Wednesday, August 18, 2010

All in a muddle

I had a mid-degree crisis this week that involved a lot of panicked and serious reflection on my courses, my thesis and my projected career path. It also involved a lot of stress eating and at least one phone call to my mother.

Emerging from the tail end, I've got a better grasp on what I want to do with my final year of grad school, my thesis and my life in general--for the time being, at least. But it seemed like a good time to reflect on blunders and muddled thinking, a good time to post this article, which appeared in today's Post, by Aaron David Miller.

Miller's subject is the proposed Ground Zero mosque and his perspective is that of the former advisor on Arab-Israeli relations who proposed inviting PLO chair Yasser Arafat to visit the Holocaust museum on a visit to D.C. The proposed visit never happened, as it whipped up a storm of controversy and disapproval in the press. Looking back, Miller argues that his proposal was plagued by the same problems troubling the mosque proponents today: a poisonous mixture of memory and symbolism that stifles the original impulse and its intent.

"Is it wise," Miller asks, "to risk tying a cause to these kinds of memories when the outcome wounds or polarizes, instead of healing or unifying?"

It's a fair question, but I'm not entirely persuaded by Miller's analogy. He refers to the Arafat invitation as "one of the dumbest ideas in the annals of U.S. foreign policy," arguing that "the potential conflict and misunderstanding overwhelmed any opportunity for dialogue and understanding," and there's reason to believe that that may be happening here.

But it's worth noting that a lot of the current controversy arises from the misappropriation of two powerful symbols. The "ground zero mosque" is not a mosque and it's not located at ground zero. It's a cultural center about two blocks away. And the cultural center's proponents are in no way affiliated with the radical fundamentalists responsible for the September 11 attacks.

But that's the trouble with (and the beauty of) symbols; they're so open to interpretation. Symbolism is an important element of PD, but can be dangerous because they're so easy to misappropriate. Which is why actions--like domestic and foreign policies--carry so much weight in forming public opinions. The controversy surrounding the proposed cultural center says much more about prevailing national attitudes towards religious tolerance in general and Islam in particular than any symbolic gesture could.

Radio Sawa can broadcast as many pop songs as it wants; it won't drown out the clamor of fear and intolerance.

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