9/11 and Our National Romance

September 11, 2010 provided a fitting coda to a summer obsessed with endlessly staging the clash of civilizations. It was a strange clash, though, less an epic battle than an old-fashioned summer romance, with cable news networks and the spectre of radical Islamic violence moving anxiously closer and closer. Everything, it seemed, was leading to that magical moment in September when the two would meet by the light of a burning Qur’an in Florida. But it wasn’t to be; it seems like we’re always wistfully waiting for that burst of Islamic violence that will retroactively justify all our chaste summers of war.

Or so it would seem. We’ve spent the past several anniversaries of 9/11 trying to re-live 2001 and re-justify our several (criminal) military engagements overseas, the decimation of social programs and civil liberties at home and our singular support for Israel’s decades-long (criminal) occupation of Palestine. If there is a teachable moment in the anti-Muslim hysteria of summer 2010, perhaps it is in the strange shifts within our common-sense categories of “the West” and “Barbarism,” of how we understand the difference between “Them” and “Us.”

That is, those who are supposedly driven by nothing more than religious-ideological insanity—Muslims, “Islamo-fascists”—are struggling for access to secular, democratic, human rights, while those who are supposed to be the flag-bearers of democracy and rationality—America, Israel and even our own campus administration—subvert democratic rights at every turn over holy sites and holy lands and practically-holy “values.”

Nowhere is this shift more apparent than in the controversy surrounding the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” in Lower Manhattan, but we can also think about it in the context of Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestinian land or the recent suspension of the Muslim Student Union of UCI.

The Park51 Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan practically embodies Western values. It is a multi-million dollar building (Capitalism) with a modernist aesthetic (beauty), built on the footprint of a much older building (progress), that has been approved by local advisory boards (bureaucracy) and is designed to give local Muslims a space to join in fun and fellowship away from the everyday world of the public (separating private faith and public life). And why is it that rational America is so up in arms about it? Because it is too close to the site of the World Trade Center, because that site is holy ground!

The same dynamic has been at play in the justifications of Israel’s continuing colonial occupation of Palestinian lands. The Palestinians demand their right to live free from state terrorism, and aspire to be a nation-state rather than a stateless nation. That is, their political demands are firmly within the Western tradition of reason and rationality: secure borders, unrestricted trade, security, self-determination and claims to the land based on the historical fact of their centuries-long presence in the area. It is ironic, then, that what is understood as ruthlessly violent resistance against Western values is fueled, in fact, by the political desire to be allowed to enjoy those very values.

Meanwhile, Israel, as the bastion of Western rationality amid the depths of Islamic violence and superstition, defends its colonial violence against Palestinians, and continues to reject UN mandates to return to their 1967 borders because, of course, that land was given to them by God!

Finally, the same dynamic is at play on our own campus. The Muslim Student Union at UCI has been suspended until the end of this calendar year and subjected to other punishments in the name of “values, principles and tolerance,” and a “more respectful university community,” to use the words of departing Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Manuel Gomez. Of course, “values and principles” take on a supernatural quality whenever an administrator uses them; they allow for any abuse of power, and they legitimate any draconian punishment.

The protest staged by a few members of the Muslim Student Unions of UCI and UC Riverside might have been ill-advised or foolish to some (although I personally consider it, without qualification, to be an important and laudable action), but it did not, in any way, merit the suspension of a vital campus group. Especially if we consider that similar protests on other campuses rarely provoke even cursory reviews by student conduct boards.

So here we have the administration trying to “protect our values” of open dialogue and mutual respect by silencing the most organized group of students in defense of democratic rights on our campus, a group that has also played a leading role in student organizing against budget cuts and fee hikes. And they have done so by invoking the old stand-bys of anti-Muslim rhetoric: the MSU doesn’t accept “our values” or “our way of life.”

But, perhaps, we might think of “our way of life” as “our national romance”: we explain away criminal and unethical behavior—be it invading a sovereign country, brutally repressing a colonized people, or silencing campus dissent—by invoking anything holy (sites, lands, values) that can transform us from aggressors to victims and from insatiable gluttons for violence to the protectors of global peace, rationality and human dignity.

For the past several years, the anniversary of 9/11 has been our most romantic national ritual. But after the grand anti-climax 2010, we might be ready, as a country, to do what we’ve always imagined that we do, and embrace Western values like justice, rationality and respect for human rights.

James Bliss is a fifth-year political science, women’s studies and African-American studies triple major. He can be reached at jbliss@uci.edu