On Thursday morning Bill O’Reilly went on ‘The View’ to discuss his new book Pinheads and Patriots. About four minutes into his interview , trying to explain why he thinks President Obama’s approval rating has gone down, O’Reilly brought up the President’s equivocation on the Park51 controversy. This lead to a heated exchange on the wisdom of building an Islamic center near Ground Zero, resulting in co-hosts Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg walking off the set. Have a look.
O’Reilly was clearly trying to create some buzz for his book and being an “intellectual” bully in the process, but walking off in the middle of the debate (while understandable) gives off the impression that the “left” can’t handle a good argument.
To date, I have not published a word about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy. Partially because I was annoyed by the whole mess and didn’t want to touch it. But for some ungodly reason the clip on ‘The View’ inspired me to debate the subject within myself. Below is a transcript of the row inside my head. Hopefully no parts of my brain will walk off the set.
Left Brain: Let me start of by saying where I think we can agree: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his team have a legal right to build this center near Ground Zero.
Right Brain: Yes, as long as the building complies with local laws, it’s his constitutional right. But this is not a debate about legal rights, it a debate about what’s right.
Left Brain: Ok, but before we go into what’s right, I also think that we can agree that an Islamic center dedicated to values such as tolerance, spirituality, education, compassion and inclusively is a step in the right direction (for Islam as a religion, American civic life and for national security). Park51 has the potential to become the address, both literally and symbolically, of a moderate and American Islam.
Right Brain: Well, the question on whether moderate Islam is realistic, good or effective is more complex and controversial, but I don’t think this is what is diving us. So yes, snore, we agree. Can you move on to the interesting part were we disagree?
Left Brain: You got it. The disagreement, it seems to me, revolves around the question: Why build the center so close to Ground Zero?
Right Brain: Yes, polls consistently show that the majority of 9/11 families, New Yorkers and Americans are against the center being built so close to Ground Zero. Why can’t you respect their wishes and move it over a few blocks? This is about basic sensitivity. You are re-opening old wounds here. Don’t you care about that?
Left Brain: Of course I care, but you should realize that 9/11 is a tragedy that belongs to all Americans. Many Muslims (victims and first-responders) perished on that day. Why is their memory and the needs of their family and friends not accounted for? Moreover, scores of 9/11 families have signed a petition stating that they are in favor of the Islamic center. While they may not be a majority there is no one voice on this subject. Finally, in the US individual rights are to be protected from the tyranny of the majority.
Right Brain: Look, Ground Zero is sacred space. As such normal rules do not apply to it. Do you remember back in the early 90’s when Pope John Paul II – after a great deal of protest from Jews around the world – disbanded and relocated a convent built on the hallowed grounds of Auschwitz (he respected the wishes of the Jews even though they did not the only victims at the death camp)? Were the Jews being bigoted in asking him to change location? Was he being unreasonable in complying? Here in NYC, a majority of people who have claims to this space are offended and upset by your project. So please be respectful and move the center farther away from Ground Zero.
Left Brain: You seem to be forgetting that the Islamic center is not being built on Ground Zero.
Right Brain: We don’t see it that way. The truth of the matter is that there were plane parts that crashed into that very building.
Left Brain: Well, if you consider the space near Ground Zero also sacred why are you not protesting the strip clubs and all the other questionable establishments nearby?
Right Brain: One questionable establishment at a time. So will you move this building elsewhere?
Left Brain: I can’t believe our neurons are related. Lets just assume for the sake of argument that one finds a building that is available, large enough, comparable price, and with the right zoning (not very likely). How many blocks can a Muslim center devoted to tolerance and understanding be erected without contaminating the memory of those who perished on that day? Five blocks? Ten blocks? Another borough? Another city? Another country? Another planet? What is the logic of your acceptable parameters?
More importantly, by moving the center you will be sending a terrible message to Muslims – American and other. In effect you will be saying: You are not our equal. You are not innocent. You are not part of our community. In short, you are not us! It does take a genius to figure out the danger posed by such an alienating message.
It seems to me the problem here is that you are conflating Islam with the extremist who brought forth this terrorist act. This fusion is based on a wrong and deadly assumption – namely, al- Qaeda represent the true Islam.
Right Brain: I’m sorry but what those folks did in the name of Islam has forever tainted that religion. Bin-Laden’s ideas may not represents an authentic expression of the faith, but in the eyes of millions of Americans Islam and the terrorism of 9/11 are forever linked. The important point here is perception – what the people feel and think – not academic reality.
Left Brain: But isn’t Park51, a center dedicated to moderate slam, a perfect way to de-link that terrible and inaccurate association?
Right Brain: Maybe so, but moving a couple of blocks will not change that reality. What it will do, however, is allow the people who are pained by situating a symbol of Islam so close to Ground Zero to have some peace. Since the Imam and his group care so much about social harmony and collective healing they should be sensitive to the deep needs of the majority. Teach about Islam and its great virtues from a different location, not Ground Zero. There are places where even angels should fear to tread.
Left Brain: There is an old Buddhist saying which states that “the lotus can blossom in the mouth of a dragon.” The tragedy of 9/11 took away a great deal of life and brought fourth immeasurable suffering. It has become our dragon – a monster that lives off fear and hatred. We can continue to feed it. Or we can slay it by allowing our values (i.e. our lotus) of freedom, toleration, equality and compassion to reign supreme. The choice is ours.