Of Minarets and Monuments

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by Ayelet Waldman

I've been thinking today about mosques in downtown New York. 
At the breakfast table, I recounted an Onion headline I'd read about the RNC establishment issuing to the city of New York a list of locations in which private religious organizations are permitted to build mosques. Up by Central Park is okay, or Columbia University. My husband, patient as ever with my miserable memory, pointed out that it was not in fact an Onion headline that I was recalling, but an actual honest to goodness news story about the ever-charming and reasonable Newt Gingrich, who appears to be suffering from the delusion that he's been appointed to the NYC zoning board. This morning (Tuesday), the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission will vote on whether the project--a community center with a mosque--can proceed as planned, in downtown Manhattan.

This spring, through a complicated series of events, I found myself a participant in the Army War College's National Security Seminar at the Carlisle Barracks in Harrisburg, PA. The War College offers a year-long graduate program to select senior officers--Colonels and Lt. Colonels--primarily from the Army, but with a smattering of individuals from the other branches, from other countries, and from civilian organizations like the state department and the NSA. The goal is to take students who have shown themselves to be uniquely skilled, who have mastered the tactical and operational demands of their jobs, and to offer a bridge toward more strategic thinking. At the end of the year, the seminar is opened up for a single week to a hodgepodge of civilians, "New Members," ostensibly selected from all over the country, but with a heavy emphasis on ... well ... let's just say the more conservative parts of our great Republic. The program is divided into seminar groups of about twenty students each, with seven civilian New Members brought in for the final week. I'm fairly confident I'm the first New Member to hail from Berkeley, CA.

I'll likely post more about my experience at War College later in this week, but for now, and apropos of NYC's minaret madness, I'm reminded of a lecture we heard toward the end of the week. The rule of the seminar is that participants are permitted freely to discuss what went on, so long as we do not attribute quotes. So while I can't tell you the name of the Islam scholar who spoke to us, I can say that this individual is very highly regarded in her field. Her particular emphasis is national security and defense, and she gave a forty-five minute lecture about the diversity of what we think of as the "Muslim World." She pointed out that 23 percent of the world's population is Muslim, that there are, for example, as many Muslims in China as in Saudi Arabia. She urged us to stop using the phrase the "Muslim World," that to do so adopts precisely the thinking that Osama Bin Laden is trying to impose on us. Instead, she asked us to think in terms of "Muslims in the world" or "Muslim-majority countries or communities." And she provided a dramatic series of examples, complete with Power-Point, of the great diversity of Muslim thought and practice. 

At the end of this long and thoughtful lecture, a civilian New Member raised his hand and informed the lecturer that he was the mayor of a small town in a sunny state, and had just one question. Why, he wanted to know, do all Muslims want to kill his grandchildren?

Is it too cynical to imagine that if the Muslim citizens of his small town wanted to build themselves a house of worship, the mayor and his supporters would consider its location on the far west coast of the country just a little too close for comfort to lower Manhattan?

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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