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Cultural Relativism as an Integral Social Value for the Founding Fathers of the United States: an anthropological look at the proposed mosque at the trade center ground zero

August 16, 2010

First of all: I love anthropology paper titles.

Virtually all of them are really long

None of them seem like they’d be interesting

They are about the most intensely wacked out subjects in social science.

Here are some of the paper titles:

The Thunder-Bird Amongst the Algonkins, by A. F. CHAMBERLAIN

A Quarry Workshop of the Flaked-Stone Implement Makers in the District of Columbia, by W H Holmes

Analysis of the Psychological Reality of American-English Kin Terms in an Urban Poverty Environment, by Peggy R Sanday

The Urban Curandero, by Irwin Press

The Fight With The Giant Witch, by Garrick Mallery

Okay, something weird happened with those last two. I’m not sure what image is conjured when you put the words “urban” and “curandero” together, but I’m thinking it’s something along the lines of this guy:

Danny Trejo is one bad mother


No doubt you’ve heard about the controversy surrounding a proposed mosque at ground zero for the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11. The idea is to demolish a set of buildings that were destroyed in the attacks and turn them into a community center with a prayer space, the planners comparing the building to a YMCA or Jewish community center.

The space would have a moderate theater, restaurant, food court, bookstore, and even a culinary school, all more or less directed towards muslims, but open to everyone in the community. Food items would be halal dishes, and preparation would occur in traditional ways.

The building is not actually on “ground zero” but 600 feet away. This is primarily where the controversy was sparked.

Part of the area for the community center

In doing a little research…

I have found a couple of problems with the controversy surrounding the so-called “mosque”.

1. It’s not a mosque! You wouldn’t call a YMCA a “church”, and it is clear the point of the building as a religious space is secondary to the goal of community development among the muslims in the area.

2. The idea that it is in some way “inappropriate and insensitive” (Idaho congressman Mike Simpson). According to numerous organizations involved in the planning process, the building is actually intended as a means to bridge the gap between Islam and the west.

3. The demand for financial transparency and the funding the organization is receiving. Transparency is a-okay in my book. It’s important to know where such large amounts of money are coming from. Especially a construction worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The main problem with the demand for transparency is equal representation of such demands between religious groups. Of course the natural assumption is that a group like this might be receiving funding from hostile foreign governments and extremist organizations. It begs the question, though: would a catholic church in Boston be suspected of receiving funding from the IRA? Would it experience the same level of suspicion?

4. This next part is kindof tricky. A key concern among many conservative politicians are the political views of the main supporter of the building, Imam Abdul Rauf. People like Palin argue that his stance opposing the 9/11 attacks are unclear and not decisive. In looking at what he said on the subject,

“I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened. But the United States’ policies were an accessory to the crime that happened…Because we have been an accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world. In fact, in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA.”

(this dude, btw)

A few more general issues going on here is the comparison of the World Trade Center attacks and either the Japanese in Pearl Harbor, the NAZI persecution of Jews, or WWII in general. In addition, the idea that the terrorists were motivated by some vague hatred of freedom or American values, or something. This is a big misunderstanding of the dynamics between all groups described.

First of all, the attack on Pearl Harbor was primarily military. The attack by the Japanese was intended to be one country attacking another, and even then, the target was very specifically military, for the most part, anyway. So when people say that the 9/11 attacks were the largest attack on the US since Pearl Harbor, a false-association is manufactured.

Al Qaida is an organization not specifically affiliated with any country, and their attack lacked any of the goals that the attack on Pearl Harbor did. The Japanese attacked as a pre-emptive strike to prevent the US from efficiently stopping them in their war of expansion in South Asia and the pacific. This is the reason their attack was military. The motives for the 9/11 attacks were primarily retaliation, in the minds of Al Qaida and the bombers. The major attacks that they have attempted on the US, either domestic or abroad are always in some way linked to perceived transgressions against them. As publicly stated by leaders of the group, they were retaliating against the US’ support of Israel, our presence in Saudi Arabia, and our sanctions against Iraq.

It was the part where Rauf claimed that the issue wasn’t as cut-and-dried as many would believe that led people to think that he either agreed with the bombings, or said that the US deserved them. Of course, when looking at his quotes, it is apparent that this is not at all what he was saying.

