Posted by: sean | September 15, 2010

Sectarian conflict in America

Mosque and cathedrals in downtown Beirut

I’ve been avoiding this post for a couple of weeks now. First because there’s been a lot written about it already, but also because it really depresses me. Maybe also because I try to avoid posting about things that affect me on a personal level, as opposed to as a human being. But I feel like I’d be remiss in not writing something.

My wife and I have been thinking about moving to the US for reasons that I won’t get into here, so we spent most of the month of August between Alabama, New York and Washington DC. My wife is a Palestinian refugee who was born in Beirut and then had to move to Baghdad during the civil war, only to have to move back to Beirut because of the Iraq war. Between these two cities, she has seen and lived through much more sectarian conflict than anyone should ever have to in a hundred lifetimes.

So I was actually kind of excited to show her the US for the first time. I wanted to show her the literally dozens of Middle Eastern diners in Birmingham frequented by suburban good ole boys, Pakistani medical students and hip hop kids. I wanted to show her Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where Arabs, Jews, Hispanics, Haitians and hipsters all share the same park paths. I wanted to show her a place where with all its defects (both at home and abroad), everyone is welcome to worship in the way they see fit.

What she saw instead was terror babies and talk of repealing the 14th amendment. What she saw was the “ground-zero mosque” and naked religious bigotry; threats to burn the Qur’an and arson attacks on a mosque construction site. What she saw was a New Yorker cabbie stabbed because he’s Muslim. In short, a diet-coke version of sectarian conflict.

I’ve been back to Beirut now for a couple of days, but my cheeks are still red with shame. My father, who absolutely adores his new Muslim daughter-in-law, apparently has a hard time squaring the concrete (his new kin) with the abstract (dangerous Muslims). He forwarded me an email, as he is wont to do, about “the problem with Islam,” whose gist was, “look at these savage Muslims in some Iranian or Pakistani village breaking a boy’s arm with a car for stealing. How could these people ever be compatible with America?” The pictures, which had Hebrew subtitles, was summed up thusly: “MAY GOD HAVE MERCY ON US WHO TOLERATE THE MUSLIM!!!

Throughout the years, I’ve come to expect this sort of Know Nothing nativism and knee-jerk “conservatism” from my father. But a quick perusal of newspapers and cable news allowed me to see that this attitude wasn’t just prevalent in my family or in suburban Alabama; rather anti-Muslim bigotry was being stirred up all over the country. In fact, it was our misfortune to arrive in DC just in time for the Tea Party that offensively used Martin Luther King Jr. as a backdrop but seemed to include only white people.

Had I not been in the US and heard people’s casual bigotry towards Muslims (given the charming euphemism of “anxiety” by the nation’s press), I’m not sure that I would have believed to what point America has sunk. But even open-minded, otherwise tolerant people who would never accept such blatant prejudice against, say, Jews or Blacks or Hispanics or Catholics or homosexuals, seem to have been prodded into this nasty distrust of Muslims. Never mind that the South Tower of the World Trade Center had a Muslim prayer room that was destroyed, along with around 60 Muslims, on 9/11. Never mind that Manhattan’s lower west side used to be “little Syria.” Never mind, most importantly, that America is a nation that was founded on the principle of religious freedom. No: Muslims are dangerous, and America wants nothing to do with them.

So building a mosque or a Muslim cultural center anywhere near the hallowed soil of ground zero is insensitive. Strip clubs, peep shows and sex shops, on the other hand, are just fine. Apparently now in Portland, Maine, just being Muslim on or around the date of September 11 is offensive.

My point here is not to debunk the faulty reasoning or point out the obvious bigotry behind America’s newly discovered (just in time for midterms!) “Muslim problem.” I lack the patience for that right now, and it’s been done elsewhere already.

I will say, though, that here in Lebanon, where sectarian conflict and tension are parts of daily life and where anti-semitism is far from uncommon, reconstruction has been going along smoothly on the Maghen Abraham Synagogue without a similar uproar from any of Lebanon’s 17 larger sects or their corresponding political parties. (For the record, that includes Hezbollah.)

