I met Daisy Khan, wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and one of the minds behind the Park51 project, when she came to my campus today, first at a lunch hosted by the interfaith Hendricks Chapel, then for an interview she gave with Professor Gustav Niebuhr of the Religion Department at the Newhouse building.
Tremendously impressive woman. Intelligent, articulate, compassionate and composed. I have to say I feel much more confident about the fate of the Park51 project knowing she is out there defending it.
Security was everywhere. I had heard about the death threats, of course, but it was still jaw-dropping to see how the rooms in the chapel and Newhouse building where Khan spoke were fortified, armed city and campus police officers and big guys in suits or tracksuits hanging around checking us out. I took a picture but didn’t want to make them nervous so gave my friend his phone back after just one. I also don’t know how to use camera phones and so that picture no longer exists.
Towards the end of her well-received talk at Newhouse, Professor Niebuhr opened the floor for questions, the second of which came from a guy wearing a lumpy, mismatched suit and sneakers in the front row.
He started out saying that he knew that many Arabs wished that the US would come to their countries to drill for oil, then demanded to know why Daisy Khan’s husband drove a two-ton SUV when he could have bought a Prius or Auris and fought terrorism that way.
Khan, completely unfazed, responded, flatly, “I don’t own an SUV and I don’t approve of SUVs.” The man sputtered for another minute before Niebuhr brusquely cut him off, much to the audience’s delight.
It occurred to me afterwards: this is this whole “controversy” in a nutshell. Some guy reads something on a blog somewhere–something he doesn’t like, something about Islam, or Park51, or Daisy Khan or Imam Rauf. He accepts it uncritically–without regard for context, counterpoint, or basic fact-checking. Then, armed with this new, secret insight into how the world works, he assigns to himself license to treat well-meaning people like dirt–with rudeness, disdain, or death threats.
I am not the kind of person to sit back and blame “The Media” or “The Mainstream Media” for any problem–that’s as dumb as blaming “The Muslims” or the “Homosexual Agenda.” But it seems to me that this is a moment, like the onset of the Iraq war in 2003, when the media allowed itself to get swept up and failed to do its job, becoming a tool of the right-wing political entities dedicated to whipping their base into a froth in an election year. I don’t anticipate easy solutions for this particular problem, but the conversation has to get underway: How do we keep rich, angry right-wing power interests from using the media as a dispersal system for their agenda?