Three things seem to be absolutely written in stone: first, politicians will invariably bypass addressing any important or pressing issue by driveling on about anything under the sun so long as it is irrelevant to solving a real problem; second, religious people will always behave in provocative ways, and third, everyone will always say in any situation that this time is different from any previous occurrence of the same issue. So, illustrating all of these principles beautifully we now have an excess of bloviation concerning the expansion and renovation of a Muslim community center in Manhattan which has already been in existence at the exact same location for some time.
Zoning laws are the province of local governments, and the mayor of New York has clarified what the law is, as well what as the local government’s position is, in regard to this project. If the people of Manhattan do not care for the existing zoning laws, they can attempt to change them. It is really no one else’s business. But no, we seem to have to hear daily, at excruciating length, from politicians everywhere, from the prez on down to candidates for office in Florida (and that is pretty far down). Has the recession ended? Is the national deficit paid up? Are the wars resolved? Have we come to an agreement on immigration and the policing of our borders? Has the oil gone from the Gulf? Is New Orleans (or any other city) thriving? Has the nuclear policy of Iran been brought to a beneficial conclusion? None of these issues have, so far as I know, been solved; in most cases they have not even been discussed rationally with any aim other than to play Gotcha! with the opposition. So why are we wasting our time on zoning issues in one small neighborhood when the law is clear, the Constitutional issues are completely resolved and the government of the area in question has made a clear decision which is completely in accordance with both?
As to the desire of all religions all the time to be provocative – well that is common sense. When you hold the hearts and minds of your followers, their wallets and votes will follow. And nothing grabs the hearts and minds of followers like the illusion (or reality) of persecution. In Europe, in those countries whose Christians of any stripe have been free to worship (or not) as they please for the last hundred years or so, church attendance and religious affiliation is a ho-hum affair. I have read, for instance, that 3% of Church of England adherents actually attend church in Britain. But next door, in Ireland, religiosity is far greater (although in the independent portion thereof it is fast declining). And why is the religious feeling greater? Because as recently as when the grandfathers of the current population were alive, the practice of Catholicism was banned; Catholics could not have priests or churches, could not be taught reading or writing, could not own land. So naturally, Catholicism was strengthened and flourished in Ireland like the green bay tree. Similarly, religion is practiced even more virulently in the former Communist countries because the ban on it was lifted far more recently. I recall an American Catholic in the early days on my job in Riyadh coming up to me and, practically speaking out of the side of his mouth like a spy in a movie, telling me where I could attend a clandestine Mass locally; he assumed I was Catholic because of my surname. On some level, being persecuted is fun and exciting; if it goes beyond the level of fun and actually gets a lot of folks killed, well, so much the better in the long view, because this can be used as leverage, both for keeping the indignation (and faith) of the believers at fever pitch, and for getting special concessions from later, more tolerant regimes. Religions prize tolerance, so long as it is the other guy who must do the tolerating.
On a personal level, provocation is traditionally achieved by wearing funny clothes or hairdos (shave this, grow that) – very much as any teenager pursues the same end. If I were founding a religion, the very first thing I would do is try to come up with a hat that was sillier than a bishop’s mitre or the various turbans or veils of Asia or the ridiculous practice of some Jewish women of shaving their heads and then wearing wigs to achieve the appearance of having the hair that was just shaved off. Apparently a woman is less sexually provocative in a wig than in her natural glory – a piece of information that has evidently escaped Dolly Parton and her fans. Jews, in fact, having had a lot of practice both of being disliked and of making the little gestures that keep the intolerance going, have come up with the silliest headgear of all – the yarmulke, which is so insubstantial that it often doesn’t even stay on without being held in place by bobby pins or barrettes of some sort, and is too small to cover the bald spot, and it certainly doesn’t protect from sunburn. But one should never underestimate a religion so skilled at provocation: how many religions have parlayed their underdog status into the acquiescence of most of the world in seizing a whole country of its own? It was the anti-Semites in Britain – Balfour of the “Balfour Declaration” being notable for his dislike of Jews, for instance – who most strongly supported the creation of Israel; probably these men could be compared with the white supporters in the USA for the “Back to Africa” movement.
