NIMBY Mosques and the Taxonomies of Religion in America

By Michael J. Altman

In case you missed it, there are plans to build a mosque in New York two blocks from the site of World Trade Center attack.  The proposed mosque has ignited a variety of discourses about religion in American culture.  Opponents of the mosque have various reasons for their opposition but a recent ad from the National Republican Trust PAC offers the most obvious examples of the "us" and "them" language opponents are employing.

The ad was rejected by by CBS and NBC.  As Entertainment Weekly reports:
CBS and NBC have rejected an ad by the National Republican Trust PAC that seeks to rally viewers against a proposed mosque that would be built two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack in New York City. The one-minute spot (embedded below) begins with the words “the audacity of JIHAD” flashing on the screen followed shortly thereafter by the image of a plane flying into the World Trade Center; an accompanying voiceover declares that “to celebrate that murder of 3,000 Americans, they want to build a monstrous 13-story mosque at Ground Zero.”
The national spot “didn’t meet our broadcast standards,” said a spokesperson for CBS, confirming the network’s decision not to run it. An NBC spokesperson also confirmed the decision to reject the spot, but did not offer an explanation why. Nonetheless, EW obtained a letter from NBC Universal advertising standards manager Jennifer Riley to the NRT PAC explaining that: “An ad questioning the wisdom of building a mosque at ground zero would meet our issues of public controversy advertising criteria. However, this ad which ambiguously defines ‘they’ as referenced in the spot, makes it unclear as to whether the reference is to terrorists or to the Islamic religious organization that is sponsoring the building of the mosque. Consequently the ad is not acceptable under our guidelines for broadcast.”

As I read it, the basic message of the ad is "If the mosque gets built then the terrorists win."  Patrolling the borders of acceptable religion has been a mainstay of American culture: colonial Quakers, nineteenth century Catholics, twentieth century Communists, and now, twenty first century Muslims  What is remarkable about this ad is just how unremarkable it is in its rhetoric.  The same strategies always work.  Slap on a foreign label ("Jihad" or "Papist" or "Pinko"), add violence (terrorism, nuclear threat, licentious priests and nuns), predict the downfall of "American values" (read Anglo Protestantism) then stir until a nice foment of emotionalism forms.

Lurking behind the nativist rhetoric of the ad is the ghost of the First Amendment.  Don't Muslims have a right to build a mosque?  Isn't that part of religious freedom?  Well, for the explication of this point I turn to the illustrative Jon Stewart (skip to the 3:13 mark for the mosque story):
Why are these mosques being built in my community?  
Oh, OH OH! I know...because there are Muslims in your community.

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Beyond the tension between nativism and the First Amendment, at bottom, this story is about fear.  Since 9/11 the discourse about Islam in America has tended to revolve around fear.  Fear of foreign powers, fear of religious belief and practice many American didn't understand, and fear that America was changing.  Fear of pluralism.

Getting back to the Cordoba House mosque in Manhattan, I see two currents of the American religious past that are working against a more nuanced understanding of Islam and the planned mosque.  First, the American tradition of sectarianism and denominationalism has offered the major ordering principle for thinking about American religious diversity.  In the colonial period there were sects like the Quakers or Baptists and they were tied to a certain set of beliefs and practices that were either contested, tolerated, or repressed, depending on the place and time.  In the nineteenth century the emergence of denominations offered stronger structures to the sectarian organization of religion.  Baptist believed X, Presbyterians believed Y, etc. and they were are all acceptable under the First Amendment.  This even applied to non-Christian groups like Jews who fit into various "denominations" of there own: Reformed, Orthodox, Conservative.

In the twentieth century, the emergence of a discourse about "world religions" and the rise of the academic study of religions shifted the ground.  Denominationalism became an organizing principle for Christianity but suddenly (to take the tally of the World's Parliament of Religion) there were 10 world religions.  These new traditions didn't get the nuance of a "denominational" taxonomy.  Rather, they began to fall alongside the denominations.  So you had Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.  While there was some understanding of the nuances of the traditions, on the popular level, these were traditions that held together as "religions."

