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Tariq Ramadan Debates Moustafa Bayoumi on Proposed Islamic Center Near Ground Zero

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On the ninth anniversary of 9/11, thousands take to the streets of Lower Manhattan for and against the plans to build an Islamic community center near Ground Zero. We host a different kind of debate. Tariq Ramadan, one the world’s most renowned Muslim scholars who was barred from entering the United States for six years under the Bush administration, says it should be built elsewhere. He debates Mustafa Bayoumi, an associate professor at Brooklyn College and author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The ninth anniversary of the September 11th attacks was marked on Saturday here in New York by the somber memorials and prayer services of years past. But this weekend’s 9/11 anniversary commemoration was also marked by rising tensions, with thousands of people taking to the streets of Lower Manhattan in opposing rallies for and against the plans to build an Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero.

The protests drew an array of people from around the country and the world. At the rally opposing the Islamic community center, former UN ambassador John Bolton addressed the crowd by video. Meanwhile, the Dutch anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders, who tried to ban the Quran in Holland, flew to New York and spoke before hundreds gathered to oppose the center’s construction.

    GEERT WILDERS: Ladies and gentlemen, let me start by saying, “No mosque here!”

    COMMUNITY CENTER OPPONENTS: No mosque here! No mosque here!

    COMMUNITY CENTER OPPONENT 1: This is a cemetery here. This religion wants a little respect from us. They should give us a little respect in return. It’s a two-way street.

    COMMUNITY CENTER OPPONENT 2: I’m opposed to the establishment of sharia law replacing our Constitution. I’m opposed to the “victory mosque.”

    US VETERAN: This is my country. I fought for it. And I think we were attacked, and that’s why I’m here. This mosque is not going to be a religious mosque; it’s going to be for terrorists to learn more about how to do wrong to this country. And all I would say, if they want to have a mosque here, we should have a Catholic church in Saudi Arabia.

    COMMUNITY CENTER OPPONENT 2: Imam Rauf, Feisal Rauf, when he put the mosque on Ground Zero, he is provoking a response, and he understands what he’s getting. But what he doesn’t realize is he has awakened a sleeping giant. I think he never heard of Pearl Harbor, but he’s going to understand the ramifications of it.

    GEERT WILDERS: We must draw the line so that New York, rooted in Dutch tolerance, will never become new Mecca.

AMY GOODMAN: Also this weekend, Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who had announced and then suspended plans to burn copies of the Quran, arrived in New York Friday seeking a meeting with Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the proposed Muslim center. While he did not burn any Qurans, some imitators adopted his idea. Near the White House, ten members of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue tore pages from the Quran. Near Ground Zero, a man burned what appeared to be a page of the Quran.

Meanwhile, thousands of supporters of the Islamic community center rallied at City Hall Park, two blocks from the proposed site. They voiced their support for the center and spoke out against anti-Muslim bigotry.

    IMAM TALIB ABDUR-RASHID: We were all attacked that day, and we all died that day. And we all responded that day.

    COMMUNITY CENTER SUPPORTERS: Justice! We want! Justice! We want! Justice! Say no to hate! Say no to hate!

    COMMUNITY CENTER SUPPORTER 1: The shrill voices on the other side of this issue, of Muslims being equated with terrorism, Islam being equated with terrorism, should not be the only voices heard on this important date of September 11th.

    COMMUNITY CENTER SUPPORTER 2: We believe in the core values of our democracy: pluralism, freedom of speech, freedom of religion. And you don’t have it if all but one religion are welcome two-and-a-half blocks from Ground Zero. You don’t have it if New York is a mosque-free zone.

    REP. KEITH ELLISON: The message that the world should take from this is that despite anybody claiming that America is wracked with Islamophobia, it isn’t. America is full — the majority of the people believe in religious liberty and believe in religious acceptance and inclusion, and that the majority of Americans honor our diversity.

AMY GOODMAN: That last voice, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, speaking the night before at yet another vigil in support of the mosque, one of the many voices supporting the Park51 project.