To digress a little bit: The greatest threat to the fervor of the religious is when power is combined with wealth among the majority of its adherents within a political entity. As with political parties, wealth and power combine to blind the faithful to consequences - or even to shame. The history of the medieval papacy is too well-known to discuss – the rise of the Protestants actually moved the popes to become better morally (eventually and after holding out as long aws they could) and instilled in the faithful of both sides principles of moral and ethical behavior (toward co-religionists only, of course) that lasted so long as religious leaders could credibly point to each other as existential threats. As soon as their existence and ascendancy was assured, the leaders returned to screwing the faithful in both the metaphorical and literal senses.
The greatest threat to religious leaders and to religious fervor is the growth in wealth and security of the average members of the faith. Although individual members of a faith may continue in devotion here and there, when a general rise in wealth and security among the devotees occurs, the falling off of religious fervor soon follows for the majority. Thus it is important to always keep the faithful feeling that they are somehow the persecuted group, the hated one, even when they actually are in control of all aspects of political life. This works with ethnicity as well as with religion. The old southern oligarchy in the USA maintained their wealth and status by constantly convincing the poor of both the black and white race that the other race was the cause of all their woes; the same folks continue to hold power by pointing out all sorts of threats to their way of life. When the “enemy” is demonstrably less powerful and numerous than the majority, then recourse is made to tales of wicked practices and secret plans or powers, as was demonstrated in Germany in the 1930s, or in the recurring warnings about Satanists or witches throughout American history. If the threats don’t exist, one can easily make them up, pointing to powerless old ladies with too many cats or mildly deranged misfits scattered here and there, as examples of The Enemy pursuing its evil ends.
In actuality, the use of repression towards a portion of a population can actually create a danger where none had previously existed. An excellent example of how dangerous a wealthy and secure follower can actually be when he is excluded from power in his own society is Osama bin Laden, who is of Yemeni descent in Saudi Arabia where this ethnic defect does not promote entry into royal power and prestige. Bin Laden’s target, at the time I lived in Saudi, was the Saudi royal family. He was utterly indifferent to the wiles of the Great Satan, until Desert Storm gave him an issue that he found resonated with the disaffected. Tammany Hall, the Mafia, the Bloods and Crips all arose when clever and resourceful people were excluded from full participation and the reaping of legitimate rewards in their own societies. There is a whole generation of powerless Saudis, many members of whom are actually rendered even more powerless by their own actions (failure to bother learning in school and so on), boiling with resentment against anyone who has it better than themselves, and much like the poor whites of the USA before and during the Civil Rights area blamed the Yanks and the Coloreds and the Jews – anyone except themselves for their own fecklessness - these lower class Saudis are blaming the Royals and the Westerners – and of course, the Jews. You have to admire the Jews, they seem to have found a way to always be perceived as part of the oppression; perhaps they ARE chosen.
As to my third point, I confess that I fall into the error of thinking this time is different on occasion, try as I will to maintain some sense of history. Of course each time IS different, but never in the way that is presented by demagogues. Since I was young, I have lived through a number of crises where a substantial number of people believed that certain principles should be abrogated because this time, this threat, this group of enemies is different. People will pronounce in great detail that continuing to extend the same rights or to follow the same principles that got us to where we are today will lead to our demise or will change everything. And, of course, at some level, the inclusion of a new group that is different does change things. The discrimination in the 1800s against the Irish because they were Catholic or poor or uncouth correctly saw that inclusion of Catholics in great numbers in a previously Protestant Anglo-Saxon culture would have consequences. Things DID change; prevailing customs were altered, at least subtly. But inclusion altered the Irish newcomers even more than it did their hosts. The descendents of these newcomers often lost or moderated their faith, they certainly changed many of their customs and ways of speaking. The same was true of the Italians and the Slavs who followed; and who, despite sharing the same faith, was right in the forefront of discriminating against them, arm in arm with their Anglo-Saxon brethren? The Irish, of course. The Italians and Slavs were happy, in turn, to prove their all-American credentials by holding the line against the inclusion of blacks or Jews, and so on. As I say, I have fallen for the ‘this time is different‘ line. When I was quite young, the red scare was in full force, and I (understandably I think, since I was in my teens) was persuaded that the Fifth Amendment was being used as a weapon aimed at my home and family as witness after witness invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid answering questions while testifying before the various committees on Un-American activities. I would have been, at the time, happy to have the amendment revoked to stop protecting these Commies who were threatening America and my very home out there on the farm. Later, during the civil rights struggle, I supported the integration of blacks, (although, shamefully, not at the very beginning), but I truly thought in my heart that it could not really succeed in the sense that one day a black would appear as just another man or woman to me some time in the future. They looked so DIFFERENT; how could I (or anyone) not notice? Yet, again, I was wrong – interracial couples are everywhere, I have had black doctors and co-workers, I have black cousins, I was half of an interracial couple myself for many years and it all seems so normal.