In the past ten years Americans seemed to have a gained a vague notion about the diversity of Islam--at least the words Sunni and Shia have entered the vocabulary.  But the early twentieth century model of world religions and the nineteenth century model of denominations still organize public discourse about religion.  This results in the ability for goups to connect everything Muslim to an essential "Islam" that sits alongside other religions and various Christian denominations.  Denominationalism prevents most people from connecting the crusades or young Earth creationism to all Christians--rather it gets connected to specific kinds of Christians.  Islam, imagined as an essential religious tradition, does not get such a privilege. 


Moish said…
This really isn't a fair analysis. You claim this is all about fear. "at bottom, this story is about fear." Is it not possible that this story is also about pain? On 9/11 Islam caused a lot of pain to a lot of people. While everyone has the right to free speech, some things are best left well enough alone. The Test has had to tip-toe around Islamic sensitivities, it might be time for Islam (however 'moderate') to be cognizant of some other sensitivities.

Is this not a fair point Mike? Don't you think it deserves some mention in your article?

You make an important point, that I didn't bring up. There was a lot of pain surrounding the 9/11 attacks. I didn't mention it because, frankly, I'm not sure what to do with it. I was living in South Carolina and had no connection with anyone, friends or family, effected by the tragedy. So I didn't feel like I could speak to anyone's pain or how that pain might shape their views of the mosque.

But, why is the pain of 9/11 tied to "Islam" (imagined as a unified, monolithic 'religion')?

My claim is not about fear alone. My claim is that our discourse about religions tends to isolate them into essential categories such that 9/11 is connected to Islam is connected to a mosque. Rather, 9/11 was connected to a specific group (Al-Qaeda) tied to a specific branch of Islam (Wahabism) and this mosque is being built by a very different group (of Sufis, I believe.)

To take another example, the Oklahoma City federal building bombing was committed by a Christian acting within a certain Christian tradition, yet that attack is rarely linked to "Christianity" or to churches.

My central point is that Islam is not given the same nuance or detail that Christianity is given in our public discourses about religion. The privileged (read empowered) place of Christianity grants it nuance so that Timothy McVeigh is rarely connected to Rick Warren. The ways we categorize and imagine "religion" and "religions" work to obscure/clarify and empower/disempower in our discourse.
Moish said…
I understand your point. It even makes sense, although I don’t know if you’re factually correct. Do the research, actually make the analysis. Take 5 magazines and track their stories after the Oklahoma bombing and 9/11, and see if they talk about the event in different ways. Do the research.

More importantly though you’re an American, on 9/11/01 you saw 3,000 other Americans burn to death…and you can’t speak about pain? At all? I think if you can talk about fear, you can talk about pain.

But here I the essential problem with the recent academic focus on discourse. It’s all fundamentally based on ‘’the lie’’. The fear people experience, and thus express rhetorically, must be a based on a lie, it must be incorrect. If we were to only show people this camera obscura then the world would right itself. The fear people experience however, could also be based on a deep sense of pain. Pain of losing loved ones, or simply living through the worst attack on the American mainland since 1812. This is rarely taken into account in a discourse analysis.

Why generalize Íslam, and not Al-Qaeda or Wahabism? For a few reasons actually. Firstly, Al-Qaeda says they act in the name of Islam, I should disagree? Secondly, There comes a point where particularities hurt rather then help. At Pearl harbor American wasn’t attacked by a specific group, within a specific section of the Japanese Imperial Government. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. That’s like saying, since the Democrats are in power now, the war in Afghanistan must be a democratic war and not an American one. On 9/11 Americans were pained by Islam, Muslims of all shades need to be sensitive to that.

It’s not that you’re article is ‘’wrong’’. It’s just that it boils down some very complicated issues into a Camera Obscura. “The fear must be incorrect, and by golly I’m gonna tell them why”. But I think if you were to patiently listen to the debate surrounding this mosque with an open mind, you might find a lot more there to write about.
AMBurgess said…

I think it's perfectly reasonable to say that 9/11 is connected to Islam. To define Islam by 9/11 would be simplistic and wrong, just as it would to define Catholicism by the Spanish Inquisition or Mormonism by Mountain Meadows. But as you can't talk about the SI or MM without their respective religions, you can't talk about 9/11 without Islam. It is what it is.

A museum of R.E. Lee is an appropriate venue, but would we want one placed near the Edmund Pettus Bridge? It's not fair to connect R.E. Lee with the rabid segregationists of the 50s and 60s, but those segregationists did a lot in the name of their Confederate heritage. Certainly we would agree that there would be better places to honor the life of R.E. Lee.

