Demonising mosques and Muslims

Fear and ignorance abound in the debate over the so-called Ground Zero mosque in Manhattan.

I blogged earlier in the week on the row over a proposal to build a Muslim community centre in Lower Manhattan, two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center. The project has been dubbed the "Ground Zero mosque" by right-wing, Republican critics, who have been up in arms about this for several months now..

I have an article in today's Guardian explaining why I believe the mosque row has "become a struggle for the soul of the United States, the nation where freedom and democracy is supposed to reign supreme". Here's a short extract from the piece:

Ignorance and bigotry abounds. Cordoba House is not a mosque but a cultural centre, which will include a prayer area, sports facilities, theatre and restaurant. The aim of the project is to promote "integration, tolerance of difference and community cohesion . . . a place where individuals, regardless of their backgrounds, will find a centre of learning, art and culture". Nor is it being built at Ground Zero. The proposed site is two blocks to the north.

Neither of these inconvenient facts, however, has stopped a slew of high-profile Republicans falling over one another to denounce the project. The former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, in her now-notorious tweet, urged "peaceful Muslims" to "refudiate" the proposed "mosque", because it "stabs hearts". Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said the project was a "desecration" and the former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich declared that "there should be no mosque near Ground Zero so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia".

I didn't have space in the Guardian piece to explain how Gingrich and his bigoted Republican allies have demonised not just the "mosque" itself, but the moderate imam behind the project. As Mark Potok explains over at the Huffington Post:

The project's chairman, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, has criticised Islamic extremism but is still being attacked for not denouncing Hamas, the militant Muslim organisation in Palestine, and for not identifying his source of funding.

Is Rauf, author of What's Right With Islam Is What's Right With America and a regular contributor to the Washington Post's On Faith blog, actually a nefarious Islamist bent on glorifying the 9/11 attacks with his controversial Cordoba House initiative? Time magazine's Bobby Ghosh disagrees:

And yet [the project's] main movers, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan, are actually the kind of Muslim leaders right-wing commentators fantasise about: modernists and moderates who openly condemn the death cult of al-Qaeda and its adherents -- ironically, just the kind of "peaceful Muslims" whom Sarah Palin, in her now-infamous tweet, asked to "refudiate" the mosque. Rauf is a Sufi, which is Islam's most mystical and accommodating denomination.

The Kuwaiti-born Rauf, 52, is the imam of a mosque in New York City's Tribeca district, has written extensively on Islam and its place in modern society and often argues that American democracy is the embodiment of Islam's ideal society.

Jeffrey Goldberg -- not normally a man I'd cite or agree with! -- goes further than Ghosh on his Atlantic Monthly blog:

This seems like such an obvious point, but it is apparently not obvious to the many people who oppose the Cordoba Initiative's planned mosque in Lower Manhattan, so let me state it as clearly as possible: The Cordoba Initiative, which is headed by an imam named Feisal Abdul Rauf, is an enemy of al-Qaeda, no less than Rudolph Giuliani and the Anti-Defamation League are enemies of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden would sooner despatch a truck bomb to destroy the Cordoba Initiative's proposed community centre than he would attack the ADL, for the simple reason that Osama's most dire enemies are Muslims. This is quantitatively true, of course -- al-Qaeda and its ideological affiliates have murdered thousands of Muslims -- but it is ideologically true as well: al-Qaeda's goal is the purification of Islam (that is to say, its extreme understanding of Islam) and apostates pose more of a threat to Bin Laden's understanding of Islam than do infidels.

I know Feisal Abdul Rauf; I've spoken with him at a public discussion at the 96th Street mosque in New York about interfaith co-operation. He represents what Bin Laden fears most: a Muslim who believes that it is possible to remain true to the values of Islam and, at the same time, to be a loyal citizen of a western, non-Muslim country. Bin Laden wants a clash of civilisations; the opponents of the mosque project are giving him what he wants.

On a separate but related note, the tarring of Rauf as a secret "Islamist" and a Muslim extremist, based on dubious evidence and dodgy quotes, is not so dissimilar to the manner in which the right-wing neocons and "muscular liberals" who populate the British commentariat and think-tank world accuse most Muslims in British public life of harbouring "radical" or "Islamist" agendas. Andrew Gilligan is one such pundit, and he used his Telegraph column yesterday to accuse senior British civil servants of being "sympathisers of Islamism" because some of them happen to be advocates of dialogue and engagement with mainstream British Muslim organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain. (Disclaimer: I am not a member of either organisation, nor do I agree with all of their views. But they're not the British equivalents of al-Qaeda or Hamas either!)

