Confounding Al Qaeda and Affirming America: Aziz Poonawalla on the Ground Zero Mosque

At BeliefNet, a Muslim American, Aziz Poonawalla, weighs in on the ground zero mosque debate:

My general take on the debate is that it really does boil down to an issue not just of religious freedom but also a means of putting into practice the very American values which Al Qaeda seeks to deny. A mosque in NYC, near to the site of 9-11, is not a “monument to the attackers” (a pernicious claim, which puts collective responsibility for the terrorist attacks on all Muslim Americans) but actually a repudiation of the Al Qaeda ideology. What they want is to make Muslim Americans reject American identity and follow their call to jihad – explicitly, as Anwar al Awlaki has repeatedly stated, and even succeeded (ref the cases of Fort Hood and Times Square). An American mosque, built for American Muslims, is literally the antithesis of what the enemy most desires. . . . In some ways it would be a relief if the issue went away. However, if the project does fail, then I think that the message that will be sent is that bigotry and fear of Muslims is not just permitted, it is effective.

This is a point that conservatives seem to have missed: Al Qaeda doesn’t want Muslim Americans integrating; it wants them alienated from the American Enlightenment and radicalized. And so Aziz Poonawalla concludes in a way that strikes me as downright patriotic: supporting the mosque is good for America and bad for Al Qaeda:

I subscribe to the view that the center’s existence would be a powerful symbol and repudiation of the ideology of Al Qaeda. So despite my misgivings about the cost to the Muslim American community, on a broader scale, I think it is good for America that the project succeed. This is why I still count myself a supporter of Park51.

This is what a patriotic Muslim American sound like. Notice that he obviously values both his religion and his Jeffersonian (that is, Enlightenment-based) country.

I can’t resist quoting one more paragraph from Aziz Poonawalla’s essay. It is such an obviously American and complex voice. And it counters the cartoonish stereotypes promulgated about Muslim Americans by the Tea Party right:

American Muslims are mostly an optimistic bunch. We can concede there are prejudices at work against us here, but that’s part of the mix I described above. We have to be pragmatic and remember that every group before us, the Jews, the Catholics, etc had to face pretty much the same gauntlet prior to acceptance. I think the danger is that American Muslims will perceive unequal treatment and withdraw from civic engagement. The question isn’t why we are facing this hostility but rather whether that hostility makes our attempts at assimilation moot. That’s a debate we don’t want to be having, but is being forced upon us. I hope that as a community of communities, Muslim Americans don’t become disheartened and lose that essential optimism that really makes us American. Unfortunately, with precisely half of the American political landscape opposed to us, it’s going to be a tough fight ahead to stay optimistic.

Are you with Aziz Poonawalla or against him?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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