Imam Rauf’s insensitivity has parallels in Portadown

By Matthew Hennessey

Everyone will by now have an opinion on the controversy. Opponents insist that the project’s planners secretly support extremists. Supporters maintain that the protests are fueled by religious intolerance.

Sound familiar? It should.

Every year, on the Sunday preceding the 12th of July, the members of Portadown District Orange Lodge No. 1, in Portadown, Co. Armagh, Northern Ireland, assemble outside of the Orange Hall on Carleton Street. The men dress smartly in dark suits and drape sashes around their necks in a distinctive orange “V.” They fall in behind a corps of drummers and begin their march toward the Church of the Ascension, the central house or worship for the Church of Ireland parish of Drumcree.

After a religious service at the church, the march continues, its return leg taking these Protestant “Orangemen” through the Catholic neighborhoods of the Garvaghy Road. Residents of this area have long resented the parade, which they consider an intentional expression of sectarian triumphalism.

The Orangemen of Portadown know this, yet still they march, boldly and vocally asserting their right to do so. For their part, they chalk the protests up to the influence of the Irish Republican Army, which the Orangemen refer to as a “Libyan-backed terrorist group responsible for the deaths of over 2,000 innocent people.”

You have probably sorted out where I’m going with this. The rhetoric of the ongoing Drumcree conflict is, to my mind, remarkably similar to that surrounding the planned construction of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. One side claims offense, the other claims innocence. Both sides demand concessions. No one backs down.

Readers of this newspaper will not need to have the historic relationship between Northern Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants explained; they will instinctively understand the depths of anger and indignation that both sides bring to the annual showdown in Portadown and elsewhere in the divided communities of the North.

But many Americans, especially those unfamiliar with Northern Ireland’s sectarian politics, remain bewildered by the passions that the “marching season” arouses. By way of explanation, Irish-Americans often offer the following hypothetical: Imagine the outrage that a Ku Klux Klan march through Harlem would generate, and you’ll understand how unnecessarily painful these marches are. They certainly have the right to do it, but we hardly begrudge the indignation of the locals.

Let me be categorical: I am not equating Imam Feisal Rauf or any of the organizers or backers of the Community Center at Park51 with the KKK. But like the Orangemen who attempt to march down the Garvaghy Road every year, organizers of the mosque project are, at best, guilty of extreme insensitivity. At worst, they are engaged in a deliberate provocation.

And like the Orangemen of Portadown, their true motivation is known only to them. But for a group whose stated aim is to “cultivate and embrace neighborly relations between all New Yorkers,” the Park51 crew sure has gotten off on the wrong foot.

Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” extended over three decades and nominally came to an end with the Belfast Agreement signed on Good Friday 1998. Yet, despite the passage of time, and endless attempts at cross-cultural dialog and reconciliation, passions are still easily roused on both sides.

By contrast, many New Yorkers have still not fully come to grips with the city’s remade skyline. The destruction of the World Trade Center by Muslim fanatics is simply too fresh in our memories to countenance the construction this mosque so close to the site where so many of our neighbors died.

Symbols matter. The Irish learned through bitter experience that, politically, perceptions can be more powerful than reality and that gestures count.

If the people who are planning to build this mosque are truly interested in promoting neighborliness and constructive discourse, they will voluntarily search for a less-sensitive location. If, instead, they are interested in stoking conflict and prolonging the current disharmony, they will opt to stand firm on principle. If they choose the latter, the protests will almost certainly continue.

And that’s a parade we’ve seen before.

From the September 1-7, 2010 issue of The Irish Echo

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