Should Atheists and Christians Build Mosques?

September 1, 2010

Today’s guest blog is an anonymous submission, and it wrestles with the ongoing issue of how America’s diverse Muslim community is perceived and how Atheists, Christians and others might better support it. This is a truly excellent and especially important piece and I hope that all of NonProphet Status’ readers will heed the below advice and encourage others to do the same. Without further ado:

Islamic CenterAn American Muslim man is being interviewed about a mosque expansion, necessary for the growing local population, that was temporarily blocked by the city council. The interviewer asks him whether Muslims should participate in U.S. politics.

He responds that when politics can reduce public harm, Muslims are obligated to participate. “Theoretically, it is very easy to say [avoid political involvement], but practically, we consider Islam as a dynamic faith… Because really, we are part of this society, we are citizens. What will harm them, will harm us, and sometimes what will harm them harms us first. So how can I isolate myself from the entire society?”

Political engagement is becoming more common in American Muslim communities today. David SchanzerCharles Kurzman and Ebrahim Moosa sent their overworked graduate students around the U.S. to learn how typical Muslim communities prevent radicalization of troubled individuals. The most significant of their findings may incite the xenophobic among us, but will be no surprise to many people; increasing political mobilization among American Muslims is a positive change which should be encouraged.

Through Muslims’ political activity, “grievances are brought into the public sphere and clearly articulated so they do not fester and deepen,” and “disputes are resolved through debate, compromise, and routine political procedures.” Well, of course that sounds obvious to you. Keep in mind this report was written in part for politicians, who need to be constantly reminded why we employ them.

Regardless of the side benefits to wider society, citizens and guests should be able to feel welcome in the United States. Yet Muslims here are still experiencing a surge in hate crimes, which peaked in late 2001. Citing FBI hate crime statistics, the authors report “current levels remain about five times higher than prior to 9/11.” These are only the most threatening incidents in an ongoing pattern of collective punishment.

So, what can the rest of us do to ease hostilities against American Muslims?

We should widely publicize anti-Muslim activity. Many people habitually want to imagine that biases against minorities are always a thing of the past. The media’s current attention on anti-Muslim bias will fade soon, as all news cycles do. But the collective punishment will continue in relative silence. We can at least talk to our acquaintances about these issues, and bother our local news companies regularly.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has decent coverage of anti-Muslim activity. There is also Islamophobia Watch, which focuses more on the U.K. but includes some coverage of the U.S. We don’t need to agree with all the policies these organizations advocate; merely as news sources they are indispensable. I hope readers can suggest others in the comments.

We should amplify the voices of Muslims who denounce violence. Contrary to popular narrative, a major finding of this report was that “Muslim-Americans have [denounced violence] in public and in private, drawing on both religious and secular arguments. Much of this has gone unnoticed in the mainstream press, and many Americans wonder — erroneously — why Muslims have been silent on the subject.”

Reporters don’t like going to their jobs any more than the rest of us. If consumer pressure doesn’t tell them that when reporting on violence by Muslims, at minimum they must include Muslims condemning violence, they won’t bother. Bloggers and people active on social media can try to fill the gaps.

We should highlight the diversity of views within Muslim communities. Humans often assume that unfamiliar groups are monolithic, even while recognizing that more familiar groups are made up of individuals with their own personal views. A non-Muslim may read the Quran and think “now I know what Islam is all about.” Though religion is not primarily about texts anyway, it’s worth pointing out that anyone who simply read the Bible and assumed they now understand Christianity would be overlooking thousands of common interpretations, and billions of individual Christian views.

If reading a text was sufficient to understand a religion, there would be no market for theology. The reason there are so many schools of Islamic theology, so many arguments about hadith, and thousands of scholars cited in arguments, is that Muslims do not agree on what Islam should mean to the individual in her or his time and place. The reality of Muslim diversity is far more complex than blanket terms of Sunni, Shia and Ibadi may suggest.

