Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mosque Controversy in America - Part I - Today's Zaman

Today's Zaman, one of Turkey's largest newspapers, published my article on 8/27/2010.               

I recently asked my wife’s niece, who is Turkish, “What do you think of the mosque controversy in New York City?” She replied, “What controversy?” Most people in Turkey seem unaware of this front-page story regarding Islam in the US.

The plan to build an Islamic community center in a building a few blocks from the World Trade Center site in New York City created a firestorm in the US more than a week ago. The mayor of New York, who is Jewish, supports the project, as does President Barack Obama, in the name of religious freedom. But a CNN poll found that 68 percent of Americans opposed the center, which will include a mosque, so close to the target of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

It is a $100 million project that will have a multicultural and religious board of directors, and will support the entire community in that part of lower Manhattan. The center will add 15 stories to a non-descript building not at the World Trade Center site, but two to three blocks away.

Obama said, at the White House’s annual iftar dinner, “I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.” However, his view is in the minority, based on the CNN poll and the loud opposition of many Republicans and other conservative leaders.

Many Americans understand that the Sept. 11 attacks, although carried out in the name of Islam by its participants, were not representative of the one-and-a-half billion Muslims in the world. But that level of understanding and awareness seems to be a minority view, unfortunately. Last year when Barack Obama toured the Middle East, a poll found that 46 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of Muslim countries, compared to 20 percent who viewed them favorably. Certainly unfamiliarity is partially to blame. Six in 10 Americans do not personally know a practicing Muslim, and those who do have a more favorable view than those who do not. Three in four Americans do not have a passport, making personal familiarity with any foreign country problematic.

I came to Turkey at the beginning of 2010 to teach (at Bilkent University) and write a book relating to Turkey. I found that people who consider themselves Muslim are hardly monolithic: some are more secular than others; some are observant, while others are not; some women want to wear headscarves, while others are uncovered; some are Sunni, or Shiite, or Alevi, all with different religious viewpoints. And Muslims also support a variety of political parties and ideologies, from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) to the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), from the left to the right and everywhere in between.

Last June I returned to the US for a month and was anxious to share with my friends and relatives my experiences in Turkey and what it was like to live in a country in which everyone was Muslim and did not fit the American stereotype. But Americans I spoke to seemed oblivious to any diversity in the Muslim world. It was a concept they had a hard time grasping, perhaps because the news that dominates the airways regarding Islamists relates to the insurgents in Iraq, finding Osama bin Laden, repressive policies of the Taliban and the latest suicide attack somewhere in the world.

I was asked, however, about the Mavi Marmara incident. I suggested that the people on the ship meant well, that they were not the aggressive ones and that the Israelis caused the incident by taking a militaristic stance. No one agreed. The standard response was: “Israel represents the only hope in the Middle East. They are simply protecting themselves from terrorists and rocket attacks.” One person wondered what had happened to me while I was in Turkey.

Criticism of Israel is almost nonexistent in the US and has been politically incorrect for as long as I can remember. In fact, Republicans and Democrats will criticize each other for failing to support Israel enough. When Israel seems to be too aggressive, too zealous in its foreign policy and acting with a “besieged mentality,” it is given the benefit of the doubt and politicians tread lightly on any negative comments. Or they qualify their criticisms with, “It’s for Israel’s own good.” Even Barack Obama -- a liberal, enlightened and intelligent US president if there ever was one -- did not condemn the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara and only questioned the continuation of the Gaza blockade in response to global outcries over the incident.

Perhaps it is that lack of familiarity mentioned earlier. America is very much an isolated country, separated by the world’s two largest oceans. It is a big island. I lived all my life in America, taught International Politics and International Marketing at American universities, as recently as two years ago, and found this lack of familiarity with the world in young people as well, I am sorry to say. For each class I handed out blank maps of the world and asked students to fill in the names of the countries. The average number of countries correctly identified was less than 10, just 5 percent of the world. And no student ever located Turkey correctly.

During my visit to the States I sent a package to Turkey and, as a joke, tried paying with a Turkish TL 10 note. The woman at the UPS store counter looked at it and asked, “What’s this?” I replied that it’s from Turkey. “Oh,” she said, “I didn’t know Turkey had its own money.”

I am not sure exactly what, if anything, was inside the brain of that young woman, but I can admit to you that I too was fairly ignorant of Turkey before arriving here last January. I had been to Europe dozens of times, for pleasure and work, and was very familiar with Asia and Latin America. But Turkey? Yes, I figured Turkey had its own money. But I knew little of its history, of the birth of modern Turkey in 1923, the story of Atatürk, its political and cultural history, its imperial past, its rapid modernization in the last couple of decades and the push and pull of its secularism/Islamism conflicts over the years.

Perhaps there is an invisible wall when you reach the Bosporus coming from the West. For academics and foreign policy creators, Turkey may be the bridge to the Middle East, a “model” of Middle Eastern democracy. Perhaps. But it is part of another very different part of the world, one that gets thrown into the same category as Iraq and Afghanistan, the topics for 90 percent of the news coming from the Middle East for Americans. When they hear that Turkey is 99 percent Muslim that is all they need to hear. The monolithic view of the Muslim world automatically switches on and there is not much else to say.

That wall exists for academics as well. When I get together with my academic friends in the US they seem to know very little about Turkey -- “They’re against Israel, aren’t they?” -- and the interest to learn more is simply not there. The subject changes fast. I get asked little about the country where I now live and what is happening here. On the other hand, Americans love Turkey as tourists: the food, the people, the hospitality, the ancient sites and the magnificent, unequaled skyline of İstanbul. They may even realize that Turkey does have its own money.

So it is not surprising that a few neoconservative writers in America can make an Islamic center three blocks from the World Trade Center into an incendiary issue, causing American Islamophobia to explode in frenzy and rear its ugly head. The media can light this fuse with incredible ease and raise passions without thinking, without careful thought, without accurate information and without regard to the truth. Fueled by ignorance, the truth has no chance of winning out.

Next in Part II -- the politicians get involved …


*Richard Peres is an American writer living in İstanbul.
27 August 2010, Friday

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