But these days America seems uninterested in tales of religious tolerance. In fact, Newt Gingrich seems to be taking his cues on religious tolerance from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As Leon Wieseltier has noted, “Until they are like us, we will be like them.” Well my wife and I don’t want to move to Saudi Arabia. And if things continue like this, I’m not sure we’ll want to move to America, either.



  1. Sean,

    I have one comment about the Maghen Abraham synagogue in Beirut. While it shows “religious tolerance” in a very sense, its construction isn’t necessarily at odds with lebanese sectarianism.

    I believe that lebanese sectarianism has more to do with socio-economical struggles than arguments about theology. In this sense, the idea of having a synagogue is tolerated as long as jews are not players in the lebanese messy political scene (with everything that comes with it: zai’ms, petty political squabbles over sectarian rights and so on).

    In addition, it gives the lebanese haute societe (who at the same time slams this sect or other) a better PR image in front of “westerners”. This is something that the lebanese tend to fall for.

    Just to clarify: I am all for restoring the synagogue and restoring the jewish community in Lebanon, as well as establishing a complete secular state.


  2. For someone who doesn’t tolerate all Muslims being painted with the same broad brush as their innumerable radical examples, you certainly don’t seem to afford America the same courtesy. I guess all the beautiful images of coexistence you started off describing no longer exist (Arabs, presumably, being forced to walk their own segregated paths in Prospect Park). I guess America, where no one in the mainstream supported the crazy pastor in Florida, and where no one ever denied the right of Muslims to build a mosque anywhere, has a lot to learn from a country that’s always on the precipice of civil war and where the minuscule example of a synagogue being restored for a community that has diminished from 5000 to under a hundred, as a testament to Muslim tolerance, is actually held up unironically as a testament to Muslim tolerance. And I’m assuming it’s Lebanon’s own version of the 14th amendment (of which there’s no genuine debate to repeal here), that has afforded your wife the luxurious title of “refugee” despite being born among her Arab brothers.

  3. Nate,

    Two factual errors in your response:

    – “no one ever denied the right of Muslims to build a mosque anywhere” is completely made up. Sean linked to an article stating that 2/3rds of New Yorkers wanted the mosque moved elsewhere.

    – “community that has diminished from 5000 to under a hundred, as a testament to Muslim tolerance”: the dwindling of the jewish community has nothing whatsoever to do with “muslim intolerance”. In fact the jewish community in Lebanon increased significantly between 1948 (the establishment of israel) and the 1960’s. It’s not like lebanese muslims woke up one day in the 60s and suddenly decided to become intolerant. Jews left because of the sectarian tensions where all sects in Lebanon were intolerant (not just the muslims).


  4. a)Wanting the mosque to be moved elsewhere (while having no problem with it being constructed anywhere else) is not at all the same as denying it’s RIGHT to be built.
    b)The numbers certainly reflect that Jews were disproportionately affected, and that Lebanon eventually caught up to other Arab countries’ treatment of Jews (if you’d like this example changed from one of Muslim intolerance to one of Arab intolerance, that’s fine, but the majority would still be Muslim and America’s model would only be “Diet Coke” if this model is “Antifreeze”). However, let’s not pretend that up to the 60’s it was great to be a Jew in Lebanon, though certainly it was better than other Arab countries. Though eventually offered some protection by the Phalange militia, riots against the community began in the 40’s. What followed were killings, school closures, firing from civil service, and expulsion from the University of Baghdad. I would certainly welcome your views on how these measures have “nothing whatsoever” to do with Muslim intolerance. In fact the only times of consistent tolerance for Jews in Arab countries, was during colonialism. Of course Lebanese Muslims didn’t wake up “one day” and change their views, nor the populations of other Arab countries, but the suddenness is hardly the point, compared to the effect. The fact remains that restoring a synagogue in a country almost devoid of Jews is a disingenuous example of tolerance, and Hezbollah’s approval, despite calls for the death of Jews the world over, is only proof of that fact rather than proof to the contrary.

  5. I agree with you that restoring the synagogue doesn’t prove much (I made this comment earlier). In fact some of the lebanese who are for the idea while claiming to be “tolerant” show daily intolerance with respect to other lebanese sects.