I’m joined now by two guests who disagree about the proposed construction of the proposed Islamic center.

Tariq Ramadan is on the phone with us from Oxford, professor of contemporary Islamic studies at St. Antony’s College at Oxford University. He’s the author of a number of influential books on Islam and Europe. He penned an op-ed in the Washington Post Sunday. In it, he makes the case that the center should be built elsewhere. He joins us on the phone from Oxford.

Joining us on the phone here in New York is Moustafa Bayoumi, associate professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is the author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, also editor of the new book Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israel/Palestine Conflict.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go first to Oxford to Professor Ramadan. Why do you feel — and it might surprise many, the op-ed piece that you wrote — that the community center should not be built near Ground Zero?

TARIQ RAMADAN: Look, first, of course I’m aware of all the discussions, and I’m supporting anything which has to do with the rights of Muslims and American Muslims living in the States. I think that this is clear even in the op-ed that I wrote for the Washington Post.

My position is that in this situation, where we are struggling with something which is now built — is instrumentalized by, you know, political forces in the state and trying just to make it a symbol, I would say that the Muslims should think about, you know, the overall picture of their struggle for their rights and respect in the country. So, in my position, if this is a symbol — and we have to listen to this collective sensitivity of the Americans after what happened in September the 11th — is to say, look, on that, we can understand. We are not accepting anything which has to do with, you know, a free Muslim zone, but we should listen to what is said and what is felt. But at the same time, it was — should be quite clear that our struggle for our rights — you know, there are twenty mosques that are now facing problems in the local areas, because people are rejecting. It’s a very huge struggle. But sometime, we have to think about the symbol. And my position is, if this is possible, Muslims should think about, you know, not being instrumentalized in the whole process by political forces, but, say, understanding the collective sensitivity and to go for the struggle and saying we are not going to accept America becoming a country which is — has something which is an institutionalized discrimination and racism.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Bayoumi, your response?

MOUSTAFA BAYOUMI: Well, I certainly —- excuse me, I certainly understand the desire to lower the temperature today on this hot-button issue, but I really think that we have to ask ourselves, you know, what kind of society do we want to live in? Are we going to be a society that’s ruled by our passions or by our principles? And I feel that if we adopt the view that we are willing to trade away the mosque to another location, then we’re also willing to trade away the principle of the free exercise of religion for Muslim Americans. And that’s true not just then for Muslim Americans, but really for all Americans. I feel that, by now, the issue has become so important that it has to be something that we understand as being a central question around our rights as a collective, as a nation. And I feel that there’s something at stake here that is missed if we’re only looking at being sensitive to what is a controversy that is fueled by outside forces.


AMY GOODMAN: Professor Ramadan?

TARIQ RAMADAN: Yes, if I may say something about this, because it’s as if, you know, it’s a decision based on emotions and something which is taking a [inaudible] sensitivity as just emotion. It’s exactly opposite, in fact. I think that the whole issue, even by the people who are behind it from the very beginning, to build something which is $100 million there, I think that from the very beginning, there is a trap here. And I would say that sometimes when we are dealing with emotions in the States, we have to rationally, reasonably take this into account and say if this, this symbol, is there — and that we can understand why the people are reacting in such a way — it’s not to struggle for our rights. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s to take advantage of this situation by saying, OK, we get it, the emotional reactions here, and we respect that. But it means that everywhere in this country, for our rights, our respect, we should struggle, and we need to find people saying that there will be never Muslim-free zones in this country and that we have to support all of the mosques that should be built in the country. So the symbol of one should help us with the struggle of all the others. And I think that this is something which is important. My fear today is to see Muslims reacting on a defensive way — these are our rights — not understanding that by being obsessed with this, they may — they could miss the point of a rational struggle in the whole country.

MOUSTAFA BAYOUMI: I think it would go the other way around, unfortunately. I mean, I think that once the mosque — or, it’s not even a mosque. That’s the other issue.

TARIQ RAMADAN: Yeah, yeah, OK.

