Communication Currents

Good Muslims, Bad Muslims, and the Problem with Tolerance Talk

June 1, 2015
Critical and Cultural Studies

By August 2010, the controversy over Cordoba House, or the “Ground Zero Mosque,” became the focus of national politics in an election year. Political figures, from President Obama to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, weighed in on the issue. The president called for tolerance, a value he extolled as central to who we are as a nation. Gingrich, on the other hand, depicted Cordoba and Islam as intolerant and, thus, as something the nation cannot tolerate. For communication scholars, this controversy raises a series of thorny questions, including how tolerance talk can be used to support such seemingly disparate political positions. As I argue, tolerance can protect minority subjects or positions and justify the policing or exclusion of those subjects, blocking movements for equality.

In my essay, I make this case by focusing on the tolerance talk saturating the local deliberations over Cordoba. Specifically, I focus on a May 25, 2010, Lower Manhattan Community Board 1 (CB1) neighborhood meeting, during which hundreds of residents spoke on the matter and which frequently risked devolving into shouts and jeers. The intensity to which residents and the media responded to the proposed Cordoba House is somewhat surprising, given that Cordoba was merely to be an expansion of a Mosque that had been in Lower Manhattan for 27 years. I argue that the tolerance talk of pro- and anti-Cordoba speakers, while different in significant ways, forwards narratives of national exceptionalism and re-centers or normalizes the white non-Muslim citizen.

Tolerance quickly became the key term in the controversy following the inflammatory comments of conservative bloggers and activists. Most notable were the mobilizing efforts of Pamela Geller, an anti-Islamic author who recently has gained notoriety. In the spring of 2010, while a guest of Sean Hannity’s radio show on Fox News, Gellar railed against the “mega-mosque on sacred ground,” which she claimed was being built by Islamic “jihadists” and “supremacists.” The clear intolerance—depicting all Muslims as jihadists and stereotyping Islam as violent and barbaric—provoked calls for tolerance by many local politicians.

Speakers at the CB1 neighborhood meeting would develop these various tolerance claims. During the meeting, the anti-Cordoba speakers made two principal, and related, tolerance claims. The first, echoing Gellar, depicted Islam and Muslims as inherently and uniformly intolerant. Many speakers expressed fear about Sharia Law and Islamic terrorism, demanding that the Cordoba Initiative and congregation prove its innocence. One speaker, for instance, said, “Until I hear from them stronger distancing from terrorists acts that have gone on, I am going to be uncomfortable with a mosque near Ground Zero.”

As political theorist Mahmood Mamdani contends, since 9/11, all Muslims are under an obligation to prove themselves “good” by professing their opposition to “bad” Muslims. The anti-Cordoba speakers’ second claim contrasts Islam’s intolerance with the United States’ tolerance. One speaker, suggesting that “we live in the most diverse and tolerant country ever devised by humankind,” argued that the nation has become too tolerant, risking “the woeful acceptance of those who represent the most intolerant and illiberal societies and values, and who are enemies of freedom and democracy.” Following this claim, the nation’s tolerance is its downfall. Or alternately, as Ghassan Hage argues in White Nation, the nation’s tolerance empowers it to be intolerant: a tolerant “we” cannot tolerate an intolerant “them.”

The pro-Cordoba tolerance talk counters only one of these anti-Cordoba claims. Many pro-Cordoba speakers importantly criticized the belief that Islam is violent and all Muslims are terrorists. They not only called on the nation to tolerate Muslims, but also defended Cordoba as promoting interracial tolerance, understanding, and dialogue. Rather than threatening aliens, Cordoba Muslims were argued to be “like us” and sharing the nation’s commitment to tolerance and pluralism. This kind of tolerance talk is clearly preferable to, and acts as an important corrective to, the anti-Islamic intolerance palpable in the controversy.

But what kind of inclusion or “welcoming,” as many speakers termed it, does tolerance entail? The pro-Cordoba speakers didn’t disagree with the anti-Cordoba faction that the nation can and should place limits on what is tolerable. The pro-Cordoba speakers accepted that being a tolerant nation requires excluding and punishing intolerance (part of the rationale for the Iraq war). Where the pro-Cordoba speakers diverged was in their understanding of the Cordoba Muslims, who are depicted as tolerable because they are “like us.”

The shared ground between the pro- and anti-Cordoba positions is important for two reasons. First, it suggests that to be tolerable, one can be different but not too different (or, at the very least, one must be committed to assimilating); Cordoba is tolerable because the congregation shares the nation’s core commitments. Second, by espousing tolerance, both pro- and anti- Cordoba speakers feel empowered to be intolerant, to exclude. To “welcome” others presumes that one could choose to not welcome or to cast out.

It is this very narrow space of inclusion that the Muslim-American speakers struggled against in their comments during the CB1 meeting. Not only did many speakers demonstrate the need to define themselves as “good” Muslims and as compatible with the nation—many Muslim speakers noted being shocked and dismayed by the 9/11 terror attacks and narrated their identities in non-religious terms—but they also struggled to identify and critique anti-Islamic intolerance. The repeated assertion that the nation is exceptionally tolerant left little space for making intolerance and racism visible. In my essay, I detail how Muslim-American speakers subversively invoked tolerance, but how this often makes them complicit in sustaining dominant national narratives.

For now, I’d like to focus on how one Muslim-American speaker, Talat Hamdani, points to an alternative to tolerance talk. Consistent across the tolerance claims by anti- and pro-Cordoba speakers was a notion that citizens or residents—in this case, white non-Muslim citizens—have the power and right to choose or control with whom they share public space. They feel empowered to tolerate or not, to welcome or exclude. Against this backdrop, Hamdani powerfully narrated to the CB1 board the experience of losing her son, Salman Hamdani, who died as a first responder on 9/11 and who was subsequently criminalized under the suspicion of being a terrorist. Hamdani detailed how, on 9/11, Salman and and other first responders entered the burning buildings to save those who were trapped, not stopping to ask whom they were saving. It made no difference whether victims were U.S. citizens—or whether they were Christians, Jews, or Muslims. Hamdani continues to contrast Salman’s commitment to the equal worth of all lives with the treatment and devaluation of Muslims and Arabs after 9/11.

But Hamdani’s claim also resonates with the words of Hannah Arendt, a German philosopher who was exiled to the United States during the Holocaust. Arendt contends that humanity’s gravest error is the belief that we can choose with whom we share the planet. Tolerance talk feeds into this error, allowing a national “we” to feel that it can and should police its moral, social, and physical borders. In contrast, Hamdani’s testimony suggests that we need to figure out how to live together peacefully under conditions we do not control and with others we can never choose.

About the author (s)

Chris Earle

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Doctoral Candidate