NIMBY Mosques and the Taxonomies of Religion in America

Cross-posted at the Religion in American History Blog

In case you missed it, there are plans to build a mosque in New York two blocks from the the site of World Trade Center attack.  The proposed mosque has ignited a variety of discourses about religion in American culture.  Opponents of the mosque have various reasons for their opposition but a recent ad from the National Republican Trust PAC offers the most obvious examples of the “us” and “them” language opponents are employing.

The ad was rejected by by CBS and NBC.  As Entertainment Weekly reports:

CBS and NBC have rejected an ad by the National Republican Trust PAC that seeks to rally viewers against a proposed mosque that would be built two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack in New York City. The one-minute spot (embedded below) begins with the words “the audacity of JIHAD” flashing on the screen followed shortly thereafter by the image of a plane flying into the World Trade Center; an accompanying voiceover declares that “to celebrate that murder of 3,000 Americans, they want to build a monstrous 13-story mosque at Ground Zero.”

The national spot “didn’t meet our broadcast standards,” said a spokesperson for CBS, confirming the network’s decision not to run it. An NBC spokesperson also confirmed the decision to reject the spot, but did not offer an explanation why. Nonetheless, EW obtained a letter from NBC Universal advertising standards manager Jennifer Riley to the NRT PAC explaining that: “An ad questioning the wisdom of building a mosque at ground zero would meet our issues of public controversy advertising criteria. However, this ad which ambiguously defines ‘they’ as referenced in the spot, makes it unclear as to whether the reference is to terrorists or to the Islamic religious organization that is sponsoring the building of the mosque. Consequently the ad is not acceptable under our guidelines for broadcast.”

As I read it, the basic message of the ad is “If the mosque gets built then the terrorists win.”  Patrolling the borders of acceptable religion has been a mainstay of American culture: colonial Quakers, nineteenth century Catholics, twentieth century Communists, and now, twenty first century Muslims  What is remarkable about this ad is just how unremarkable it is in its rhetoric.  The same strategies always work.  Slap on a foreign label (“Jihad” or “Papist” or “Pinko”), add violence (terrorism, nuclear threat, licentious priests and nuns), predict the downfall of “American values” (read Anglo Protestantism) then stir until a nice foment of emotionalism forms.

Lurking behind the nativist rhetoric of the ad is the ghost of the First Amendment.  Don’t Muslims have a right to build a mosque?  Isn’t that part of religious freedom?  Well, for the explication of this point I turn to the illustrative Jon Stewart (skip to the 3:13 mark for the mosque story):

Why are these mosques being built in my community?

Oh, OH OH! I know…because there are Muslims in your community.

Getting back to the Cordoba House mosque in Manhattan, I see two currents of the American religious past that are working against a more nuanced understanding of Islam and the planned mosque. First, the American tradition of sectarianism and denominationalism has offered the major ordering principle for thinking about American religious diversity. In the colonial period there were sects like the Quakers or Baptists and they were tied to a certain set of beliefs and practices that were either contested, tolerated, or repressed, depending on the place and time. In the nineteenth century the emergence of denominations offered stronger structures to the sectarian organization of religion. Baptist believed X, Presbyterians believed Y, etc. and they were are all acceptable under the First Amendment. This even applied to non-Christian groups like Jews who fit into various “denominations” of there own: Reformed, Orthodox, Conservative.

In the twentieth century, the emergence of a discourse about “world religions” and the rise of the academic study of religions shifted the ground. Denominationalism became an organizing principle for Christianity but suddenly (to take the tally of the World’s Parliament of Religion) there were 10 world religions. These new traditions didn’t get the nuance of a “denominational” taxonomy. Rather, they began to fall alongside the denominations. So you had Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. While there was some understanding of the nuances of the traditions, on the popular level, these were traditions that held together as “religions.”

In the past ten years Americans seemed to have a gained a vague notion about the diversity of Islam–at least the words Sunni and Shia have entered the vocabulary. But the early twentieth century model of world religions and the nineteenth century model of denominations still organize public discourse about religion. This results in the ability for goups to connect everything Muslim to an essential “Islam” that sits alongside other religions and various Christian denominations. Denominationalism prevents most people from connecting the crusades or young Earth creationism to all Christians–rather it gets connected to specific kinds of Christians. Islam, imagined as an essential religious tradition, does not get such a privilege.

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