An American Tune

NYC mosque demonstration 1 by Teju Cole

Photos and text by Teju Cole

(Sunday, August 22, 2010. West Broadway and Murray Street. There are several speakers.)

Where are the Islamists right now, standing here arm in arm with us, saying that this is wrong? Where are they?

I don’t think it is wrong.

To build a victory tower on the deaths of our citizens?

OK, it’s not a victory tower.

Oh it’s not? What do you think it is mate?

It’s a community center. I’m sorry.

Do you know… are you familiar with the Islamic religion? They’re killing people all over the world.

So are we.

Where are we doing that mate?

Uh?

Where are we doing that?

Where are we killing people?

Yeah, where are we doing that?

Everywhere.

You’ve got to move along guys.

No, we’re allowed to have a conversation. We’re on a public street having a conversation.

Can you step under the awning?

OK, fine, we can do that… Listen, I can understand your point of view, when you say that America has not done everything right over the years. I agree with you. But I also say to you: look at what’s taking place in the Islamic world. They’re looking to conquer our nation and make us a nation that is…

That’s your perspective…

Right. We’re free to exchange that point of view.

Can I add something? I see the point that he’s making, because there is a lot of conflict in the world. Nobody is going to deny there are Muslim terrorists.

Right.

OK? That’s conceded. But what I want to ask you is: do you think these folks have a legal right, if they want to build a mosque over there? If that building is available?

Well, I’ll tell ya, this is… I’m gonna answer your question. I’m gonna answer your question. I’ve been asked this question by many people, and my answer to that question is: if this faith, Moslem faith, did not hijack our planes and fly them into our buildings, killing out citizens, if they did not shoot… if a Moslem did not shoot… in the name of Allah, did not shoot up Fort Hood and kill fifteen of our soldiers, if they didn’t bomb embassies around the world, hotels around the world, innocent people…

Right…

If they didn’t, ah… the list can go on… if they didn’t try and set the bomb off in Times Square, killing innocent people, in the name of Allah, then I would say, build your freakin’ mosque.

No, no, no, no. I’m not asking if you think they should be allowed to build it. I’m asking if you think… if they have a legal right. Do you think they have the legal right? You understand the question I’m asking?

Oh no, I absolutely do. And in America…

They have the legal right. Exactly.

No, no. See I didn’t say that. In America, if you do not prove to be a threat to our society and our citizens and my children, then I have no worries with you. The Buddhists aren’t…

I’m not… I’m not asking if you have worries with them…

My friend, you can’t apply the Constitution to murdering thugs. You can’t do it. At some point…

There are plenty of murdering thugs in this country that are not brown, black, or…

I know you’re… I understand that…

I know you’re understanding me here. You keep talking about how you feel about it, what you think the threat is. I’m asking if legally

You want me to say legally they do. You want me to say that.

I don’t want you to say anything. I want to see what your understanding is.

Yeah, but what I’m explaining is… well, I’ve said it three times now. I would say if they weren’t bombing and killing our citizens, then I would say yes. But they do not have the legal right due to the fact that they are a threat to our citizens.

You know what I mean by legal right? The laws of this city and of this country permit them to build it.

I know. And they’re using our Constitution, they’re using our laws, to… freakin’… make us under their thumb. And I’m not buying it. I’m not going to do it. If they were law-abiding.

So we’re not going to have the laws anymore?

So the only thing you can do is try to change the law.

Here’s the deal: if I was to go out and murder, maybe blow up this building over here…

Yeah?

Should I be protected under the Constitution?

Well, yeah. That’s why we’re a nation of laws.

The same thing applies to a faith that have shown themselves time and time again to…

Actually, no it doesn’t, because the Constitution doesn’t respect…

Look, listen. We’re gonna have to agree to disagree. Because I will never…

You know those fellows…

I grew up as a Christian in a Muslim country. These people are so evil and so hateful…

I know they are, my friend.

And they kill everybody.

I know that.

What country did you grow up in?

Egypt. I’m from Egypt. I grew up with Muslims.

You’re Coptic.

Yeah, I’m Coptic.

OK.

I grew up with all my friends as Muslims. They are very nice people. But Islam is a so fucked up religion, you won’t believe it. If you read Qur’an… I read Arabic, this is my native tongue. If you read the… have you read Qur’an?

Yes.

Oh, it’s… it’s… did you read…

But you know what? I’ve also read the Bible.

Yes. What about the Bible?

There’s a lot about the Bible that’s very troubling?

Yes. Like what? Do you see people killing? Do you see Christians killing?

Do I see Christians killing?

All over the world, man.

