Mosque debate echoes in JordanWritten by Betsy Fisher | | email@example.com
Ramadan just ended in Amman, Jordan, where I’m setting up shop for the next 10 months as a Fulbright English teaching assistant. Ramadan, the holy month in the Islamic calendar, is a time of fasting from food, liquids and smoking from sunrise to sunset. Having studied here in 2009, it’s striking how quiet the streets are, with many shops and restaurants closed until after dark. It is recommended not to eat or drink in public. Yet, Islamic tradition provides exemptions from fasting for the ill, the elderly, pregnant and nursing women, travelers, etc and non-Muslims, of course, are not required to fast.
This pragmatic approach to religion may seem surprising in a region so often portrayed as totalitarian and rife with religious extremism. Indeed, Jordan balances the tension of its official status as an Islamic state with religious freedom somewhat ambivalently. The constitutional guarantee of religious freedom contains the limitation, “unless such is inconsistent with public order or morality.” Other pertinent constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech, are guaranteed “within the limits of the law.” These guarantees may seem to be thinly veiled opportunities for coercion into Islamic habits. Yet Jordan, especially as compared with its neighbors, is a place of tranquil, albeit imperfect, coexistence.
Compare that to the firestorm in New York City, where the proposed Islamic center two blocks from ground zero raises concerns regarding the status of religious freedom in the United States. A majority of Americans in a number of recent polls oppose the building of this complex. Nevermind that this property was a mosque before Sept. 11, 2001, and was itself damaged in the attacks. Nevermind that the structure will contain a memorial to the victims of 9/11 and be used as a center to spread an Islamic message of peace. Never mind that the same distance, two blocks from ground zero, also contains a strip club and several fast food restaurants and that the building directly above ground zero will contain an underground mall. So much for hallowed ground.
Arguments by many who want to appear moderate, who say they have nothing against mosques or Muslims, claim that this ground is “sensitive.” This puts the blame on moderate Muslims for the ignorance of Americans. It demonstrates that Americans have not learned since 9/11 that terrorists do not speak for Muslims, and that Americans are incapable of separating terrorists even from those who actively work for cultural understanding.
Such a message can only impair American-Islamic relations and provide fodder for extremist organizations. The clear message sent to Muslims, in the United States and abroad, is that while the U.S. guarantees equal protection of all rights, including religion and property usage, this protection does not extend in practice to the American Muslim minority, no matter how peaceful or pluralist.
In Toledo, this controversy appears to be a domestic one, and so far from New York, somewhat abstract. Yet, for this Toledoan living abroad, the United States’ handling of these issues affects how I am received on a daily basis. This is not to say that I am the target of hostility. Jordanians almost universally welcome foreigners, delighted in their interest in the Arab world and in the influx of cash that they bring. The way I am received here, free to worship in a church, is clearly a warmer welcome than many Americans have chosen to extend to their Muslim neighbors.
But my reception here will always be punctuated with inquiries about my opinion on American policy in the Middle East. Because of events like the “ground zero mosque” controversy, I have more to overcome to prove to my friends and colleagues that Americans are capable of understanding the Islamic faith and appreciating those who claim it. The more true to our professed American values we can be, the more our negative image will fade. And the more likely it will be that our guaranteed religious rights can be freely extended to all within our borders.
Betsy Fisher is a Toledo Fulbright grant recipient in Jordan. She writes regularly at betsyinjordan.blogspot.com.