Monday, August 02, 2010

Entitled to Bigotry?

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

In case you haven't heard, there's an Islamic center proposed for a spot a couple of blocks from Ground Zero. The multi-story project would be run by an interfaith board, and include a performance arts center, restaurant, pool, and yes, also, a mosque.

At first, the local opposition tried to block construction by arguing the site should have landmark status. And while I know we New Yorker's love our Burlington Coat Factories, it's no surprise the zoning board wasn't persuaded to save the 132-year-old factory of no architectural or cultural value.

When that challenge failed, opponents decided to get at the heart of the matter and use naked anti-Muslim sentiment to halt it in its tracks. And after a couple months of rabble-rousing, half the United States is suddenly up in arms against the Center, waving around the memories of the sacred families of the sacred victims like so many flags.

If you believe them, the building is nothing less than an affront to America itself, a hotbed of radical Islamist ferment designed to torture the grieving families of victims that mostly don't even live in New York, and certainly don't have to pass the construction mess on the way to work. It's enough that they'll know a Muslim might be nearby.

It's not racism or bigotry, just an effort really to spare the feelings of victims. As Abraham H. Foxman, the Director of the Anti-Defamation League put it, "Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational." Referring to September 11 family members, he said, "Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted."

It's an interesting idea, giving victims of trauma entitlement to bigotry. Perhaps we could introduce it into law, and award every dyke, fag, trannie, female, or person of color in the country a get out of jail free card because lord knows plenty of us have had our personal "holocausts" (if you insist on banalizing the word). In New York City alone, besides the several hundred acts of anti-queer violence every year, there's the perpetual and insidious prejudice.

Perhaps we should establish a hetero-free zone around the LGBT Center. Imagine the pain of suffering of watching two heterosexuals make out on the street corner when doing the same with your same-sex lover landed you and your boyfriend in the emergency room. We should demand all property buyers nearby be examined for traces of straightness. Longtime hetero residents should be expected to pack their bags or convert.

Sounds ridiculous, huh? You can really only indulge in bigoted exceptionalism if you're already a member of the cultural and political majority.

In any case, Tribeca, the area around the World Trade Center, has never been, and never should be, a "Muslim-free zone" as some bigots are demanding in both open and veiled statements.

One of the project's proponents, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, has already been in the 'hood for years, running a small local mosque. Which means he belongs there as much as anybody, more than most. And the likes of Georgia politician Newt Gingrich and Alaska meddler Sarah Palin should keep their pie holes shut. Along with the New York Times, that reports the increasingly negative polls as if they should decide a local matter.

I'm not insensible to the meaning of the place. I live on First Street in Manhattan. I watched the Towers fall from my own rooftop, and for weeks and months afterwards breathed in the smoke and ash. I'm still not done grieving. But I'm a New Yorker. There have been disasters before. Horrible losses. Radical changes in landscape. Plagues and fires.

Like in 1911, when 146 mostly female garment factory workers were burned alive or died after jumping from the roof when their sweatshop factory caught fire. They couldn't escape because the doors had been locked by the owners to keep them inside. Until 9/11, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was the worst workplace disaster in New York City.

I can't imagine the horror, but some good came from it. People fought for factory safety standards. The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union took off. What's the legacy of 9/11? Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

If we really want to respect the dead, it's time we quit using them as a platform for bigotry, or to score political points. We should ban presidents and politicians from tracking their muddy footprints through the blood. Let Washington stick to Memorials. Here in New York, we should look to the future, and try to build something, anything, that leads to understanding, prevents more deaths, refuses a movement of hate.

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