Mona Eltahawy

Journalist and public speaker

I’m a big fan of offense. It was offense that drew me to Park51, the proposed Islamic community centre and mosque in Lower Manhattan, two blocks from Ground Zero. But not for the reasons you think.

For once, Muslims are not the ones offended but the ones being accused of offense by choosing to build Park51 “on hallowed ground.” I don’t believe Park51’s backers mean to offend but let’s set aside intent and talk about freedom to offend.

When Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of Prophet Mohammed in 2005 that led to huge and at times deadly demonstrations across several Muslim-majority countries in 2006, I defended the newspaper’s right to offend. I found the violent reactions to the cartoons more offensive to the memory of the prophet than any of the images.

The freedom guaranteeing publication of those cartoons is the same as that which guarantees Park51’s right to build right there, two blocks from Ground Zero, and the same as that which guarantees the right of a Gainesville, FL, pastor and his congregation to threaten to burn copies of the Qur’an on the anniversary of 9/11.

Note I’m coming at this from the opposite direction of Park51 opponents such as Sarah Palin and John Boehner (Rep-OH) who equate burning the Quran with the proposal to build Park5, issue calls on Pastor Terry Jones not to burn the Quran and then think they can tell Park51 not to build. That’s the wrong kind of tit-for-tat!

My kind of tit-for-tat says the U.S. constitution guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of expression, whether they offend people or not. Hurt feelings cannot be the basis of public policy. And that’s why I’m not calling on Jones to abandon threats to burn the Quran. I have plans of my own that day.

And incidentally, since we’re talking about offense – I find it much more offensive that right-wing blogger Pamela Geller of the “Stop Islamization of America” – which has spearheaded opposition to Park51 – are politically exploiting the anniversary of 9/11. While they claim to speak out on behalf of the grieving families they trample all over their grief and use the anniversary for their own political ends.

The pain of losing someone in the 9/11 attacks is unfathomable. But to ask “Don’t you see you’re being offensive by building here”, is to assume that all Muslims are responsible for the attacks. It’s a slippery slope to even begin that conversation because if Park51 is forced to move it would set a dangerous precedent.

It was one that Bill Kuntz, who’s running for Congress in Miami as an Independent, wanted to set at an anti-Park51 protest where people held U.S. and Israeli flags – I wondered at the outrage had we Park51 supporters held flags of another country.

Kuntz’ opposition to Park51, it turns out, isn’t just about sensitivity to 9/11 victims and their families. He’s opposed to mosques everywhere. He said he opposed plans to build a mosque in a neighborhood in his constituency because the mosque would offend the sensibilities of the neighborhood

I didn’t care much about Park51 at first. I live in Harlem and didn’t imagine I’d regularly commue downtown to TriBeCa when the centre was built. But I began to care when it became one of many mosque projects across the U.S. facing opposition and anti-Muslim rhetoric. And so for Labor Day weekend I joined a motley crew of volunteers outside Park51 to peacefully support its right to build.

For me, the wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric arcs as I celebrate my 10th anniversary in the U.S. I identify as an American and I’m a proud New Yorker. The hate has strengthened my resolve to get out there and tell my fellow Americans: I’m here, I will not be brushed away, let’s talk.

I am eternally grateful to Matt Sky, 26, a web consultant for giving me that chance to talk when he first started standing outside Park51 on Aug. 15, thereby inspiring a small but dedicated group of volunteer sidewalk activists. Many of them are not Muslim but I joined them as an American Muslim saddened to hear that only 37 percent of Americans know a Muslim.

Some come to Park51 to talk with the sidewalk activists. A 9/11 first responder who lost two friends told me he thought Park51 should move out of respect. A physician who tended to the 9/11 wounded said she couldn’t wait for the community centre to open so that her daughter could use its pool but she worried Park51 would become a target of violence.

Some came to offend. Internet televangelist Bill Keller arrived with an entourage and an American flag wrapped around his neck. (Isn’t that a desecration of the flag?)

“I feel passionately that 1.5 billion people will burn in hell because they believe in the lie of Islam,” he told the cameras, hamming it up with concerns he claimed he had for Muslim women’s rights. Ironically as he spoke, six American Muslim women stood behind him holding signs reading “Peace Tolerance Love” and not one of us looked the least bit like chattel.