MOUSTAFA BAYOUMI: It’s an Islamic center. It’s modeled on the 92nd Street Y. It’s a cultural center. It’s meant to be a place where people from all different faiths and all different backgrounds can come together. So — but once that location is moved, I think actually it becomes much easier to move every other Islamic center and mosque in the country, wherever the community is. If a new mosque wants to be built, the opposition can say, “Well, you know, in New York they moved it. Why can’t you move it five blocks or ten miles or over to the next town from here?”

TARIQ RAMADAN: I don’t think so. I really think that we have to take into account the fact that, yes, it’s not Ground Zero. It was built — it’s instrumentalized. But to use this situation, by saying we understand what is happening in New York, and the great symbolism of this, this we can accept that. And we can accept why 60 percent of the Americans, they are not all racists. And we can accept this. But it means, at the same time, that we are not bowing down in any other cases. And this is something that I said in the op-ed, is that, if possible, go for this. But I think that today the Muslims are trapped in something which is our rights, and we’ll go for it. I can understand this position, but I’m just a bit afraid that this is going to be instrumentalized and is already instrumentalized, from the very beginning, because we know that for five months no one was talking about the issue, and then it’s coming, and this is instrumentalized by political forces, neocon and others. And I think that the Muslims may be sometimes more reasonable in the way they are looking at the issue.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re speaking to Professor Tariq Ramadan on the phone from Oxford University in Britain, and in studio here, Moustafa Bayoumi, associate professor at Brooklyn College, author of the book How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America. We’ll be back with them in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re discussing the Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, having a debate on this issue, not your typical debate — for example, those who have been protesting for and against outside the cultural center — but between Moustafa Bayoumi, associate professor at Brooklyn College, author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, and the leading Muslim scholar, Tariq Ramadan, of Oxford university. Actually, Professor Ramadan was supposed to take up a professorship at Notre Dame here in the United States, but days before he and his family were to move here, the Bush administration revoked his visa and he was banned from the United States for six years. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reinstated that visa recently, and he was able to come into the United States.

But Professor Ramadan, in light of your own experiences in the United States, that might further surprise people about your position to say, well, at least for now, this cultural center shouldn’t be built so close to Ground Zero.

TARIQ RAMADAN: Yes, I think that, you know, my position on this is really, from the very beginning, what I said is a very — it’s a bad good idea, because of the symbol, and I knew who is behind the project and who is supporting that. I can understand that many religious, you know, communities are supporting and representatives. But I think that this very specific project, for me, in itself, is problematic. And I think it’s not helping the understanding of Muslims about their rights. And I want to make it clear. I am not saying that we don’t have to struggle for our rights. I’m saying exactly the opposite. But sometimes you have to take into account the psychology, the collective psychology, and what is happening around you, to take things into account and to push for the real life of Muslims at the grassroots level and at the local level. And I think that this is what I’m saying mainly.

And I would say that the Muslims should be very, very cautious not to be instrumentalized by pushing and supporting some project, and you don’t know what is going out of it, is going out of this project, this very project. And this is where I’m quite cautious with the whole issue. And yes, people could be surprised, but I think that they have maybe to think in a deeper way about the stragedy. My point is never, never to be on the defensive, to apologize for being Muslims, but to understand that we are struggling for our rights. But we understand sometimes the sensitivities around us and sometimes also how a society could build leadership from within by putting some pressure. Let us talk about this, as well, from within the community.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting, just as Professor Ramadan was banned from the United States, Moustafa Bayoumi, your book, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? wasn’t a problem when it was first put on the list to be required reading at Brooklyn College. But this year it became one.