Muslims are free to erect mosques wherever they want, and I don't think they should be barred from doing so even in this case. One might reasonably ask, however, if those building this mosque haven't thought through how this construction might be perceived.
AMBurgess said…
Btw, Michael, Timothy McVeigh did not do anything in the name of Christianity. In fact, he was quite anti-Christian. And Rick Warren has not always been granted immunity attachment to extreme Christians, particularly homophobic ones. Remember also how pro-life Christians have been brought under particular scrutiny after the slaying of abortion doctors. I don't see this privileged position of Christianity you speak of.
AMBurgess said…
Given what I've written here, I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not at all support the advertisement advocating against the mosque. In fact, I despise it. It went way, way over the line. The clip of Jon Stewart, on the other hand, was terrific!
Moish said…
Personally, I do support this advertisement against the Mosque. It did go over the line, however we live in interesting times. We are in a war against Radical Islam, and we need to be in it to win it. Propaganda is a legitimate part of that struggle.
I used McVeigh as an example because of his ties to the Christian Identity movement. But whichever example you choose, and you bring up some good ones, the central problems are the same. In America and Europe religions have been thought of as coherent, closed, "traditions" or "cultures" that have an essential reality to them. But these "religions" or "world religions" (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc.) are not natural categories. They are not closed categories. They are not stable. Rather, and Tomoko Masuzawa has shown this quite strikingly in her book The Invention of World Religions , they are contested, shifting, unstable, constructions.

So, yes, there is a connection between 9/11 and Islam and between religions and your other examples. But, the "religion" in these examples are constructed differently and they are constructed through certain structures and acts of power. When Christians have committed violence in America it is usually attributed to specific Christian groups--"fundamentalists" or "evangelicals" or whatever--and these Christians are usually not part of the more liberal/moderate Protestant mainstream that has been empowered for most of U.S. history. In the case of Islam, as I wrote above, violence is connected to "Islam" without more specific connections being drawn out. The difference between a Wahabi and a Sufi are important but they aren't part of our general discourse about Islam in America. I think we have to stop talking about "Islam" in a way that makes it seem monolithic and begin to open up the diversity of the various Muslim traditions.

And then there's the first ammendment...but that's another whole post.

I'm not sure I've answered all the questions this post brought up but, for me, the mosque story was a chance to push on the ways we imagine religions. It isn't about a camera obscura, it's about recognizing the historicity and contingency of our categories and thus, recognizing our ability to re-imagine them.
Christopher said…
I've been holding off on reading and commenting on this post since I hadn't been following this debate too closely, which I've attempted to remedy over the course of the last 2 days by reading everything I could find.

I like how you've framed your approach, Michael. Thanks for the thoughtful post.
Moish said…
"When Christians have committed violence in America it is usually attributed to specific Christian groups--"fundamentalists" or "evangelicals" or whatever.... In the case of Islam, as I wrote above, violence is connected to "Islam" without more specific connections being drawn out."

Mike I think the crucial point here is, that you don't know this. You haven't done (or haven't presented) the empirical research. Show me evidence. I'm willing to hypothesize that most discussions of Islamic terror use the word 'radical' as a modifier. (The video here is the exception, but there is a reason why it hasn't been accepted for airtime by any major network.) That's just a guess, but then again I haven't done the empirical research either. The point is, when you make a claim like that you need some evidence to back it up.

I think the way you explained your article in your last comment was very succinct. I think you got sidetracked from that point in your article, by focusing on fear.

That being said your explanation is unhelpful in a practical sense. All of this reimagining and rethinking the boundaries of religion is all wonderful in Michigan university. Too be honest it's an ironically secular view of religion, and it doesn't help a community come to grips with their pain.

Let's do a thought experiment and do it your way. Wahabi Radical Islamic terrorists from Saudi Arabia toppled the Towers in lower Manhattan. Now using their freedom of religion, Sufi Muslims (whose Imam has said some controversial things) are insensitive enough to build a huge Mosque on the site. How does one respond? Maybe I'm not seeing it but I don't think reimagining religion solves the conflict. For those who are opposed to the project, it's simply not the right place nor the right time.