    I never claimed that jews in lebanon had it easy, but my point was that in a country filled with sectarian tension, run by sectarian millitias and where all sects committed war crimes, singling out “muslim intolerance” is disconnected from reality. I can give you plenty of examples of ethnic/religious cleansing acts committed by lebanese christian millitias as well as muslim millitias. Besides, at one point, the remaining Jewish community in lebanon and the synagogue were protected by the PLO.

    Find me ONE example where hezbollah called for the death of jews worldwide.

    Finally, I hope you do realize that throwing casually accusations of “muslim intolerance” or “arab intolerance” shows a lot of intolerance on your part.

  6. This is actually my point. I think that to describe America as being so intolerant is no better than painting the Arab world with such a brush. And while I don’t believe that all Arabs or all Muslims are intolerant, that does not mean that Muslim intolerance doesn’t exist (as does intolerance in all groups). I bring this intolerance up as a response to the synagogue example and in the context of intolerance in the Muslim world for Jews intermittently for centuries, and culminating in popular riots and killings in numerous countries. If recognizing this intolerance and pointing out the extent to which such anti-semitism is still allowed to pervade the Muslim world more than any other group makes me intolerant, so be it, although clearly such intolerance exists in the Christian world as well (though, again, I do not therefore consider every Christian to be intolerant). It has become acceptable to say such things against America, of course, while it’s still “intolerant” to point out parallels, or much worse examples in the Arab world. I’ve heard a lot more criticism for the Florida pastor, for example, than for the riots in various Muslim countries in response to his stunt, which left at least three dead, while chanting “Death to the Christians”.
    As for Hezbollah, a party with VETO POWER IN A GOVERNMENT:
    Hassan Nasrullah “If they [the Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them on a worldwide basis.”
    Though I don’t consider this gem much better:
    “If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice, I do not say the Israeli.”

  7. I’ll have more to say tomorrow, but for the time being, I’d like to address those two “quotes” attributed to Nasrallah. Charles Glass addresses both of them:

    If I am unfamiliar with the statements, it is because they are in all likelihood fabrications. The first (‘If they [the Jews] all gather in Israel it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide’) was circulated widely on neo-con websites, which give as its original source an article by Badih Chayban in Beirut’s English-language Daily Star on 23 October 2002. It seems that Chayban left the Star three years ago and moved to Washington. The Star’s managing editor writes of Chayban’s article on Nasrallah, that ‘I have faith in neither the accuracy of the translation [from Arabic to English] nor the agenda of the translator [Chayban].’ The editor-in-chief and publisher of the Star, Jamil Mrowe, adds that Chayban was ‘a reporter and briefly local desk sub and certainly did not interview Nasrallah or anyone else.’ The account of Nasrallah’s speech in the Lebanese daily As Safir for the same day makes no reference to any anti-semitic comments. Goodheart’s second quotation – ‘They [the Jews] are a cancer which is liable to spread at any moment’ – comes from the Israeli government’s website at For the record, a Hizbullah spokeswoman, Wafa Hoteit, denies that Nasrallah made either statement.

    And again:

    Citing a passage in Amal Saad-Ghorayeb’s Hizbullah: Politics and Religion (2002), he attributes this statement to Nasrallah: ‘If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice, we do not say the Israeli.’ The source of the quotation is cited in footnote 20 of Chapter 8 of Saad-Ghorayeb’s book: an interview, not with Nasrallah, but with a Hizbullah member of the Lebanese Parliament, Mohammed Fnaysh, conducted by the author on 15 August 1997.

    Saad-Ghorayeb informs me that the footnote is a mistake, although she is certain there is a valid source for the statement. However, when at my request she examined her PhD dissertation, from which the book originated, she discovered the same mistaken citation. Footnotes in a long work can easily go astray, but it is unfortunate that neither her dissertation adviser nor her publishers spotted the error. Therefore, until someone discovers where and when Nasrallah uttered the words above, the case is unproved.

    The problem with poorly referenced — or worse, totally un-cited — quotes is that anyone can say that anyone said anything. That, I’m afraid, won’t do for a college paper, much less serious political debate.