This kind of cognitive bias about unfamiliar groups was part of the reason many Americans once imagined that Catholic immigrants were a unified invading horde, not thinking for themselves but all taking orders from the Pope. This happened even though any careful observer could see multiple competing sects within the Catholic Church. Today’s fear of Muslims will one day be as embarrassing as yesterday’s anti-Catholic paranoia is now, but that day can’t come soon enough, and we should do whatever we can to speed the process along.

We should welcome American Muslim identity politics. There is a tendency among dominant groups to demand that others drop some aspect of their identity. We’ve heard this most often directed at African-Americans. But the demand comes without evidence of its practicality. Am I an atheist first, or an American first? Such questions suppose a consistency which no human actually practices. When I’m talking religion, I’m more obviously an atheist. Talking politics, I’m more obviously an American. People are not so distinct as labels may imply, and we are all capable of valuing many things at once.

This suggestion is likely to meet resistance, so I’ll quote the authors’ explanation: “Today, many Islamic groups, including terrorist groups, claim to speak on behalf of the entire umma, the global community of Muslims. However, the pan-ethnic identity of Muslim-Americans serves to undermine terrorism by emphasizing the compatibility of Muslim-ness and American-ness. These are not two civilizations on a crash course, but instead two civilizations overlapping and melding. A recent book offers an outspoken vision of this double identity:

This anthology is about women who don’t remember a time when they weren’t both American and Muslim… We wore Underoos and watched MTV. We know juz ‘amma (the final thirtieth [chapter] of the Qur’an) and Michael Jackson’s Thriller by heart. We played Atari and Game Boy and competed in Qur’anic recitation competitions. As we enter our twenties, thirties, and forties we have settled into the American Muslim identity that we’ve pioneered.'”

We should learn to address the systemic problems that affect American Muslim communities. This can be difficult without listening; systemic problems involving housing, policing, education and employment may not be immediately obvious to those who aren’t experiencing them. Established communities of African-American Muslims face the same kinds of discrimination as other African-Americans do, and recent immigrant communities face challenges of their own.

We should support American Muslim community-building efforts. Involved communities, religious and secular, can provide bulwarks against crushing boredom and lonely isolation, reach out to troubled youths, direct financial and other assistance to those who are struggling in poverty, and generally make life more livable.

We’re not just talking about overtly religious efforts here. There are “charity events, dances, mixers, basketball tournaments, soccer leagues, lobbying, media-relations, voter-registration, electoral campaigns, fashion shows, religious festivals, ethnic festivals, national-heritage holidays such as Pakistan Independence Day and Iranian New Year.”

Some community-building can work to counteract the effects of systemic discrimination. These should be of special interest to government officials and politicians: “Many Muslim-American communities have the resources to build community institutions without assistance; others do not. We recommend that all levels of government make additional efforts to offer disadvantaged Muslim-American communities such community-building resources as funding for recreation centers, day care centers, public health clinics, and courses in English as a Second Language. There is a special need for these resources in isolated immigrant communities.”

That brings me to mosques. We should help build mosques, the most visible symbol of American Muslims’ presence. They generally provide both the benefits of community-building, and the serious religious training that can immunize troubled individuals against extremist propaganda on the internet.

Right now, mosques are being opposed simply because they remind nativists that Muslims exist. We need to do something to counteract these hostilities.

It’s not enough to be indifferent. It’s not enough just to speak up for First Amendment rights, though that bare minimum is important.

Government funding can’t be used, but non-Muslims should make public our efforts to support the construction and expansion of mosques, as an example of American values. Some Americans really need to be reminded right now what those values are.

By support, I mean financial or volunteering, whatever you can do. If there are any mosques planned or under construction in your area, it would help to call local politicians and tell them you support the Muslim community’s construction efforts and will only support politicians who uphold the First Amendment. Churches and atheist organizations should get in touch with local Muslim groups, and ask what they need. If our neighbors can see us taking an active role in these efforts, they may be reminded of their own better nature.

BIHThe author of this piece, BloggingIsHard, is an anonymous gay atheist. You can find him on twitter.

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14 Responses to “Should Atheists and Christians Build Mosques?”

