Thursday, August 19, 2010

Howard Dean's Ignorant Anti-Muslim Community Center Argument Dissected

Howard Dean explains on Salon.com why he thinks the Muslim Community Center in Lower Manhattan Should Move. Let's take his thesis apart. His words are in italics.

First of all, I am not going to back off.

That's a shame. You really should be mature enough to admit your mistakes.

The reaction did surprise me because most of the negative reaction had to do with defending the constitutional rights of the builders of the center. Of course I never attacked those rights; I explicitly supported them, as the president also did this week. Nor did I side with the Islamophobic rhetoric of Newt, Palin et al. There are a great many people in this debate talking past each other, as is often the case these days.

OK. They have the right, and we need to have dialogue. What else?

Here is my case. First, no one who understands the American Constitution can reasonably doubt the right of the builders to build. Secondly, the building site is very close to the site of a violent tragedy that seared the soul of every American, including Muslim Americans. Thirdly, the builders of the proposed Islamic Center say they want to help heal the nation and there is a preponderance of evidence that that is true, based not least on the fact that the last administration viewed the leadership of this group as a pro-American bridge to the Muslim world.

It is noble that they want to help heal the nation, but that surely isn't the main reason they want to build a community center in their own community. And how are they supposed to help the community heal from way over there in whatever neighborhood they are supposed to move to?

Fourth, there are many Americans, about 65 or 70 percent, including many family members of the victims, who have very strong emotional resistance to building on this site. Some of them may have other feelings such as hate, fear, etc., but the vast majority of these people are not right-wing hate mongers.

I've seen polls with those numbers but are those feelings really about "very strong emotional resistance"? My guess is a lot of folks polled care far more about other matters - like health care, the state of the economy, etc. So, maybe you're projecting, but you're definitely not helping.

And yes, not all those who oppose the community center are "right-wing hate mongers," that doesn't mean their feelings are valid. Their feelings are largely based on ignorance, as yours appear to be, and many of them would pay little attention to this building were it not for a campaign led by right-wing hate mongers and enablers like yourself.

My argument is simple.

Simplistic perhaps.

This center may be intended as a bridge or a healing gesture but it will not be perceived that way unless a dialogue with a real attempt to understand each other happens. That means the builders have to be willing to go beyond what is their right and be willing to talk about feelings whether the feelings are "justified" or not.

I disagree that they should have to do this, but the fact is they are doing this. They have started a dialogue, have been meeting with 9-11 families and even opportunistic politicians. Why aren't you lecturing the people who will accept nothing short of the center moving? Aren't they the ones who need to make a real attempt to understand the simple fact that Muslim terrorists have nothing to do with Muslims generally?

No doubt the Republic will survive if this center is built on its current site or not. But I think this is a missed opportunity to try to have an open discussion about why this is a big deal, because it is a big deal to a lot of Americans who are not just right-wing politicians pushing the hate button again. I think those people need to be heard respectfully, whether they are right or whether they are wrong.

They do need to be heard respectfully, because so far they have been largely shut out of the discussion. Those voices have just been buried. All we hear from on cable news is Muslims going on and on about their rights. Can we please give a voice to these poor, oppressed Americans who just want the Muslim Center built somewhere else?

This has nothing to do with the right to build, and unlike same-sex marriage or the civil rights movement, it is not about equal protection under the law. The rights of the builders are not in dispute. This is about ending the poisonous atmosphere engendered by fear and hate, and in order to do that there has to be genuine listening, hearing and willingness to compromise on both sides. I personally believe that there are other possible solutions that could result from such a process and that a genuine exploration of those possibilities is something we ought to try.

Great. So when Prop 8 is overturned, I hope gay couples will start a dialogue with those people who really feel strongly that they should not get married. Gay couples, once they have the right to marry, should really consider some compromise with those people who will go so far as to make a national campaign out of demonizing gay people who dare to do what they have the right to do. Maybe with a little dialogue, we can all agree that domestic partnership is just fine.

That is, of course, the kind of thing that happened during the civil rights movement. Sure at first some people insisted on riding in the front of the bus and sitting in at white-only lunch counters, but eventually African Americans did the right thing and started a dialogue with those reasonable people who supported segregation. They explored possible compromises, like moving the "blacks only" water fountain a little closer to the "whites only" fountain - a little less separate but equal. In the end it all worked out and we remember the politicians who stepped in to save the day and work out these compromises as champions of equality and civil rights.

Mr. Dean: Americans were attacked on 9-11. Americans are Muslim, Christian, atheist, Arab, South Asian, Anglo and ...... To buy into the rhetoric that the Community Center should be moved (or that there should be some other compromise?) is to buy into the notion that Muslims are not as American as everyone else on the list. It is a notion that is not always shouted or filled with hostility, but it is always based on ignorance and fear. You should be rallying Americans to support this Center, not shamefully promoting that same ignorance and dressing it up in the language of "dialogue" and "understanding."

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