The NIMBY Syndrome; America’s Muslim Problem

President Barack Obama's remarks supporting the right to build a mosque near Ground Zero reverberated across the country, nationalizing a passionate debate over the project. The dispute is the most prominent in a series of debates around the country where Muslims have sought to build mosques. From New York to California, opposition to mosque building is a constant reality.

Shamefully, Republican leaders and right wing media pundits have made it their objective to use the issue not only to debase President Obama's popularity but as a tool in the upcoming midterm elections. Gratefully, a few Republican leaders have sided with what's right. Mayor Bloomberg of New York City and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have decided that scapegoating American Muslims was in fact too costly for the party's political chances. The words of the Governor, breaking away with statements of others from his party, are an assurance that America will readjust its moral focus and find more productive venues to discuss the issues of the day.

We categorically reject the notion that mosques are somehow spoiling the American landscape much like a cellular tower, a porn shop, or a nuclear reactor. NIMBY, “not in my backyard”, has been the weapon anti-mosque advocates have used. Hypocritically, they differentiate between what is right and what's legal. American Muslims and their places of worship are an integral part of America’s pluralistic fabric. Their contributions, commitment, and patriotism have stood the test of time.

American Muslims have suffered plenty as a result of the 911 attacks. They lost their loved ones in the rubble of the WTC disaster and collectively suffered from never ending humiliation, suspicion, and denial of their religious and civil rights. While I genuinely grieve with the families of 9/11 victims, I refuse to accept the baseless charge of insensitivity to their feelings. It was not fellow American citizens who brought this catastrophe upon our nation. American Muslims were the intended target just as American Christians and Jews. Building a mosque anywhere in America is not an expression of indifference or dominance. It is only but an affirmation of our rights (and our growing population needs.)

It needs restating that America’s war on terror is against Al-Qaeda and not Islam. Al-Qaida is a group of terrorists using a distorted form of Islam and they have killed by far more Muslims than Christians combined. To suspect every Muslim, especially fellow citizens who are Muslims, as somehow connected to this bastardized form of Islam is itself a terrible malignment of America core values. To say that Muslims who have prayed within 12 blocks of Ground Zero for 27 years cannot pray in a neighborhood because it is too close to Ground Zero is to say the Muslims who died at the World Trade Center were not the same as the rest of the victims that horrific day.

At times I have almost suggested that Americans Muslims forgo their constitutionally-protected right in the hope of easing the tension; removing the doubt and forging a lasting camaraderie with the rest of society. But what about the feelings of American Muslims who now feel perpetually condemned to a life of suspicion and exclusion? Alas, I, sometimes say that, after all, the site is not God-mandated and I am sure similarly appropriate sites can be found to accommodate the multi-goal plans of Park51.

But I realize that such concessions will in the end hurt the foundations of our constitutional democracy which most spectacularly protects religious freedom form both private and official infringement. And so it was George Washington's famous words to a Jewish congregation over two hundred years ago: "All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts."

Therefore, our community's mandate is to persevere. There is an understandable impulse to just to look the other way at the anti-Muslim sentiments to dismiss the grandiose mobilization claims as just one more fringe right-wing nut job. Not because the “claims” are anything other than preposterous, but rather because there is far too much public belief in these preposterous assertions for anyone concerned with public education and mobilization to so carelessly write them off. And with the clear links between Islamophobic and prejudicial treatment of certain American citizens, the implications cannot be easily dismissed.

Those who hate American Muslims believe we are lesser citizens, deserving second class treatment. While their loud voices seem to echo throughout the national landscape, thankfully, the anti-Islam folks will see victory as but an illusion. Their fight is fundamentally against the American constitution. If Muslims are the target now, who is next? And there will be a next target if we as a nation do not defend our Bill of Rights and the Constitution. We are ready to pay the price however high it may be.

There will come a day soon when American mosques will be American as apple pie. And America will be the better for it.

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About Dr. Aref Assaf

Dr. Aref Assaf has a doctorate in Political Science and International Law. He is president and founder of American Arab Forum, AAF, a non partisan think-tank specializing in advocating positive image of the American Arab community. Dr. Assaf was also a founding member of ADC-NJ Chapter and has served as its media chair for five years before serving as its president in 2004. He was also elected and served for one year as Board Member of the American Palestinian Congress. Dr. Assaf serves on and is a member of several state, national boards and academic organizations. These includes the American Society of Political Science and the American Society of International Law. Dr. Assaf is currently serving a second three-year term as a member of the New Jersey Governor’s Ethnic Advisory Council. His selection was the first of its kind for an Arab American to serve on this statewide council. Dr. Assaf writes frequently in several New Jersey papers about contemporary American Arab issues and perspectives. He has appeared on many television programs such as CBS’ Sunday Morning, CNN in addition to metro TV stations. Dr. Assaf is available for speaking engagements without any honorarium.

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