A husband and wife team dumped on the sidewalk shoes made out of foam with insults written on the soles such as “Are you stoned?”, “Sticking Our Tongues Out At Sharia Law” and “Sharia Hamas Organization Extremist”. As the husband taunted us, the wife filmed our reactions.

Someone left a bag of dog feces on Park51’s stoop one night. Opponents circled Park51 with a decommissioned missile attached to the back of their car.

This year’s 9/11 anniversary coincides with the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. This Muslim will spend her Eid teaching in Oklahoma. While Terry Jones leads his congregation in burning Qurans in Gainesville, I will teach my students to revere books. Thank God for the Constitution.

During his first U.S. media appearance since Park51 became the “Ground Zero Mosque” unleashing all kinds of hell, Imam Feisal Abdel Rauf, a spiritual backer of the center, told CNN that Park51 must continue or else headlines in the Muslim world would portray Islam as under attack in the U.S. and it would give radicals in the Muslim world reason to threaten U.S. national security.

Quite frankly, that is nonsense. Park51 should continue because it’s more an issue to American Muslims – over here, in the U.S. – than it is about the Muslim world, radicals or not. Yes, the ability of the U.S. to lecture anyone on religious freedom would be seriously compromised but for an imam to play the card of the “radicals in the Muslim world who would threaten our national security” is dancing on the stereotype of Muslims as crazies who need little reason to go berserk.

That was essentially the reason which a number of U.S. officials from the president himself to General Petraeus in Afghanistan used as they lined up to plead with Pastor Jones in Gainesville to cancel his threat to burn the Quran. Instead of emphasizing that burning books would put him on the same ignoble path as Nazis and the mobs which burned Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”, the message was “Don’t drive the crazy Muslims even crazier!”

Opponents of Park51 have also began using a dodgy logic of their own to oppose it. In the words of one woman I encountered on Twitter: “How many churches are there in your country?” She didn’t consider for a second of course that “my country” could be the U.S. and even, as the case is, I was born in another country (Egypt), she was assuming that all Muslim-majority countries are like Saudi Arabia, the only country in the Persian Gulf that bars the building of houses of worship for non-Muslims. It became the shameful exception in 2008 after the first Catholic church — bearing no cross, no bells and no steeple — opened in Qatar.
In Saudi Arabia, it is difficult even for Muslims who don’t adhere to the ultra-orthodox Wahhabi sect; Shiites, for example, routinely face discrimination.

So I had the pleasure to enlighten my interlocutor on Twitter to the fact that “my country” has some of the oldest churches in the world. The idea that there were Christians “over there” had, I’m sure never occurred to her; just as the idea that there were Muslims “over here” – i.e. me tweeting from NYC.

While I hesitate to call everyone who opposes Park51 a bigot, a recent Washington Poll post has shown that most opponents to the center hold the most negative views of Islam.

But we must not lose sight of the need to fight their bigotry as well as that of the people “over there”. I further told my Twitter interlocutor that it saddened me deeply that Christians and other minorities in my country of birth faced bigotry and that it was imperative to fight bigotry “over here”, “over there” and everywhere.

The Muslim world has little to stand on if it tries to complain about how the United States treats its Muslim citizens – that’s why it should stay out of this argument and leave it to American Muslims to have, based on our constitutional guarantees and not based on any false claims to a moral high ground.
While Egypt does indeed have some of the oldest churches in the world, unfortunately my Christian brothers and sisters face bigotry and immense difficulty in building churches. They must obtain a security permit just for renovations.

Bigotry must be condemned wherever it occurs. If majority-Muslim countries want to criticize the mistreatment of Muslims living as minority communities elsewhere, they should be prepared to withstand the same level of scrutiny regarding their own mistreatment of minorities.
And to anyone else who wants to know how many churches there are in “my country”, I ask simply: do you really want to compare the U.S. to a dictatorship (albeit one of America’s best friends in the Middle East)?
Offense and bigotry are two way streets. Let’s remember to look in both directions.

Mona Eltahawy is a New York-based commentator and public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues.

She has won numerous awards for her columns which have been published in a number of publications including The Washington Post, International Herald Tribune, The Jerusalem Report, Al Masry Al Youm and Asharq Al Awsat.

Before moving to the U.S. in 2000, she was a correspondent in Cairo and Jerusalem for Reuters News Agency and reported from several countries in the region.

She has lived in Egypt, the UK, Saudi Arabia and Israel and calls herself and calls herself a proud liberal Muslim.