I happened to take part in a Sky News debate with Gilligan this morning. He didn't define "Islamism" in a precise or coherent manner, he couldn't explain why he wants the British government to shun groups like the Muslim Council of Britain while he himself works for the Iranian-government-owned Press TV and he chose not to respond to the comments that I cited from citizens' groups and interfaith forums in east London, which have accused journalists like Gilligan (and Martin Bright) of misrepresenting supposedly "Islamist" groups such as the Islamic Forum of Europe and the East London Mosque.

Odd, eh?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Easing gender recognition rules is about more than convenience – it's a step towards bodily autonomy

Amendments to the legal process are a small victory on the way to a much bigger goal.

Growing up and coming out as a young trans person in the shadow of the Gender Recognition Act, I was constantly met with stories of medical professionals refusing to validate or support my friends and partners.

Swathes of trans people were forced into claiming a stake in maleness or femaleness, that didn’t reflect their non-binary identity. For years, I felt that any attempt to medically transition, or to take steps to be recognised in the eyes of the law, would be met with ridicule or disdain.

As a non-binary person, I heard and still hear countless stories of trans people like me forced to lie about their identity, existing in their own spaces as complicated and beautiful creatures, only to pigeon-hole themselves into rigid forms of gender.

The wider implications of the act and its rigid fixation on gender normativity where damaging. Trans men I knew were routinely told that experimenting with make-up, or feminine presentation, were grounds to be denied a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). Similarly, any sign of masculinity in a trans woman would be used as proof that her desire to legally change gender was little more than a fetishistic romp. 

It's for these reasons that I greet the news that the act is to be reformed with cautious, but excited optimism. The amendments, which will make it easier for people to change gender on their birth certificate and be recognised as a man, woman or non-binary person, should be celebrated as an important and fundamental step in the long-fought struggle for transgender liberation.

The removal of gender dysphoria as a diagnostic criteria, and the re-assessment of the need to “live as one's chosen gender” for arbitrary periods of time, herald a new understanding of our lives in the eyes of the law, and the beginning of what hopefully will be a gradual move away from the pathological and essentialist view of trans identity the legislation currently takes.

Maria Miller's announcement, taken at face value, is a commitment to the attempted rebranding of the Conservative Party's relationship with the LGBTQ community, a tribute to what Theresa May envisages as a move away from the image of the “nasty party”.

Yet it is from within the Tory party that the harshest condemnation of the amendments has come. Mary Douglas, of the Grassroots Conservatives, has compared calling a trans person by their chosen gender to agreeing with an anorexic's delusion of fatness. Her comments would be laughably risible if they were not so offensive. To equate the constant self-destructive dangers of anorexia with the positive realisation of one's gender is patently absurd. Agreeing with an anorexic's belief in their weight is deadly – agreeing with a trans person's chosen gender is often life-saving.

As long as a valid GRC remains a pivotal step in accessing NHS gender services, we must fight tooth and nail against the Douglases of this the world, who ironically would rather see a drastic decline in the mental health of trans people than any steps to relieve the constant pressure and stress of living under transphobia.

In a far more literal sense, the easing of access to a GRC can prove pivotal to the survival of some of our most marginalised community members. There is an ongoing and severe problem with the placement of transgender women in male prisons, which was put under the spotlight by the tragic suicide of Vicki Thompson.

Her death brought to the forefront a crisis barely spoken about outside trans circles. If a trans woman in prison lacks the relevant GRC, they are assigned to a male facility. While the wider issue of trans prisoners itself could fill another whole article, it is cruel, worrying and dangerous that something as arbitrary as a GRC determines the placement of prisoners.

Frequently, stories come out of trans women in prisons subject to harrowing sexual, physical and emotional violence. That this can be prevented by the simple possession of a GRC must surely show not only how important it is to fight for them to become accessible, but also how fundamentally broken our approach to trans issues is.

Removing hurdles put in the way of trans people by the current system is much more than simple convenience. It is part of the continued struggle for bodily autonomy, for liberation, and for a world where we are free to exist as our authentic selves. I am not naive enough to believe that these reforms alone will secure this. I have my own criticisms, and yet again find myself excluded by our government’s lack of non-binary gender markers.

But for the trans man turned away from hormones for lipstick, the trans woman denied electrolysis for wearing trousers, the Vicki Thompsons of the world forced into violent and dangerous situations, we must understand, this is a small victory. And it is a step on the road to a far bigger one.

Marilyn Misandry is a trans activist and performance artist from Manchester. Her work focuses on existing as a radical trans person