamined fears and prejudices within each of us.

Obviously, the backlash against the mosque in question is more than just a small group of Jewish folks. It includes Christians, atheists, agnostics, and probably a fair number of Buddhists as well. Ah, maybe you're thinking "No, not Buddhists - aren't they supposed to be 'liberal'?" Yeah, well, I've met a lot of self proclaimed liberals who have no problem hating brown and black skinned Others.

What I find so interesting about Mr. Foxman's comments is that he moves from the messy feelings that people have, to using the feelings of a particular group as the justification for determining the building policies of an entire city.

Even the conservative Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, who is Jewish himself, rejects this leaping from the feelings of one group to city policy.

“What is great about America, and particularly New York, is we welcome everybody, and if we are so afraid of something like this, what does that say about us?” Mr. Bloomberg asked recently.

One of the ironies about hate campaigns like this is that most of the very same people harbor fears of a dictatorship of the likes of Iran, or Saudi Arabia - where only one group of people have any real freedom or power, and everyone else is second class at best.

I expect knee jerk reactions to a post like this. Things like "You have to protect people from terrorists" or "Get back to your fucking practice!" Things like that. I've heard plenty of it. It's old hat.

Practice life includes the sufferings in your community, nation, and world - end of story. This particular story impacts me because some of my students are Muslim; I've witnessed hatred expressed towards them. If I fail to examine, speak out, and aid in uprooting these kinds of hatreds, fears, and ignorance, then what's the point of my practice?

I have to say that I, too, have been Mr. Foxman on a small scale. Feeling entitled to my misery-driven views, I, too, have tried to twist collective actions in favor of that which would be most comfortable for me. This is where the practice must begin - by examining how something on a macro-level also plays out in your own life. However, too many of us Buddhists stop there, thinking that this is enough.

I, for one, want to move beyond this privatized view of practice. I want to be committed to life as it while I'm on the meditation cushion, doing walking meditation, chanting or bowing. And I also want to be fully engaged in the work of liberation, in the myriad of forms that it might take.


Unknown said...

I agree with you. You might be interested in Robert Thurman's piece on this:

Nathan said...

thanks for the link. hadn't seen it yet.

Algernon said...

Note that even here we are referring to the project as a "mosque," when in fact a place for prayer is only one facility in a very large community center project. Indeed, it sounds much like a large Jewish community center -- multi-use community meeting spaces which include places for worship and/or religious education. Those who keep referring to this as a "mosque at Ground Zero" are misrepresenting what the project is and even precisely where it is (blocks away from "ground zero").

The ADL statement is so strange and sad. Basically, the logic seems to be "opposing this project is motivated by fear and religious prejudice, but the best thing for all concerned would be to give way to that fear and bigotry." It makes no sense and contradicts ADL's own mission statement.

But with Islam, they can get away with that, because islamophobia has basically won the day: politicians can treat it as a second-class faith and get away with it.

Robyn said...

A nit-picking comment: I wouldn't characterize Bloomberg as conservative. He was a life-long Democrat who became a Republican so he wouldn't have to fight the Dem machine in NYC to get the nomination for mayor. It was purely a self-serving switch, reflecting nothing of his personal ideology, which is fairly liberal if incredibly pro-business.

My husband has been somewhat involved with this project because the building that is on the site at present is "calendared" to become a landmark, which means nothing can happen to it until the Landmarks Commission votes to either landmark it or not. Apparently, it has been calendared for years with no action, but this proposal has put huge pressure on them. As a building (the current building) is probably not worthy of landmarking but the pressure is on.

This is one of those moments when I agree with the sentiment - USA out of NYC.

Nathan said...


I agree about Bloomberg. I thought of writing fiscal conservative because it's very true that he doesn't fit into the social wing of the Republican party.


You're right. It really is a large community center. I focused in on the mosque because that's the focal point - but adding comments about that focal point shows an additional layer worth looking at, so thanks for pointing it out.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,

You won't be surprised to learn that I'm against this mosque.

But let me modify that, I'd be for it if the mosque was a small part of a multi-faith centre on this site, something that embraced all the religions of America. In which case, it would be something I'd support entirely.

I'd also be happier if the funding of the centre was transparent. Who is paying for it? No one seems to know, but it looks most likely that the funds are going to come from Saudi Arabia - a country where non-Islamic religions are outlawed, where human rights abuses are a daily event and where the form of Islam preached is directly linked to terrorism.

So, yes, make the funding transparent and make it an non-exclusive religious centre (let's have a church there too and a synagogue and a temple or two) as befitting the site, and it'd be a great idea.


Nathan said...


I can see what you mean about funding, although the U.S./Saudi relationship is much wider than funding for a religious institution. It will be interesting to see if that gets dug into further, because it will lead not only to questions about the U.S. government's unwillingness to condemn human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, but also the economic ties - (i.e. oil connection) few want to discuss. Newt Gingrich and friends love to talk about religious intolerance in places like Saudi Arabia, but they rarely, if ever, discuss the economic benefits the U.S. gets from relationships with said countries. All I can say is hmmm...

The thing is, it's two blocks away from the Ground Zero site. Not at Ground Zero.

If it were on the Ground Zero site itself, I'd agree that it should be an inter-faith center.

But creating some kind of "buffer zone" around Ground Zero that only applies to one religion - never mind that people of all beliefs died there on Sept. 11th - is supporting bigotry.


Anonymous said...


Do you know anything about the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church? It was a tiny 90-year-old Christian Church right next to the twin towers that was completely crushed on the day of the attacks.

For the past nine years it has been in dialogue with the New York authorities trying to get permission to rebuild, and for nine years it has been blocked at every juncture.

The New York authorites want to impose limits on its size, location, funding, etc etc etc.

The full story can be seen here:

And yet, at the same time that an historic Christian church on the site of 9-11 is finding it impossible to get permission to be rebuilt, permission is being granted for this new 13-story mega-mosue with very (very) unclear sources of funding.

Nathan, how about a post on behalf of tiny St. Nicholas? They have no Saudi funding, no Saudi billionare backing, and they need publicity and help in raising donations and awareness of their plight.

This is thier website:

Please take a look and, having written a post supporting a saudi mega-mosque at the 9-11 site (look at the maps, it IS the 9-11 site) please consider writing a post supporting a small immigrant community Christian church whose strugle to get permisssion to rebuild is being totally ignored.

Or do you think that only one religion is allowed to have places of worhip there and that the historic presence of a Christian Church is meaningless and the voices of that community don't count as much as the dollars of rich Saudies?

Marcus _/\_