First Loyalties

In relation to Ground Zero, I am an American first, a Muslim second, just as I would be at Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy Beach, Pearl Harbor or any other battlefield where my fellow countrymen lost their lives.

I like this sentence very much, which is from M. Zuhdi Jasser’s WSJ opinion piece attacking Imam Rauf’s Park51 project. I like it, but I’m not sure I agree with it.

I can tell you that, for myself, in relation to Ground Zero I am a New Yorker first. This was an attack on my home, not just my country; for weeks I could see the billowing smoke from my dining room window. And for years, my predominant emotion related to Ground Zero was fury that we couldn’t get anything new built there, that there was this gaping hole in the heart of Manhattan and we were all just standing around yelling about it instead of rebuilding my city. I wrote about this last year and even as construction has finally started to show visible progress I still feel pretty much the same way.

I’m also ambivalent about the identification of Ground Zero as a “battlefield.” America was struck in three places (four if you count each tower separately) on 9-11, and of the three sites, lower Manhattan is the least-well described as a “battlefield.” United flight #93 was certainly a battlefield – the field of battle between terrorists and the last line of defense a country has, its citizenry. But lower Manhattan was the site of a massacre, not a battle. The terrorists may have thought of themselves as warriors going into battle, but I don’t see why I need to flatter them by agreeing.

And I wonder about that business about being an American first and a Muslim second. It seems to me that Jasser is, inevitably, reacting as a Muslim when he says that his fellow Muslims should not be so assertive so close to Ground Zero, but should be deferential to the feelings of those who might be offended. It’s not the same reaction that Imam Rauf had, obviously – but this strikes me as very much an argument between Muslims about how a Muslim should comport himself politically in America. It’s not really an “American” argument at all.

But I still think there’s something very important in the sentence. And I think I can capture it by turning it around:

In relation to the Iraq War, I am an American first, a Muslim second.

Right? On 9-11, Muslim terrorists attacked the United States of America. Inevitably, Muslims with no particular sympathy or affection for al Qaeda will feel uncomfortable with the fact that this atrocity was perpetrated by their fellow Muslims. Some may respond by denying the facts – al Qaeda wasn’t responsible at all. Or by resorting to the “no true Scotsman” defense – the fact that they committed such an atrocity proves they weren’t “true” Muslims. Some may respond by trying to “explain” the action in a manner that may sound too much like justification – chickens coming home to roost, that sort of thing. Some may respond with a zealous American patriotism – joining the military, for example – trying to prove that this Muslim, anyway, is a loyal American. Some – most, in my limited experience – are just quietly appalled at what happened, and would prefer another topic of conversation. The point is, it seems to me that whatever a Muslim American might feel about 9-11, it’s going to be a distinctly Muslim reaction – inevitably so. Because the emotions one feels as an American are relatively simple – all the emotional conflict is on the Muslim side of the ledger, as it were.

But in relation to America’s involvement in the Middle East, that’s not the case. There, the emotional conflict is quite significant on the American side of the ledger. America is, after all, at war with Muslims in two countries. If you feel an identification with the victims of America’s actions, the temptation – again, inevitably – will be to disown those actions, to treat America’s actions as alienated from yourself rather than being actions taken by your own country, to avoid treating them as actions that you own in some sense.

I’m not in any way suggesting that endorsement of American policy is somehow incumbent on anyone – far from it. I’m not suggesting the opposite either. Emotional ownership of American behavior might lead to endorsement or opposition or something more complicated. But it would foreclose the option of alienation and retreating into an alternative identity that is explicitly or implicitly non-American.

And that’s what we’re worried about, if we’re worried about anything, isn’t it?