I see that Rabbi Yoffie of the Union for Reform Judaism has commented yet again about why Jews should support the Ground Zero mosque (if you’re sick of hearing about the mosque, stick around — I’m going to make a more general point). What’s interesting is that while his arguments, good or bad, are at least relevant from a Western perspective, they have little or no connection to the motivation behind the project. In his 2300-word essay on the subject, he leaves out just about everything that is important to Muslims.
I recently heard the propensity of Westerners to assume that their interlocutors in the Muslim world think like they do called ‘mirror-imaging’. And this is what I think Rabbi Yoffie does.
It doesn’t matter whether it is a community center or a mosque or whether it will have a swimming pool. It doesn’t matter if it’s two blocks from Ground Zero or ten blocks, as long as it is presented as being at Ground Zero. Every Muslim in the world knows that Muslims struck at America in the name of Islam on 9/11, inflicted a grievous wound, and now America can’t stop them from building a monument to celebrate that. That is probably 90% of the whole story.
To Americans, a building is a building. But Muslims know enough of their history to understand the significance of a mosque built at a conquered people’s holy site (in case you don’t, they made it easy to make the connection by calling it ‘Cordoba house‘ at first).
In Tehran, Riyadh or Gaza City what gets built is determined by who wants to build it, not constitutional guarantees. If there’s a conflict, ethnic, family or power relationships resolve it. Of course Christians or Jews need not apply — a new church going up in Gaza would mean that Hamas wasn’t in control.
Note that in these places, the person or group on the losing side may be very unhappy to lose. But that doesn’t mean that they admire the way we do things in America — it just means that they would prefer to be on top.
So if that mosque or whatever it is gets built the conclusion will not be that Muslims should be grateful for American freedom and largeness of spirit. It will be that either Barack Obama is on their side or he’s a weakling. And either of these will imply that they should push harder to get what they want (like, for example, the US to abandon Israel, to allow Iran to get nuclear weapons, etc).
Here are some more concepts that are seen very differently here and in the Middle East:
Compromise: if a union official ends a strike by accepting a smaller wage increase than originally demanded, Americans might praise him for being willing to compromise, to sacrifice for the general good. Arabs or Iranians would assume that he didn’t have the power to get what he wanted.
Universal rights: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. opposed segregation because he believed in equal rights for all racial and ethnic groups. In Baghdad, it would be assumed that he was interested in more power and advantages for African-Americans. In the Muslim world, all politics is based on clan, ethnicity or religion.
Negotiation (Harold Rhode explains this here in relation to Iran): in the West negotiation can be a process aimed at arriving at a win-win situation. In Iran, you don’t negotiate unless you have the power to guarantee that you will win. Rhode says,
In politics, Iranians negotiate only after defeating their enemies. During these negotiations, the victor magnanimously dictates to the vanquished how things will be conducted thereafter. Signaling a desire to talk before being victorious is, in Iranian eyes, a sign of weakness or lack of will to win.
Sound familiar? Substitute ‘Palestinians’ for ‘Iranians’ and you won’t be wrong.
Leadership goals: a Westerner would think that the leader of a country like Syria, for example, would want to improve overall economic conditions in his country. Nope — he is interested in staying in power and improving the economic circumstances of his family or clan. He has absolutely no feeling of obligation to the people as a whole. Too harsh? Look at the behavior of the Assads, the Sauds, etc.
Values: do you think the PLO/Fatah wants a peaceful, prosperous sovereign state, the way Israel does? Maybe someday, but not until every square centimeter of land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean is in their hands, and every one of the hated nakba-guilty Zionists is dead or subjugated.
Democracy: yeah, right.
Until we stop mirror-imaging we will have a hard time understanding why we need to oppose the mosque, why the Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace process’ never seems to get off the ground, and why the Obama Administration policy of engagement with the Muslim world has so resoundingly failed to produce positive results.