An Analysis of the U.S. and Arab-Islamic Cross-Cultural Conflict
Surrounding the Park51 Community Center: Part I
In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, there has undoubtedly been a strain on U.S. and Arab-Islamic relations. While many attacks fueled by cultural misperceptions were evident in events immediately following September 11th, another more recent controversy involving the proposed Islamic cultural center at 45-47 Park Place, New York is now at the precipice of this cross-cultural conflict. What has resulted is a revisited melee that has pitted U.S. and Islamic cultures against one another yet again.
I will analyze the cultural aspects of the conflict surrounding the proposed Park51 Islamic cultural center. While there are undoubtedly parties that have crossed traditional cultural barriers, I will attempt to generally analyze U.S. and Arab-Islamic cultural differences in this context while highlighting key figures on both sides of the conflict. Such an analysis is of utmost importance if attempts are to be made to eventually resolve this dispute.
For many years before the September 11 attacks, the Islamic community has had strong ties to the area near the World Trade Center. While a number of mosques existed in the neighborhood of the Twin Towers, there were also a number of Muslim prayer rooms located in the World Trade Center itself. Formerly a Burlington Coat Factory, the building at 45-47 Park Place suffered considerable damage due to the September 11th attacks and remained abandoned for approximately eight years while the community attempted to rebuild the surrounding neighborhood.
In July of 2009, the building was purchased by real estate developer Sharif el-Gamal who, on the suggestion of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, decided to use the building’s space as a community center with a prayer space. Backed by a number of investors, most notably the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) and the Cordoba Initiative, the project was slated to include a 13-story community center, including a “prayer room” open to all visitors. The project was initially named the “Cordoba House,” but was later renamed “Park51.”
Initially, there was little response to the news that such a center was to be built mere blocks from the site of Ground Zero. Even after the New York Times published a lengthy front-page article in December of 2009 about the project, there was initially little response from the general American public. In May of 2010, the New York City community board committee unanimously approved the project, which sparked controversy throughout the United States. At present, the project is a polarizing cultural issue between U.S. and Arab-Islamic factions.
This consternation has polarized the parties into two general camps. On one side are those who oppose the building of the center and believe the building of an Islamic center is inappropriate, especially on a street located mere blocks from Ground Zero. According to polls, the majority of Americans fall into this category (a national CNN poll taken in August of 2010 has generally found the same results: a disapproval rating of 68% vs. 29% in favor). The other side is lead by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who believes such a center is important to facilitate interfaith and cross-cultural dialogue.
Analysis of Various Cultural Aspects
In an attempt to understand the conflict and why parties have become polarized around this issue, this paper will draw on a number of cultural aspects that each contributed to the conflict. While not exhaustive, this discussion is meant to touch on general principles and will lay groundwork for discussing the differences between U.S. and Islamic dispute resolution models.
Before delving into the differences between U.S. and Islamic cultures that may have influenced this conflict, it is first necessary to address the concept of bias. Undoubtedly, the events of September 11th drastically impacted biases in the context of U.S. and Arab-Islamic relations because the attacks were perpetuated by those who held radical Islamic beliefs. While these radical views were not representative of those who hold Islamic beliefs as a whole, they may have perpetuated biases to stereotypes, segregation, and even racism.
In order to prevent this detrimental trend, parties on both sides of the dispute, and mediators who may try to help resolve this conflict in the future, should examine the four levels of bias. First, the parties should evaluate their own biases. For those opposing the building of the center, their biases may come from memories of the attacks that have manifested incredulity against allowing any Islamic center to be built near the site of Ground Zero. Likewise, proponents of the center such as Sharif el-Gamal should evaluate if he has any biases toward Americans who oppose the building of Park51. Indeed, many American protesters hold signs depicting extreme messages, yet these extreme views may not be representative of all Americans.
Secondly, there should be an examination of biases that the parties may perceive others have of them—even if they do not hold these biases in reality. In this context, Americans opposing the building of the center should be cognizant that they may be categorized with the views of more controversial commentators, such as Pamela Geller, who have gained much publicity in the midst of this conflict. Proponents of the center should likewise be aware that many might view them as having biases against American nationalism, even if the intent of the center is to promote interfaith dialogue.
