Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 30, 2007

Mosques Are Not above the Law

Last Sunday, I had reason to be grateful that places of worship are under the law of the land. At my local Catholic church in Kensington, I found myself helping to restrain a menacing and evidently inebriated young man who had ventured inside, accompanied by his German Shepherd dog.

Swaying slightly, the intruder advanced up the steps towards the altar during the most solemn part of the Mass, the prayers of consecration, and began to wave his arms about, mocking the priest—a newly ordained and rather nervous young Cuban—as he did so. On their knees, the congregation looked on aghast, wondering what the man would do next.

At this point I, together with another layman of military bearing and one of the older altar servers, took it upon ourselves to intervene. The parish priest (not the one celebrating Mass) quickly appeared and together we coaxed the man, uttering threats and racist abuse, out of the building. The police arrived and quietly took him away.

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Last Sunday, I had reason to be grateful that places of worship are under the law of the land. At my local Catholic church in Kensington, I found myself helping to restrain a menacing and evidently inebriated young man who had ventured inside, accompanied by his German Shepherd dog.

Swaying slightly, the intruder advanced up the steps towards the altar during the most solemn part of the Mass, the prayers of consecration, and began to wave his arms about, mocking the priest—a newly ordained and rather nervous young Cuban—as he did so. On their knees, the congregation looked on aghast, wondering what the man would do next.

At this point I, together with another layman of military bearing and one of the older altar servers, took it upon ourselves to intervene. The parish priest (not the one celebrating Mass) quickly appeared and together we coaxed the man, uttering threats and racist abuse, out of the building. The police arrived and quietly took him away.

Such an incident can and does take place regularly at churches and temples in this or any other capital. In the case of a London synagogue, the drunk would not have been able to get past the door: synagogue security is tight, due to the threat of Islamist terrorists and anti-Semitic vandals of various stripes. But if the police had requested access from a rabbi, it would have been granted without question. The same would have applied at most other places of worship.

Not necessarily, however, at a mosque. The British police practically never set foot inside a mosque, for fear of giving offense to the Muslim community.

The exception that proves this rule was the North London Central Mosque in Finsbury Park. Within a few years of its erection in 1990, this mosque had become associated with radical Islam and became notorious for its one-eyed, hook-handed preacher Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri, who is now in prison for terrorist crimes. In 2003, the Finsbury Park mosque was raided by hundreds of armed police, who arrested several men and found a terrorist arsenal. Those indoctrinated there by Abu Hamza have since been linked to many terrorist conspiracies around the world.

But the raid on Finsbury Park has never been repeated, despite plenty of evidence of illegal activities, such as the glorification of terrorism or incitement to hatred of Jews and “Crusaders,” in a number of other British mosques. Even when a fugitive from justice is believed to be hiding in a mosque or its outbuildings, the police decline to enter.

This wariness about mosques on the part of the British authorities is not only inimical to the rule of law, but also damaging to Muslim interests. Turning mosques into no-go areas fuels suspicions about what goes on inside. Mosques must indeed be treated with the same respect other places of worship are, but they are certainly not outside the jurisdiction of the secular law.

The reluctance of police to enter a mosque actually betrays a dangerous ignorance about Islam. Mosques are modeled not on the Temple in Jerusalem (as both synagogues and churches are), but on the courtyard in Medina where Mohammed preached. They are places not of ceremony or sacrifice. Unlike synagogues or churches, mosques do not have an ark or sanctuary containing sacred objects, such as the Torah scroll for Jews or the consecrated host for Catholics. Islam does not teach that the mosque is a forbidden place to non-Muslims, nor is there a Muslim tradition of giving sanctuary to fugitives in mosques. It is precisely the simplicity and informality of the mosque that has always appealed, to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The novelist E.M. Forster wrote a paean of praise to the mosque in his 1936 collection Abinger Harvest, and in his greatest novel, A Passage to India (1924), he sets the crucial opening scene in a mosque. The Muslim Dr. Aziz is sitting alone in the evening in his favorite mosque, when he notices the arrival of an elderly Englishwoman. Aziz is angry and shouts at her: “Madam, this is a mosque, you have no right here at all; you should have taken off your shoes; this is a holy place for Muslims.” The woman, Mrs. Moore, replies: “I have taken them off.” Aziz begs her pardon and apologizes. She asks whether, unshod, she is allowed to enter, and he says: “Of course, but so few ladies take the trouble, especially if thinking no one is there to see.” She replies: “That makes no difference. God is here.”