In the same way that people tend to compare the 9/11 attacks to Pearl Harbor, so they compare the actions of this muslim organization to both the Japanese and the Germans. According to Paul Sipos, a member of a New York community board:

If the Japanese decided to open a cultural centre across from Pearl Harbour, that would be insensitive… if the Germans opened a Bach choral society across from Auschwitz, even after all these years, that would be an insensitive setting. I have absolutely nothing against Islam. I just think: Why there?

It seems that many of the people opposed to the construction of this Islamic community center run into the same problem: the guarantee of freedom of religion. All americans know that we, as citizens and residents of the US, are allowed the freedom to practice the religion of our choice. As a result, the opponents must reconcile the fact that they believe in the teachings of the founding fathers, but also are strongly in favor of stopping a group of legitimate citizens and residents from practicing their religion.

These people reconcile that cognitive dissonance by saying that those muslims are being insensitive to the feelings of the victims and their families.

How many muslims died in the twin tower attacks?

The answers tend to range widely, but the most respected sources I can find say 23, which accurately represents the adult muslim population within the US.

If we’re talking about being disrespectful to the victims of the 9/11 attacks, how disrespectful is it to lump the muslim victims into the same group that caused such a tragedy?

Back to the Founding Fathers…

The founding fathers had their faults, just like any other group of revolutionaries. They had slaves, they cheated on their wives, and generally didn’t like poor people. But they did have some really, really clever ideas.

Namely, and one of the most persistent values they pushed was that of cultural relativism. Yes, cultural relativism, the old standby of the anthropologist.

This concept is drawn from the Enlightenment, and although as a defined term it was first seen only in the 20th century, as a general concept can be seen back as far as the mid 1700s. Kant and his student, Johann Herder discussed the idea that the only way humans can interpret the world is through the structures of culture. Drawing on the anthropology of the day, they, and a sociologist named Sumner lay the groundwork for the duality of cultural relativism and ethnocentrism.

It was right about then that the founding fathers got busy with the revolution.

The rights to Life, Liberty, Pursuit of Happiness, and Property. These basic concepts are how the founding fathers applied the concept of cultural relativism. Written into the constitution is the protection of one’s culture.

And that is why those opposed to the “mosque” are conflicted

Clearly it defies our constitutional right to freedom of assembly, religion, and speech. Not just the rights of the muslims who will be denied theirs, but anyone who has a set of beliefs that differ. It sets a precedent for the controversy to come, if people will try anything to inhibit the free practice of religion for another group.

the end!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Dad permalink
    August 16, 2010 5:02 pm

    Well done, sir.

  2. August 17, 2010 4:15 am

    From Nebraska, come these words of support and liberal comity for your socialistic manifesto in the works. Many secret handshakes and high fives on this post. No dog whistles, I might add, as these days we are so much further along the path of enlightenment as to never again need the base … wait… Glenn Beck just came on. Gotta go.

  3. August 17, 2010 4:53 am

    I like that you remind people in this post that the controversy is not about a mosque; you describe the whole concept of the community center. Good job. Also, you say “It begs the question, though: would a catholic church in Boston be suspected of receiving funding from the IRA? Would it experience the same level of suspicion?” Right on. And you refer to the number of Muslims who died in the 9/11 attacks again reminding people of the actuality. I would like to see this post in a full page ad in the NY Times and Washington Post. Good job!!!

  4. August 17, 2010 3:54 pm

    there was another post that said “this is amazing!”

    and it’s gone! what was amazing!? i have to know!

    • August 17, 2010 6:38 pm

      ha! actually, I was going to post that amazing nuclear video you posted, but I couldn’t get it to work. Still figuring that out, but when I do, you’ll know!

  5. Thoughtful Tom permalink
    August 18, 2010 12:09 pm

    “I agree that the Muslims have a Constitutional right to build there, I just think they should build it somewhere else” – the most cogent right winger response to the “Victory Mosque/9/11 Mosque” – is right up there with

    “I have nothing against gays, some of my best friends are gay, but I don’t think they should have the right to marry.”

    “I was for the Constitution before I was against it.”

    “We need jobs, so cut government spending.”

    “The earth has warmed before, therefor global warming is a HOAX.”

    In other words, this isn’t anything new, this is the continuing spread of American ignorance. We are, indeed, most at risk from within.

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