Here? Here? Do you see them blow themselves up? Do you see them blow themselves up?

Wait, are we arguing about techniques, or are we arguing about whether Christians have ever gone out and killed?

What? Arguing about techniques?

Here’s the bottom line: we’re not going to be able to see eye to eye. I appreciate your taking time out of your busy day…

I appreciate your reasonable tone also.

I do too.

I just want you to understand that, for me, this is like a legal issue. I’m not a Muslim. I’m an atheist.

OK.

OK? But I’m an American. And I think that if we have our laws, we have to all agree to respect those laws. If you don’t agree with a part of those laws, there’s a legal way of contesting those laws. If you really feel this is, like, they are murderous and dangerous, there’s, like, a legal step… You can sue, you can ask your congressman to get the law changed.

This is where the problem comes in. When the government that currently is in power — I’m no fan of George Bush or Republicans, I’m an independent thinker, I like to consider myself that — when the government refuses to represent the will of the people, and they turn a blind eye to you, what else is left but to go out into the street and say: this is what we want? And you know what? Liberal groups, or pro… anti-war, and so and so forth, have used this means for years and years and years. And now, the problem is that they are starting to see folks like myself get angry. We’re angry. We’ve had it up to here, and I’m coming out… I have four young children at home. You think I want to be here today? I worked last night. I gotta go to work tonight.

I understand what you’re saying.

I don’t want to be here. But you know what? I gotta be here.

Yeah.

And I’m doing this to protect my home. To protect my family.

But do you…

Cause these folks are a threat to me civil…

But, but, do you…

My life. And to my children’s life. And it’s not…

But do you understand that to people looking from outside, it’s like you sort of go in there and almost everybody in there is white…

But you know what? That’s why… it’s good that you had an opportunity to speak to me. Because you can see that I am not… I have… I married a woman from Ecuador.

Right.

I don’t have what you think. There’s a stereotype…

I’m not talking about what I think. I’m talking about perceptions.

That they’re white guys. White. It’s wrong. I have… I work in East New York. I hold little black babies in my hands that are freakin’ tortured in there. My heart goes out to them.

What do you do?

I’m a fireman.

You’re a fireman.

Yes. So, the deal is this: I cry with them. OK? So, what I want you to know is: don’t paint with a broad brush.

I’m not painting with a broad brush…

Well, I’m just saying, tell your friends not to paint with a broad brush. My father-in-law don’t speak a lick of English. OK? I communicate with him the best I can and, I will tell you this: I have black friends. If someone walks my walk and talks my talk and is a good man… I had a guy sitting on the front stoop of his… in East New York. He was working on a motorcycle, with his three kids, three little kids. I says: there’s a father that believes what I believe in. I walked over to him and I started talking to him. And we had a great conversation.

Is that also… is that also true of Muslim fathers in this city?

No. Moslem fathers I have a big problem with, and you know I have a big problem. I believe they’re out to kill me. OK? So you know that. So…

Do you feel…

Give me a Buddhist, give me anyone…

But do you…

Nobody does what they do.

But do you feel that, for example, that the religion itself should be outlawed in this country?

Absolutely.

Um, hold it now. Um… yes.

Absolutely.

So we should have laws that say you can’t be a Muslim?

Yes. It’s an absolute threat. When a religion poses an absolute threat to your civilization, I say yes, they can no longer practice in your land. They refuse to conform to anything of our society, anything of American culture and values. Our Constitution means nothing to them. Sharia law means something to them.

I have friends who are Muslim. My best friend is Muslim. He’s as much an American as I am. Do you realize? You criticized him a second ago for not painting a broad brush…

What’s your name brother? Where are you from?

Joachim. Actually my girlfriend lives here.

Where are you from?

I was born in Haiti.

Haiti. OK, OK.

Do you realize, you just criticized us, or whoever, for painting a broad brush of this group…

Right, right…

Which is hard not to, considering I just saw a guy with a Confederate flag, a shirt on, continually singing “Born in the USA.” The kind of connotation. You might not feel that way…

That’s what’s projected…

I… I can understand…

It’s projected. There’s no reason for it. To blast a song that says “Born in the USA.” It just sends the wrong message. But you just criticized us for painting a broad brush, but you yourself just paint a broad brush of billions of people.

What I’m… what I’m gonna to do for ya is I’m gonna tell ya why I’m painting with a broad brush.

But you shouldn’t, right? Cause you told us we shouldn’t.

Nah, nah. Listen to me. You can tell me why… you just told me why you might paint with a broad brush there. I’m going to tell you why I paint with a broad brush. The reason I paint with a broad brush is because I explained to…

My name’s Teju. What’s your name, brother?