The final two levels of bias are applicable to potential mediators who may be called to resolve this dispute. They should examine the biases that the parties bring to the table, which in this case may include an American bias toward Islamic places of worship in the context of 9/11 and an Islamic bias toward viewing Americans who denounce the center as uninformed zealots who oppose anything Islamic. Finally, the mediators should examine biases they perceive the parties may bring to the table. This would prevent the mediator from making the mistake of placing parties into particular cultural patterns or types of behavior, such as categorizing the parties as overzealous American protestors or Islamic leaders insensitive to the impact of 9/11.
High v. Low Individualism
High individualist cultures are characterized by individual initiative and typically differentiate between self and group interest. Generally, the United States is considered a highly individualist culture. In contrast, low individualist cultures, also referred to as collectivist cultures, are more likely to orient themselves with groups and do not seek individual gain. Arab and Muslim cultures generally fall into this category and will generally place the needs of the group above the needs of an individual.
In the context of this dispute, this difference is of paramount importance. As an individualistic culture, Americans are more likely to view the dispute as a “zero sum exchange”: either Park51 is not built or its construction will serve as an insult to the memory of those who perished in 9/11. There is little to no compromise and Americans are generally less likely to put themselves in the shoes of their adversaries to entertain the idea that the center may facilitate interfaith and intercultural dialogue; moreover, Americans would generally be more likely to use competitive tactics. This is apparent in the aggressive and competitive demonstrations that attack proponents of the project and have fueled the popularity of bloggers such as Pamela Geller, whose popularity has grown substantially with many Americans in the midst of this conflict.
In stark contrast, the Islamic community has focused their message on the group goal of building a center that will facilitate intercultural dialogue and be a source of meeting and worship for the community at large. While it is debatable whether or not this message of putting the goals of the community at the forefront are genuine or simply a means to be perceived favorably by the media, they appear to illustrate a collectivist culture. Furthermore, given the collectivist cultural of the Islamic community as a whole, it is no wonder there are virtually no high-profile leaders on the Islamic side in this conflict. While Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has been a spokesperson for proponents of the project, his individual presence has not been nearly as prevalent as figures such as Geller and Palin when one examines mainstream American media. In fact, Rauf has consistently referred to goals of the “community” when asked about the center. This may also result from the fact that saving face is more important in collectivist cultures since such cultures view losing face as bringing shame to the group as a whole. An understanding of this difference between high and low individualist cultures will be especially important when proposing guidelines for a framework under which this dispute may be resolved.
High v. Low Context
Another important facet to consider is the differences between high and low context cultures. Generally, Americans who oppose the building of Park51 have engaged in speech and demonstrations that have been direct and confrontational, and which specifically address their views regarding the center. This is expected from a low context culture like the United States where such speech and actions are commonplace, if not encouraged. Proponents of the center, on the other hand, have been less outspoken and have instead relayed their messages through their spokesman Rauf. Such practice is typical of Arab and Muslim cultures that are high context and embrace indirect communication. These critical cultural differences have likely resulted in confusion, frustration, and even anger. Most Americans opposing Park51 may feel frustrated that their counterparts will not engage in the same type of direct, confrontational dialogue. Simultaneously, most proponents of the center may feel the low context dialogue to be rude if not insulting.
As defined by Hofstede, power distance is the measure of interpersonal power or influence between two parties as perceived by the least powerful of the parties. Indeed, while Americans can be said to have a mid-power distance culture, Islamic and Arabic cultures are generally higher power distance cultures where male heads of households occupy the positions of power. In addition to the power-distance of the cultures themselves, there are also differences in what parties are empowered in the context of dispute resolution. Whereas American and many other Western cultures use dispute resolution as a means to “empower parties” to solve their own conflicts in lieu of litigation, Arabic-Islamic culture attempts to empower the community and men who head families to participate in controversies that affect everyone.