  1. […] on something special. Anyway, it’s a huge favor to me, so I tried to write my best work yet: Should atheists and Christians build mosques? Here’s the lede: An American Muslim man is being interviewed about a mosque expansion, […]

  2. Hitch said

    This is a really deep piece, I’m not sure I can do it justice. First of I appreciate the depth of ideas presented here. The recent developments in anti-Muslim sentiments are very serious and troubling and I am all for seeking ways to help and improve.

    On reporting anti-Muslim activities. I agree with the spirit, but would like to walk the hard tight-rope of trying to find a line here. The line is between hostility and intolerance on the one side, and honest critique and dissent on the other. This is a very difficult line because one person’s honest criticism is another person’s hostility.

    I think the Southern Poverty Law Center is excellent and has a great focus. I would however contrast this with Islamophobiawatch which routinely also brands critics as islamophobes and makes sometimes poor distinction between dissenting voice and hostility. In the UK I would suggest balancing it with the council of Ex-Muslims of Britain http://www.ex-muslim.org.uk/.

    The EU agency that probably best matches this is the agency for fundamental rights. http://fra.europa.eu/fraWebsite/home/home_en.htm

    If you search the site you will find reports of terror attack backlashes against Muslim communities in Europe.

    I feel two ways about denunciations. One the one hand I am absolutely for amplifying denunciations, but we should also encourage more denunciations, especially if we notice that terror and intimidation have effect locally. For example I still hope to get denunciations that the Metropolitan Museum of Art pulled the historic depictions of the Muhammad.

    On the other hand I disagree that we should feed into the false notion of guilt by association but rather advocate more information that group association does not propagate guilt. I think the right thing ultimately is both! We need to get this false notion of guilt-by-association out of the system.

    Sadly I know some Muslims who like this group association. For example for DMD a HuffPo article called it collective punishment for Muslims. Hence the association was established and claimed on the victim-side not the perpetrator side. I think we have to counter both of these. If someone criticizes intolerant violence by extremists that is not to be understood as criticism of all non-extremist members of the group.

    I am absolutely in favor of displaying diverse views, and frankly the Muslim community can help best to do this. We should have public discussion and disagreements over scripture. We should have public opinions over all aspects. For example I am very fond of this debate, where three muslima debate head-dress:

    We should have that on many topics. People should debate fiqh and anything else more publically. It would be educational and diffuse stigma.

    On identity politics, I am really torn. I am kind of with Kwame Anthony Appiah that there is a diverse range of dangers attacked to emphasizing identity. But at the same time I recognize that “recognition” is easier if there is a clear identity. It does go kind of against what we just said ealier with respect to diversity. Identity can lead to polarization. Really to me in the ideal it should not matter if you are X, Y, or Z. You are human and what you do or say is what matters. Belonging to a group identity really shouldn’t change that.

    But reality, also for the atheist community right now is that we don’t seem to have any other route but strengthen notions of identity. Within atheism there is such a kind of natural resistance to this, that it worries me much less. But it still worries me.

    I am also very weary of national identities for similar reasons. But with all this caveating, let me just say that I see your point.

    I’m all for outreach and inclusiveness. Street parties, community activities, inviting your neighbor. Threat the next as friend. Here too I feel identity can get in the way, because suddenly you have the table of Muslims, evangelicals, atheists and it suggests a segregation that I think is worth not necessarily encouraging.

    On mosques, I see what you are trying to say. I think we should build multi-cultural multi-faith places. But yes, if our neighbors build a mosque, by all means help. And hopefully you will be invited in once it is built.

    But the biggest challenge will always be, if you are inclusive and inviting and stretch out hands and it is not reciprocated. Those are the hard moments.

    Then perhaps the question is, did we built walls between each other, in forms of separating identities, and walls of buildings that are meant for one, but not the other.

  3. On reporting anti-Muslim activities. I agree with the spirit, but would like to walk the hard tight-rope of trying to find a line here. The line is between hostility and intolerance on the one side, and honest critique and dissent on the other. This is a very difficult line because one person’s honest criticism is another person’s hostility.

    There is no point in trying to agree on a line before we take action. That is a waste of time.