MOUSTAFA BAYOUMI: Yes. My book was released two years ago, and it — without incident. It garnered good reviews. It was selected for other colleges for their common readings. But then, Brooklyn College selected it this year for their freshman common reading, and suddenly there was a — the right-wing blogosphere lit up with acrimony against the decision, claiming that the book was going to indoctrinate students to a pro-Islam, anti-American point of view — purely ideological kind of attacks on a book that they clearly hadn’t read. I was surprised and shocked by the phenomenon, and continue to be so, and actually feel that it’s part of this moment that we’re living in. Clearly, I don’t recognize myself or my book in the discussions, so it seems that it’s almost — that it’s entirely too easy just to take anything that has anything Muslim-sounding to it and to banish it away into controversy.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Tariq Ramadan, I know you have to leave, but in the United States, I’m sure you’ve heard the polls saying 20 percent of people think President Obama is a Muslim, and among the Republicans I think it’s up to somewhere near 50 percent. Your thoughts on this?

TARIQ RAMADAN: No, I think it’s just reflecting the situation in the United States of America. And by the way, in fact, in all Western societies we have exactly the same problems. In Europe and in the States now, the atmosphere is very bad about just being a Muslim. So when we mistrust, there is a mistrust towards the President — “Oh, he’s a Muslim, a [inaudible] Muslim.” I think that he is not a Muslim, we should say it. He is now asking the American society to just abide by its very values, which is freedom of religion. And this is what we have to say. So, the Muslims should be clear on this. And it just reflects the situation in the country, where there is a wave of, you know, anti-Muslim perception and sometimes racism. It’s built on ignorance, but also political forces using all these issues and controversies to build on it. And I think the Muslims should really be aware, from within, they belong to this country, they fight and struggle for their rights, but they are also dealing with sensitivities, and they should be — show some kind of intellectual empathy, struggling, but at the same times understanding.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you were Imam Rauf right now, Professor Ramadan —-


AMY GOODMAN: If you were Imam Rauf right now, the person who is spearheading the Park51 project, what step would you take now?

TARIQ RAMADAN: I think that I would just take -— you know, something which is to consult the community. I think that it was a project on his own he was going to have and supported by the State Department, supported by other religious communities, and there is a lack of internal communication. I think that this is where the problem started.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ramadan, I want to thank you very much for being with us, a professor at Oxford University. Moustafa Bayoumi, your final comments? Also, something interesting here is, you begin your book, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?, talking about an infiltrator among a group of friends. And I would think right now the FBI is deeply concerned, because, unfortunately, it has used mosques around the United States as places to infiltrate, to gather friends around it to talk about what is going on. And now, with mosques under siege, there might be some very complicated feelings at the FBI. Could you talk about how you begin your book?

MOUSTAFA BAYOUMI: Sure. I talk, in the beginning of my book, about a young man — talking to a young man who had a friend who was an informant for the police and the FBI for one of the terrorism trials, and how that had began a whole feeling of mistrust for him and for a lot of his friends, and he had to know exactly who to trust and who not to trust after that. And I think what happens in times like this is that feelings of suspicion and trust are elevated to enormous degrees. And that comes through, I think, in some of the other stories in the book, as well. But what is most important, it seems to me, out of that, is a deep desire to actually get to know one another more clearly, understand each other more deeply. And my book itself is actually seven stories of seven young Arab Americans and their lives after September 11th. And it’s really an attempt to try to empathize with their situation. And I feel, if I may return to the controversy surrounding my book, that that, in fact, may be a threat to some people out there today. The idea that you could actually empathize with the difficulties that young Arab Americans would have today seems like it, itself, is somehow threatening to the outside forces. And at the same time, it also seems to me that empathy is perhaps the most important political emotion that we could have today.

AMY GOODMAN: And importantly, the president of Brooklyn College has stood behind you —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- in keeping your book as a common reading for students.

MOUSTAFA BAYOUMI: Yes, that’s right. And in fact, the events went forward. The students have read the book. There wasn’t a single complaint from a student surrounding the book and its choice and its selection as the common reading. I’ve received only good comments from students about the book. So this, again, seems to be a controversy that was begun from outside and fomented from outside.

AMY GOODMAN: Moustafa Bayoumi, thanks so much for coming back, author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America. And his latest book, just coming out, is called Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israel/Palestine Conflict. We’ll have you back to talk about that.

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