As such, it is not surprising that there is a clash between many opponents and proponents of Park51. Whereas those accustomed to the American mid-distance culture view a system where the legal system oversees a society where all men and women have an equal say, those used to a traditional Islamic-Arabic culture find it appropriate that a relatively small constituent of men have represented supporters of Park51. Moreover, while the proponents of Park51 likely have a respect for the American legal system, they may also feel they are answering to a “higher power” of Islamic law that fosters empowerment of the community rather than empowerment of specific parties in a dispute. This dynamic will also play an integral role when attempting to create a mediation framework under which the Park51 dispute may be resolved.
Responses to Conflict
Once it became apparent that the building of Park51 would result in much controversy, the parties responded markedly different to the conflict. As previously stated, there are different opinions that except generalities of how Islamic and American parties view this conflict. Nevertheless, an analysis of how a major proponent and opponent responded to the conflict illustrates some interesting findings.
In terms of a proponent’s response, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has been the chief spokesperson for Park51. While he has constantly reiterated his views in the media, he appears to dodge the tough questions at times and has always been careful not to take an aggressive stance in the public eye. In fact, when asked in an interview with Larry King on CNN if he had any regrets as to the plans for Park51, Rauf stated, “If I knew this would happen, this would cause this kind of pain, I wouldn’t have done it.” As such, it appears that Rauf would have not invested in the project if he knew it would have resulted in such a fiasco. This response to conflict can best be categorized as an avoidance response since it demonstrates a general attitude of eluding controversy.
On the other side, Americans most vocal about the building of Park51have taken strong positions and have been aggressive in voicing their opinions. Specifically, controversial figures such as Pamela Geller have taken stances that refer to the center as a “mega mosque” and have found there to be no middle ground short of disallowing the building of Park51. Such actions represent a competitive response to conflict that is characterized by taking aggressive, polarizing positions and viewing the negotiation as a distributive, zero sum exchange.
When analyzed in the context of the Kilman Conflict Resolution Grid, both these conflict responses indicate the respective parties place a low value on the relationship, little importance on mercy, and virtually no response to the other party’s interest. Moreover, while a competitive response illustrates a higher value on the issue, need for justice, and achievement of one’s own interests, this fact is of little consequence since both competitive and avoidance responses do not value the relationship or each other’s interests enough to even entertain the idea of negotiating a mutually acceptable resolution. Thus, after analyzing the parties’ responses to conflict, it is no mystery that the parties have been polarized and unwilling to collaborate in ways that may help reach a peaceful resolution.
Role of Religion and Theories of Fairness
In addition to the major topics discussed above, there are other important cultural aspects that have greatly impacted the conflict surrounding Park51. These cultural aspects include differences regarding the role of religion and theories of fairness.
Generally, the roots of American ADR can be traced to the 1960’s when many community mediation centers and state-annexed pilot programs emerged as an alternative to litigation. Though some religiously-rooted private dispute resolution programs have emerged since this inception, the American ADR movement could not be said to be religiously based. In contrast, Arab-Islamic ADR is “on its face a religiously bound system;” thus, methods of dispute resolution are guided by the Quran and other Islamic laws.
In the present context, this difference is poignantly evident when looking at the leaders of each faction. Park51 supporters are lead by an Imam, a religious leader who is guided by the Quran and Islamic law. While statistics indicate that religion is important to a great deal of Americans, it has not appeared to have pervasively manifested itself as a means in which disputes are resolved. Instead, this conflict has been spearheaded by mostly political figures whose positions are seldom rooted in religious ideology.
Another cultural aspect which differs in this context is differences regarding theories of fairness. Since the American ADR system emerged as a way to provide an alternative to litigation, it has its roots in a legal framework. Thus, many Americans opposing the building of Park51 likely first turned to the law via statutes, cases, and legal precedent. Though these attempts have failed to date, they illustrate American culture’s strong reliance on a legal framework as a theory of fairness. As a collectivist, high-power distance culture that ultimately looks to the Quran and Islamic law for guidance, it may be inferred that many supporters of Park51 may not share the same theory of fairness as their opponents. With such different views about what should be considered “fair” it is no wonder the parties have been so polarized. Should the parties choose to resolve this dispute in the future, these differing issues of fairness must be taken into account.
Only by understanding the cultural aspects at work is it possible to lay out guideline for a mediation model that will be appropriate to use in the context of the Park51 Community Center Conflict.