This is fiction, of course, and an Islamophile Englishman’s fiction, to boot. In most of the mosques in Britain today (let alone in the Middle East) even a Muslim woman would not gain entrance, let alone a Christian one. As I understand it, however, Forster is correct in his interpretation of Islamic doctrine, at least as Muhammad himself taught it. The mosque is in principle accessible to all, men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, who treat it with due respect.

That ought to include the police, too.

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Polling American Muslims

Those wondering why we haven’t seen any domestic incidents of terrorism since 9/11 might turn for some answers to the new Pew Research Center survey of 55,000 Muslims in America. Compared to Muslims in Europe, the survey found, American Muslims are less numerous, wealthier, better educated, more assimilated, and more mainstream in their political and religious views.

Two statistics jumped out at me. First, the Pew center found that there are only 1.4 million Muslims aged 18 or older in the U.S. (there are another 850,000 under 18), or about 0.6 percent of the population. (Other studies have suggested the figure is as high as 6-7 million.) That compares to 10 percent or more in some European countries. Second, only 2 percent of them are low-income, compared to 22 percent in Britain, 18 percent in France and Germany, and 23 percent in Spain. There is simply not a large, alienated Muslim underclass in this country as there is in so many European states.

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Those wondering why we haven’t seen any domestic incidents of terrorism since 9/11 might turn for some answers to the new Pew Research Center survey of 55,000 Muslims in America. Compared to Muslims in Europe, the survey found, American Muslims are less numerous, wealthier, better educated, more assimilated, and more mainstream in their political and religious views.

Two statistics jumped out at me. First, the Pew center found that there are only 1.4 million Muslims aged 18 or older in the U.S. (there are another 850,000 under 18), or about 0.6 percent of the population. (Other studies have suggested the figure is as high as 6-7 million.) That compares to 10 percent or more in some European countries. Second, only 2 percent of them are low-income, compared to 22 percent in Britain, 18 percent in France and Germany, and 23 percent in Spain. There is simply not a large, alienated Muslim underclass in this country as there is in so many European states.

That forms the backdrop to Pew’s findings about the American Muslims’ outlook on the world:

As many Muslim Americans as members of the general public express satisfaction with the state of the nation. Moreover, 71 percent of Muslim Americans agree that most people who want to get ahead in the U.S. can make it if they are willing to work hard. The poll reveals that Muslims in the United States reject Islamic extremism by larger margins than do Muslim minorities in Western European countries, when compared with results from a 2006 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey. . .

On balance, they believe that Muslims coming to the U.S. should try and adopt American customs, rather than trying to remain distinct from the larger society. And by nearly two-to-one (63 percent-32 percent) Muslim Americans do not see a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society.

We can also cheer this finding:

Very few Muslim Americans—just 1 percent—say that suicide bombings against civilian targets are often justified to defend Islam; an additional 7 percent say suicide bombings are sometimes justified in these circumstances. In Western Europe, higher percentages of Muslims in Great Britain, France, and Spain said that suicide bombings in the defense of Islam are often or sometimes justified.

That’s the good news. But if you read the report carefully you will find some worrisome nuggets amid the generally glad tidings. For instance:

Consistent with the views of Muslims in other countries, fewer than half of Muslim Americans—regardless of their age—accept the fact that groups of Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks. Just four-in-10 say that groups of Arabs engineered the attacks. Roughly a third (32 percent) expresses no opinion as to who was behind the attacks, while 28 percent flatly disbelieve that Arabs conducted the attacks.

Of even greater concern is that the most radical part of the Muslim-American population tends to be younger people (18-to-29 year-olds, who form a third of the total Muslim population here), suggesting that some of the positive trends noted above may disappear over time. Pew finds that

Younger Muslim Americans report attending services at a mosque more frequently than do older Muslims. And a greater percentage of younger Muslims in the U.S. think of themselves first as Muslims, rather than primarily as Americans (60 percent vs. 41 percent among Muslim Americans ages 30 and older). Moreover, more than twice as many Muslim Americans under age 30 as older Muslims believe that suicide bombings can be often or sometimes justified in the defense of Islam (15 percent vs. 6 percent).

Native-born African-American Muslims are another area of concern:

More generally, native-born African American Muslims are the most disillusioned segment of the U.S. Muslim population. When compared with other Muslims in the U.S., they are more skeptical of the view that hard work pays off, and more of them believe that Muslim immigrants in the U.S. should try to remain distinct from society. They also are far less satisfied with the way things are going in the United States. Just 13 percent of African American Muslims express satisfaction with national conditions, compared with 29 percent of other native-born Muslims, and 45 percent of Muslim immigrants.

