Saturday, 11 September 2010

Stand Up for the Freedom to Offend


By Mona Eltahawy
Toronto Star
Sept. 10, 2010

Offence 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 offence 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 the 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 the following year, I defended the newspaper's right to offend.

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, Fla., pastor and his congregation to burn copies of the Qur'an on the anniversary of 9/11.

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 did not call on Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville not to burn the Qur'an when he threatened to do so.

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.

I didn't care much about Park51 at first. But over the past few months it has become just one of many mosque projects across the U.S. facing opposition and anti-Muslim rhetoric. And so for Labour Day weekend I joined a motley crew of volunteers outside Park51 to peacefully support its right to build.

The wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric has been happening as I celebrate my 10th anniversary in the U.S. The hate has just 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 who was the first to stand outside Park51 back on Aug. 15. He has inspired 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 per cent of Americans know a Muslim.

Some come to Park51 to talk. A 9/11 first responder who lost two friends 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 come to offend. Internet evangelist 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, going on to claim he was concerned 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 shoes made out of foam on the sidewalk 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 Ramadan fasting. This Muslim will spend her Eid teaching in Oklahoma. When Gainesville pastor Terry Jones threatened to lead his congregation in burning Qur'ans, I decided to instruct my students to revere books. Thank God for the Constitution.

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