a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

Park 51

by SherAli Tareen

Park 51 in New York City
Park 51 in New York City

“This is not really a mosque, it is a community center”

The “Park 51 controversy”—erupting over the construction of a mosque/community center in the vicinity of “Ground Zero” in New York—highlighted an irresolvable contradiction at the heart of the American project: the very diversity and pluralism that forms the identity of the liberal state also threatens the stability of that identity. The liberal state strives to secure the promise of freedom and autonomy for all its citizens. This promise, perhaps, lies at the root of the relatively recent embrace of spirituality as marker of one’s own freedom and autonomy. This embrace, moreover, is accompanied by the perceived threats of pluralism and difference, the latest being the physical attacks against Muslims and Sikhs mistaken for Muslims in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, or the spectacle of Islamophobia that captivated public discourse during the Park 51 saga. Each of these moments reflected a crisis in which the fictitious harmony of liberal pluralism was exposed, precipitating all manner of reminders to United States citizens about the virtue of tolerance.

The appeal for tolerating minority ‘others’ is integral to certain registers of spirituality—a language that secures the secular promise of respect and equality for all citizens.

Tolerance serves as the soothing balm that promises relief from both the threat to liberal freedoms and the threat of impending violence. Such promises, however, are never fulfilled.

If anything, such promises work to exacerbate the initial contradictions. A politics of tolerance that demands respect and understanding for the threatened minority ‘others’ accomplishes little more than further inscribing the distinctions of majority/minority, citizen/alien, identity/difference and so forth. Such a dynamic of tolerance was at work during the Park 51 debate, if one may call it that. Rather than offering another critique of the outright racist characterizations of Islam and Muslims that populated various media during this episode, I want to instead think about a statement that was frequently aired by both Muslim and non-Muslim supporters of this project: “This is not really a mosque, it is a community center.”

It may well have been a community center. But what must demand our attention is the kind of politics that authorizes and sustains the desire to replace, substitute, and moderate the specter of a ‘mosque’ as a community center. The plea to remind hostile citizens that what they think is a mosque is not really a mosque but something else participates, perhaps unwittingly, in a politics that strives to humanize, moderate, and civilize—shall we say spiritualize—religion so as to make it more palatable to modern sensibilities. This kind of critique demands its object to separate from itself, to differ from itself while keeping its name; a community center that is also a mosque. This secular demand for the name to retain itself while also differing from itself resonates with the categorical use of spirituality and illuminates a central contradiction.

The affirmative denial “I am not religious but I am spiritual” that has achieved ubiquitous purchase in recent years crystallizes this logic of difference. The spiritual here refers to something ineffable that is not really religion but that owes its recognition precisely in relation to religion. Spirituality takes the form of secularized religion unencumbered from institutional, doctrinal, and ritual demands. The rebirth of religion as spirituality is made possible by the power of the secular imaginary within which religion represents something out there, always available for critique, moderation, and humanization. It is precisely such a secular notion of the spiritual that sustains the liberal demand for religious moderation, a demand that is made most frequently on Islam and Muslims today. For a crude yet illuminating example of this demand, consider the language of a petition advanced this year by the group “Concerned American Citizens” entitled “separating Islamic Law, Shariah, from the spiritual side of Islam.” The first few sentences of this petition read as follows: “It is time to expose the moderate Muslim. Will the Moderate Muslim be willing to eliminate egregious seventh century Islamic Law “Shariah” from the spiritual side of Islam? It is also time to take a role call on this subject and hold all moderate Muslims accountable. If these moderates wish to practice only the spiritual side of Islam and desire to assimilate into the American culture, reform is mandatory, let it begin!!!”1 Leaving aside the theatrical provocations of these statements, they capture quite well the liberal equation of spirituality and moderation. In this view, the labor of moderation requires the embrace of spirituality as the only authentic, tolerable, and respectable expression of religion. Moreover, to moderate religion is to separate its “spiritual side” from the non-spiritual. This exercise of separation stands authorized through the secular assumption that religion is a category of life readily available to be separated, moderated, purified, and humanized.

A concept like ‘moderate Islam,’ that became centrally visible during the Park 51 debate, also owes its life to such a secular politics of spirituality that assumes the universal availability of religion. The defenders of the project rushed to remind skeptic opponents that their fears were misplaced. This was only a benign community center and not a mosque. Moreover, its spiritual leader, Feisal Rauf, was a ‘moderate Muslim’ who followed the peaceful brand of ‘Sufi Islam’ and who was not to be confused with the variety of Muslims prone to violence and intolerance. These were the kinds of apologist reminders that populated public discourse during this episode.

What these protagonists of moderate Islam have not sufficiently thought about is the racist colonial history that sustains the category of ‘moderate Islam’. The process of moderating Islam intimately depends on the modern colonial inheritance of religion as an object of critique that is readily available to be moderated, rationalized, and purified. Such an inheritance becomes possible through a sovereign decision on what counts as religion worthy of toleration. The moment of tolerating religion also represents the moment of defining the limits of religion. For religion to demand toleration and respect, it must first be baptized in the holy water of moderation. Moreover, the conceit of moderate religion is animated by the same desire that seeks to separate the spiritual from the religious. Life, according to this logic, is readily available for division, definition, and translation such that the proper domains of the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘religious’, the ‘moderate’ and ‘extreme’ might be established.

Armed with the sovereign authority to choose the limits of life, one can now choose to be spiritual but not religious, embrace moderation over extremism. But the promise of this choice remains unfulfilled. It remains deferred to an unspecified future. This is so because any sovereign attempt to moderate religion, or to separate it from spirituality, can never resolve the irresolvable contradiction of seeking to retain the name while also deferring it from itself, of wanting to have religion that is not really religion.

The reminder “this is not really a mosque but a community center” is also detained in this contradictory logic of difference. This statement labors to moderate, pacify, and substitute the apparently threatening specter of a mosque by gifting it a new metaphorical life as a community center. However, this gift can never be gifted; it will always be suspended and deferred. The exhortation to correct the misrecognition of a community center as a mosque strives to repudiate the prejudice and ignorance of those who refuse to make that correction. But ironically, the desire to ensure that a community center is not mistaken for a mosque perpetuates the very politics of secular critique that takes religion, indeed life, as something out there, as something readily available, to be moderated and rendered less extreme. Far from combating the racist assumptions that underlie various stripes of Islamophobia, this seemingly pacifying gesture further confirms those assumptions. Ultimately, this kind of politics, ensconced in the secular inheritance of religion as a substitutable object of critique, can achieve nothing new. It can only perpetuate the irresolvable contradiction of a liberal logic of tolerance that seeks to moderate religion through the language of spirituality.