Now we are asked to view with alarm the presence of Latinos in great numbers, and worse, that of Muslims. This time it is different! The problem is, of course, that these people are HERE. Had we excluded them at the outset, there’d be no issue, or at least, the issue would be very different. But now that they are here in great numbers, what are our alternatives? We can discriminate, and ban them from neighborhoods or jobs or whatever. When we tried that with blacks, we got the Panthers; once the discrimination was alleviated (even though not entirely), the power and attractiveness and bellicosity of the Panthers waned. This is the way it works. It never, ever works differently. The first generation or two of a new group might acquiesce, at least tacitly, in their own mistreatment, but sooner or later their descendents will be radicalized. So, whether this time is different or not, in the sense that a particular group of people present a greater threat to the status quo, we really have no options except three: extend the existing laws and rights to the new groups, discriminate and thereby radicalize the new groups, or get rid of the new groups entirely by mass deportation or extermination.
We will, of course, take the second of these courses, as we have always done – at least at first. It is the one that is easiest, just as it is easier for politicians to talk about zoning laws in Manhattan than about substantive change in important fields of policy. Tolerance and having faith in our system is just too hard for people, especially when it is different this time, as it is every time. Sooner or later, the radicalization of the new minorities will increase to the point where some accommodation must be made, or their numbers will grow in concentrated areas to the point where they begin electing their own politicians to office and one or both of the major parties will discover that it is in its interest to begin catering to them. And very likely they will go from seeking acceptance to getting special consideration because of past suffering.
It is absolutely true that the minority group in every case practices its own discrimination: very frequently Irish were pressured to marry Irish, or at least fellow Catholics; there are black racists a-plenty, Muslims will give preference when possible to fellow Muslims, and similar things can be said of every religious group or ethnic group. The important issue is whether the law is being changed or followed, and whether the discriminating group is in power. Bad behavior should not be enshrined in the law.
Much is being made of the feelings of the families who lost members on 9/11 – that is to say, the majority of these families; no one advocates catering to the grief of the Muslim families who lost fathers or mothers or sons or daughters. What exactly is the statute of limitations on their particular grief? And what are the geographical limits to the grief area? I have heard many people suggest that the center be moved elsewhere in Manhattan. How far is far enough? Five blocks? Ten blocks? Can the center be located near where the survivors live or where the dead actually lived? Are the areas around the Pentagon and the crash site in Pennsylvania similarly proscribed? My brother was killed by a drunk driver in front of my house when I was younger. Should I be able to prevent drivers or drinkers from entering that stretch of highway? Would it be legitimate to ban Christian churches from Hiroshima or Nagasaki?
People who have been touched by terrible tragedy seem to respond in two main ways. One response is to try to make the world better, the other is to hold the world, or some portion of it, accountable and to require retribution of some sort. This latter response is entirely understandable when the tragedy first occurs and emotion is overwhelming. But to continue to hold this view leads to vendetta and blood feuds, to attack and reprisal and counterattack; nothing gets better. I understand that the Christian is required to forgive; apparently this only applies if the person to be forgiven is also a Christian. I guess I think I would be reluctant to declare that in honor of my loved one, I made the world a little less tolerant, and I lowered my country's standards just a trifle.
But that’s just me.