Doing right thing for Muslim world
By Tom Plate
NEW YORK CITY ― What’s the one major issue the West absolutely and totally must get right in the years ahead? If the obvious answer is not peaceful international relations with a fast-rising and increasingly assertive China, then it has to be the West’s ever-more complicated relationship with the world’s Muslims.
And this assignment is predicted to be difficult at best. Certainly this would-be “clash of civilizations,” as the famed late Harvard professor Sam Huntington dubbed it, seemed all but inescapable in the wake of the horrific leveling of the World Trade Center twin towers in 2001 by Islamic hyper-terrorists.
Sensible people on both sides of the Islamic line accept that demented terrorists of all stripes will always exist, whether in the mountains of Pakistan or in the flatlands of Oklahoma. They can be contained but not eliminated. Are our own misconceptions and prejudices when dealing with the worldwide Islamic community, of well more than a billion mainly innocent souls, also vital to contain?
If all Muslims are extremists, then we should have to say that all Christians are crusaders and all Protestants are Christian fundamentalists.
To understand the complexity and cope with different challenges, it is especially important that our leaders avoid demagoguery and embrace humanitarianism without exception. The few standouts can provide invaluable stand-up examples for many.
Recently, two of New York City’s most prominent public figures did just that. By rising promptly to the occasion, they offered us the opportunity for wider reflection on how we can best relate to the Muslims immediately among us ― and across the globe at large. The standouts were Mayor Michael Bloomberg and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Beset with the raging controversy over the proposed establishment of a Muslim community center within throwing distance of the 9/11 site, Mayor Bloomberg has stuck to the high ground.
The easy course for the mayor would have been to give way to the fierce opposition and rack up populist ratings by opposing the facility. But on the principle of American tolerance for religious diversity, Bloomberg refused to alienate the city’s many Muslims by catering to emotion.
That mosque is no danger, and its existence would speak volumes about our strength as a truly tolerant society. Its distance from the former Twin Towers site is but a few blocks, but in Manhattan a few blocks is a dense impossible forest of concrete and steel. In no way would the center overshadow or impinge on the tragic ground.
The other notable move last week for sensitivity on issues Muslim came from U.N. chief Ban. This workaholic, often-traveling world diplomat is something else again: he is practically a one-man refutation for allegations of U.N. inefficiency!
Last week was classic: As reports came in from Muslim Pakistan that the cataclysmic flooding has not waned but was worsening, Ban abruptly scotched long-settled weekend plans, to fly to the scene of the devastation. It was no easy trip: The decision was made late in the week and neatly-linking commercial flights were hard to find (unlike the U.S. President and many other heads of state, Ban, astonishingly, is not provided a private plane).
But there in Pakistan by the weekend was the doughty former South Korean foreign minister, rain hat in hand, boots in mud and water, aides at his side, showing the U.N. flag, and letting the country’s 170 million Muslims know that people all over the world truly did care and in fact were there to help.
Ban’s trip was of course hugely appreciated not only in the region but also beyond. Observed Nimmi Gowrinathan, director of South Asia Programs for Operation USA, a privately funded disaster relief group, "I think the hope is that the secretary-general’s humanitarian trip to Pakistan raised awareness about human suffering, which helps the public move beyond political prejudices."
In fact, tireless Ban had not even returned to New York when several donor countries upped their contribution to Pakistan, most notably the Japanese, who so often are ready with the money. Suddenly private U.S. aid organizations shifted into higher gear. And Ban’s trip garnered an extra jolt of major international news-media attention, especially from the BBC and Al-Jazeera.
The use of the U.N. secretary general’s office to highlight humanitarian crises is hardly new with Ban. But no secretary general has started out in his first term doing more of this. He was one of the first in Haiti after the horrendous earthquake, and was one of the first to Chile after another terrible earthquake hit.
This is not political grandstanding but humanitarian flag planting. Ban’s message is clear and admirable: if we do not care about others when they are hurting badly, we forfeit a part of our humanity.
It may be that the Muslim community center in the end may not get built on that site near the 9/11 tragedy, and Pakistan’s recovery from these epic floods will prove slow. But Bloomberg and Ban gave it their best. In this time of great worry about our relations with the Muslim world, their efforts need to be more widely noted, applauded ― and emulated.
Veteran U.S. journalist and syndicated Asia columnist Tom Plate ― the newly appointed distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles ― is currently writing volume two in the “Giants of Asia” series, on former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The first volume ― “Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew” ― is a runaway bestseller in Asia. He can be reached at platecolumn@gmailcom.