    Each of us can make an effort to publicize those anti-Muslim activities which cross our own personal line. So what if you don’t agree that drawing Muhammad as a political statement is hurtful. For the purposes of what I’ve written here, it doesn’t matter, because you can go ahead and take action on whatever crosses your line. I limited this piece to positive suggestions in the hope that would prevent derailing.

    I would however contrast this with Islamophobiawatch which routinely also brands critics as islamophobes and makes sometimes poor distinction between dissenting voice and hostility.

    False dichotomy. Criticism can be Islamophobic, and dissent can be hostile. But look, I linked specifically to http://www.islamophobia-watch.com/islamophobia-watch/category/anti-muslim-violence in the hope that would prevent derailing. That section deals only with violence we should all agree is unacceptable.

    In the UK I would suggest balancing it with the council of Ex-Muslims of Britain

    I look at that website, and I see no reporting on anti-Muslim activity in the UK. See, that’s why I had to link to Islamophobia Watch, because I could find no other website that could replace them. If others want a news feed that covers anti-Muslim violence but ignores political statements, that’s fine, but then it’s their responsibility to create that news feed. Those who want something “better” than Islamophobia Watch, can make something better.

    If Bob Pitt is the only one following anti-Muslim violence so comprehensively, then that’s a problem; those who disagree with his scope should take it as a challenge.

    The EU agency that probably best matches this is the agency for fundamental rights. http://fra.europa.eu/fraWebsite/home/home_en.htm

    Thank you! I didn’t know about that site.

  4. An excellent piece, I agree with much of it. I wonder, though, about assisting in the building of Mosques. Clearly, mosques and other religious buildings provide benefits to communities through the generation of different forms of social capital. I believe that Muslims, like anyone else, should have access to such capital.

    However, I am someone with limited time and resources at my disposal, and I would prefer to use that limited time to construct community spaces for Humanists, atheists, agnostics and skeptics, who are without doubt the MOST disenfranchised group in these terms in America. If such institutions existed, perhaps more people would be willing to embrace naturalism. Further, assisting in the building of mosques sits uneasily with me since it supports the expansion of religion per-se. Although I am delighted to work with religious individuals when our goals and values coincide, I still wish to maintain my position that the world would be better (including the social world) were people to leave behind supernaturalism. For these reasons I think I’ll follow Hitch when he talks about the importance of identity, and focus my time on building spaces in which Humanists can come together.

    • Limited time and resources I totally understand, but even a mostly symbolic show of support would be helpful. Humanists’ construction sites are not currently being burned down in the USA. A note on one’s blog that “I donated $5 to replace the vandalized prayer rug at the Al-Iman mosque” would help to bring our communities together, even if you donate far more to secular humanist causes.

      Well, that prayer rug appeal is now over, and I’m not aware of how one might donate to the construction of the Murfreesboro mosque that was targeted for arson. These examples are to say that it isn’t atheists who are experiencing a peak in hate crimes right now. American Muslims desperately need humanist outreach right now.

      And while there are a lot of communities without dedicated buildings for atheists, there are few without any secular meeting spaces like government community centers, or public schools after hours. But there are recent immigrant communities of Muslims which lack basic services. There are more places you could build a mosque where that mosque would be the only multi-use community building, than there are places you could build a humanist center where that center would be the only multi-use community building.

      • The conflation of “secular meeting spaces” with dedicated Humanist communities is something I think we must get over – there is a desperate need now for real Humanist community spaces that is not being met because we focus our efforts elsewhere.

        But my real issue with supporting the Mosques was regarding the normative stance I wish to take regarding the superiority per se of non-religion over religion, all other things being equal. If there was a way to support Muslims without supporting Islam that would be something I could agree to.

      • The conflation of “secular meeting spaces” with dedicated Humanist communities is something I think we must get over – there is a desperate need now for real Humanist community spaces that is not being met because we focus our efforts elsewhere.

        Yes, I agree with this. I recognize the difference. Nevertheless, these secular spaces where humanists can set up temporarily and inadequately organize are better than nothing. Contrasted with recent immigrant communities which are more likely to be lacking access to even these basic services, it’s a tremendous difference, nothing vs better than nothing. As bad as we think we have it, recent immigrant communities have it worse. And the government schools and community centers in long established African American communities are often so far into disrepair that their churches and mosques are safer, more comfortable and humane.