Bottom line: The U.S. has done a much better job of assimilating Muslims than has Europe, and this means that we have a much lesser risk of homegrown terrorism. But lesser doesn’t mean zero, and, as we’ve seen in Iraq, it doesn’t take many fanatics to cause great damage. Moreover, as on 9/11, foreign groups can always smuggle in their operatives from abroad. So we shouldn’t get complacent. But we can take pride in America’s continuing accomplishments in assimilation, notwithstanding the fears of the nativist right.

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It’s the Sidewalks, Stupid

Should Michael Bloomberg run for President? He was elected mayor on the strength of his reputation as a business executive and a technocrat who gets things done. His popularity is high in New York. But is his sterling reputation as chief executive officer of the city based upon achievement or on the appearance of achievement?

I raise this question in an op-ed in today’s New York Sun. The Sun also published two of my photographs suggesting that appearances of one of the mayor’s signature projects are not what they should be. These photos are only available in the printed edition of the Sun, not on its website. But contentions has them below the jump. The full op-ed can be found here.

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Should Michael Bloomberg run for President? He was elected mayor on the strength of his reputation as a business executive and a technocrat who gets things done. His popularity is high in New York. But is his sterling reputation as chief executive officer of the city based upon achievement or on the appearance of achievement?

I raise this question in an op-ed in today’s New York Sun. The Sun also published two of my photographs suggesting that appearances of one of the mayor’s signature projects are not what they should be. These photos are only available in the printed edition of the Sun, not on its website. But contentions has them below the jump. The full op-ed can be found here.

Schoenfeld1
The sidewalk on W. 17th Street, Brooklyn, between Mermaid and Surf Avenue in Coney Island.

Schoenfeld2
A close up of the sidewalk on W. 17th Street, Brooklyn, between Mermaid and Surf Avenue in Coney Island.

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Assuring Assad

Last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a delegation to Damascus in defiance of the express wishes of President Bush. In response, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s spokesman praised her “courageous position” and expressed the hope that it would inaugurate a dialogue between “the people of the United States” and the Syrian regime, despite President Bush’s efforts to isolate it. Pelosi explained her unusual action by saying that she was trying to “build some confidence” between Americans and the Assad government.

Apparently she has succeeded, after a fashion. Assad, at least, seems to have gained confidence that he can behave as brutally as he wishes without incurring too much international opprobrium. In the month since Pelosi’s visit, he has ratcheted up repression, all but snuffing out the lingering embers of the “Damascus spring” that followed his accession to power seven years ago. Six prominent dissidents were packed off to prison for sentences ranging from three to twelve years, the longest term being given to Kamal Labwani for “communicating with a foreign country,” i.e., the United States. “It’s back to the 1980’s, to the worst days of his father’s rule,” commented the exiled dissident Ammar Abdulhamid.

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Last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a delegation to Damascus in defiance of the express wishes of President Bush. In response, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s spokesman praised her “courageous position” and expressed the hope that it would inaugurate a dialogue between “the people of the United States” and the Syrian regime, despite President Bush’s efforts to isolate it. Pelosi explained her unusual action by saying that she was trying to “build some confidence” between Americans and the Assad government.

Apparently she has succeeded, after a fashion. Assad, at least, seems to have gained confidence that he can behave as brutally as he wishes without incurring too much international opprobrium. In the month since Pelosi’s visit, he has ratcheted up repression, all but snuffing out the lingering embers of the “Damascus spring” that followed his accession to power seven years ago. Six prominent dissidents were packed off to prison for sentences ranging from three to twelve years, the longest term being given to Kamal Labwani for “communicating with a foreign country,” i.e., the United States. “It’s back to the 1980’s, to the worst days of his father’s rule,” commented the exiled dissident Ammar Abdulhamid.

Pelosi reportedly raised Labwani’s case, specifically, with Syrian authorities during her visit. His crime, after all, consisted solely of talking to Americans, and here she was to promote dialogue. The specially long sentence now slapped on him amounts to a direct rebuff of her appeal, an expression of disdain. So how has she reacted?

Not at all. There is nothing about Labwani’s sentencing, or about any of the other dissidents, on her website. So I put in a call to her press spokesman, Brendan Daly, asking if the Speaker had commented on these events. I received a call back from a deputy of his who assured me that Assad’s actions were in “the opposite direction” from the course she had urged on him when she was there. In view of that, I asked, what was her reaction? She had not addressed it yet, he said, but he promised to get me a statement from her by the end of the next business day. That was ten days ago, and I am still waiting. Meanwhile, she has left the country yet again, this time leading a congressional delegation to Greenland, Germany, and Belgium to discuss global warming. Presumably this will build Assad’s confidence even further.

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