  8. I wouldn’t call a quote from an article written by one who claims to have had a firsthand interview “un-cited” or poorly referenced, and Charles Glass would hardly be in a position to refute this, especially given his general whitewashing of Hezbollah and the tendency among Arab leaders to speak much more radically in Arabic than in English. If the quotes are found to be fabrications, I’ll gladly recant, since they don’t actually have much to do with the conversation, or I could continue on with Holocaust denial quotes, or various other anti-Semitic quotes from Hezbollah’s own TV channel which show how devoid of meaning your synagogue example really is. And then there’s the bombing in 1994 of a Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires which is widely attributed to Hezbollah, but probably not quite enough to satisfy you. If the deaths of Jewish civilians in Israel, (with apologies to any Israeli Arabs that get hurt) are not a problem for you, there’s probably not much room for agreement. But you’d have a hard time disproving every anti-Semitic comment made by Hezbollah, especially when they come straight from the horse’s mouth. And as intolerant as you may consider America to be, no American politician would every gain so much mainstream support while speaking so hatefully and violently about a religion and its civilians.

  9. I guess America, where no one in the mainstream supported the crazy pastor in Florida, and where no one ever denied the right of Muslims to build a mosque anywhere


    The organizers of the “No Mosque at Ground Zero” campaign waged a long (& ultimately unsuccessful) campaign to get the local NYC Community Board & then the Landmarks Commission to deny permission for the Park 51/ Cordoba Center to to be built. The current Republican candidate for Governor is proposing that New York State use its powers of eminent domain to prevent construction of Park 51. So your statement that “no one ever denied the right of Muslims to build a mosque anywhere” is demonstrably false.

  10. The “sectarian conflict in America” is largely concocted by leftwingers in the cultural wars when they can’t get their way. It’s hysteria that has been whipped up beyond belief as a means of discrediting the views and organizations of those they don’t find politically compatible. To me, the grave problem these days isn’t that there is sectarianism, but that the left and the “progressives” cannot concede that they are merely one more group of sectarians, and that what America should be about is tolerance for all forms of sectarianism. Instead, they spend much of their time trying to deny the right to others to even exist in the name of an elusive political correctness worthy of Orwel and Soviet pseudo-science.

    I can only say to you, after reading this post: well, then, don’t move here, if it is so terrible, and you are scared away *by what you read on the Internet*.

    Yes, most of what you’re agitated about is Internet-hyped and Internet-fabricated.

    The incident with the New York cabbie might be better described this way: “The cabbie was stabbed because the stabber was an alcoholic and psychotic Catholic”. That’s not a description of conditions for Muslims in New York.

    The mosque is a mosque, and *is* at Ground Zero. That’s the intention of its planners. They have a right to place their building there, like any other faith group. Other faith groups and individuals also have the right to criticize them. This is America.

    The Koran wasn’t burned by the nutter in Florida. Another guy apparently burned a Koran. Just as we ask what kind of religion or society would condone burning of any religious book, we must ask what kind of society or religion would condone rioting and killing anyone who burns a religious book.

    Arson attacks against a mosque construction site are indeed a serious matter; did you know that the overwhelming religious/ethnic hate crimes in the U.S. are attacks against Jews and their properties?

    I’m not going to click on something called “terror babies” on Youtube. Jeez.

    The Times poll doesn’t show bigotry; it shows discomfort with a Muslim group’s politicized placement of their community center and mosque. That’s all. Policitization of religious matters in the U.S. is a chronic problem among all faiths. If this were a Christian born-again group wanting to place a mega-church at this site, you might begin to see the problem. But no one *can* deny the right of this group to build their center, and the proof of their claims to peace-building will be in the pudding of their positions and actions subsequently.

    Your father is right. How can anyone justify the breaking of a boy’s arm for stealing a car?! His instincts are sound. What’s troubling is that your instincts have become eroded with political correctness. Let me suggest that you wife doesn’t want to live in her native land or the subsequent land of her residence precisely because of practices like that, and the blame for them belongs squarely on those regimes.

    Hezbollah is a movement that incites and uses violence as a method. That’s not something we can condone in America. A synagogue being built in Lebanon doesn’t undo the nature of Hezbollah.

    As for “Little Syria” — don’t make up stuff. I live here.

  11. I don’t know, Catherine. Sean did make a point of mentioning that the subtitle was in Hebrew… so maybe such actions can’t be blamed squarely on those regimes for tolerating and institutionalizing such brutality, but on the JEWS for pointing them out.

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