        But my real issue with supporting the Mosques was regarding the normative stance I wish to take regarding the superiority per se of non-religion over religion, all other things being equal.

        It’s America, and money talks. Publicly giving twice or fifty times as much to humanists’ construction than mosque construction can make that normative statement.

        If there was a way to support Muslims without supporting Islam that would be something I could agree to.

        Most of my suggestions do this. But if we are going to welcome our Muslim neighbors, it requires taking them as they are. To say we will help them as Americans, but not as Muslims, is to imply that they should abandon part of their identities to gain acceptance.

        The prayer rug appeal was an especially good idea, because it represented a small quality of life issue for average Muslims, without simply lining clerics’ pockets. This is the more important distinction, between practitioners and clerics, rather than practitioners and the religion. Believers of all sorts should have decent and pleasant spaces where they can retreat from their hectic lives for a while. These little things that improve our neighbors’ days should be of interest to humanists, even when they want to spend their time in ways that would not appeal to us.

      • This is a well worded response and I’m going to think about it for a while. Do note, when you say that most of your suggestions support Muslims rather than Islam, that I agree with most of your suggestions (as I stated above).

        The only thing I can think of to point out here is that in any community with secular meeting spaces that are “better than nothing”, these spaces are equally open to Muslims (and any group) as they are to Humanists and other nonbelievers. So it seems odd to suggest that Muslims are likely to be more disadvantaged in this sense.

        Another point you could make is that, generally, Humanists are economically well-off in comparison to recent immigrants (and indeed the general population), which would suggest they have more means with which to supplement whatever offerings exist in terms of community space.

      • I appreciate your thoughtful contributions, James. While self-identified humanists may have more accumulated wealth, I’m not sure how accurate a picture that statistic might paint. Living in a rural area, I knew a lot of secular humanists in practice who didn’t use and may not have known the H word. I still commonly have conversations that end with “oh yeah, I agree with all that. What’d you call it again?” “Humanism.”

        Anyway, regarding secular meeting spaces open to all including Muslims, what I was trying to get at was that humanists (here I include those in practice if not in name) are pretty well scattered across the US, while Muslims are somewhat more concentrated in and around certain cities and particular suburbs. When those concentrations are underserved by government, as they are in established African American and recent immigrant communities (comparatively less so in long established immigrant communities), there are Muslims going without these basic secular spaces. Of course any humanists in those areas will be similarly disadvantaged, but since humanists aren’t as concentrated, such effects on the whole US humanist community are less pronounced.

  5. Hitch said

    No intention to derail from my end. I grant that that subportion of Islamophobiawatch points to violence. I still keep the objection of the site as a whole up, but recognize that this is not your scope.

    On DMD, no, we cannot take our actions as we wish. If we are falsely branded, that has consequences. I have no issue with people disagreeing on what side to be on, on the event. I have all issue in the world if one side is demagogued as horrible etc. That is what makes it not value free.

    Let me go back to this:

    “I would however contrast this with Islamophobiawatch which routinely also brands critics as islamophobes and makes sometimes poor distinction between dissenting voice and hostility.”

    You respond:

    “False dichotomy. Criticism can be Islamophobic, and dissent can be hostile.”

    No false dichotomy at all. Trivially true and doesn’t change anything of what I said.

    “Thank you! I didn’t know about that site.”

    Glad you found it useful.

  6. On DMD, no, we cannot take our actions as we wish.

    I think you misunderstood me. What I meant was, you don’t have to agree that DMD is hurtful in order to speak up about those other things which you agree are hurtful.

    What I’m disagreeing with is any suggestion that we need to agree on a line in order to take action. Each individual can take speak up about those incidents which do cross that individual’s line. That’s all.

    I have all issue in the world if one side is demagogued as horrible etc.

    You’re welcome to bring that criticism to the blog post I linked. I will not discuss DMD here.

  7. […] forging alliances with similarly-maligned groups in interfaith solidarity, we will strengthen our critique that […]

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