Jim McCann.

Joachim.

Joachim, nice to meet you.

Josh.

Nice to meet you. But as I said earlier, you didn’t agree but 95% of the world’s conflicts… if you go around the world I think you could see that Moslems are involved in many of the conflicts throughout the world…

Just like Christians were about two hundred years ago, but we can move on…

Well, was it right?

No.

Good. I don’t agree it was right either.

And probably now too, and we can give examples of…

Well, what do you say?

I’ll listen to you first. I should listen, and then I’ll talk.

Anyway, when a group of people poses… proves to be a threat to your society and your civilization, then that’s when I say they shouldn’t belong here, and that’s the bottom line.

What’s the threat to the society. What do you think…

Basically, that all laws and the Constitution mean nothing. That they’re going to… that the objective is to introduce Sharia law across the land…

What is Sharia law?

Sharia law is cutting somebody’s hand, cutting somebody’s leg…

Well, it’s a strict… it’s a strict interpretation of the Koran, I believe…

OK.

That calls for, right, women being stoned to death, um, women being…

Marrying four women…

What’s your name, brother?

Hani.

Hani. Hani. Teju. How’re you doing?

That somehow this is an opportunity for people in this country to start stoning women…

Oh yes.

Because somehow they’re gonna trump the Constitution.

It’s Jim, right?

Yes.

OK. But, Jim, aren’t you worried that if you start saying something like mosques should not be allowed in the US or Islam should be banned, don’t you think that will have a sort of more violent response?

Well, I’ll tell ya, I’m not worried about it. I think that the writing’s on the wall. I think that’s what it’s going to come down to eventually.

Do you… do you feel the president is a… is a Muslim?

Who, the president? Oh yeah.

You think he is?

Oh yeah.

Why do you think that?

I think that because he… the church he attended before he became a Moslem… when he, before he became president, right? Is a, what was it, a black, uh… the church that he belonged to, he didn’t attend regularly, but he did attend for political reasons. But what happened was that when he became president, he hasn’t attended church since.

OK.

He’s gone to every Moslem country in the area, pro… uh… professing to extend an arm to the Moslem community.

But a lot of people in this country are not particularly religious. The president doesn’t have to be a Christian, does he?

Um…

I mean he doesn’t have to be a very, very active Christian.

No. But when he professes to be, and then he doesn’t attend a church for a year and change since he became president?

Everybody professes to be, right?

Well, not everybody. You said you’re an atheist.

No, no, no. Everybody who runs for office and wins.

I think Obama should have been honest with people and said, I’m not a Christian…

He wouldn’t have won.

Well, I think he would have gotten elected. If he said, I’m a Christian but I don’t go to church. It wouldn’t have affected him.

Oh, in America it would have affected him. But, but, that doesn’t mean he’s a Muslim though.

Well, I…

You just have a gut feeling?

Well, I think he’s pandering to the Moslem faith. Maybe he’s not a Moslem. Do I care? Do I believe in what he’s doing in our nation right now, as the president?

So that’s your real issue. So separate that from saying he’s a Muslim. Because he’s not. In other words, if you want to persuade people of your point of view, you have to try to stick to the facts. The fact is there’s no reason for thinking he’s a Muslim. Now we can say: he’s tried to make peace with the Muslim nations, sure…

I still think potentially he could be. Many in the country don’t know what he is. They don’t know what he is. They don’t know if he’s Christian, they don’t know if he’s Moslem. It’s all…

He’s a Christian. He said so himself.

Yeah, but there’s no way to really to really tell. You identify a person by their actions.

How do you know Dick Cheney is a Christian?

You identify, you can tell what a person is, by their actions. Would you agree with that? You can tell what a person is by their actions.

Yes. Yes?

I’ve never seen Obama pray five times a day.

He hasn’t gone to a mosque, he hasn’t…

Yes, yes, but you don’t know if he’s a Christian either, because he doesn’t attend church.

He drinks alcohol, he eats pork.

Anyway, it really don’t matter to me. But anyway, we’ll never see eye to eye. We’ll never see eye to eye. But it’s OK. I believe that this is a threat to my family, to my country, and I’m going to stand up for it, and that’s basically the bottom line.

I really appreciate your taking the time.

Thanks fellas. Thanks, Josh.

Thanks, Jim. Take care of those kids, all right?

Have a good day.

OK. See ya.

Thanks.

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Website. Writer, art historian, street photographer, Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College. Born in the US (1975) to Nigerian parents, raised in Nigeria. Lives in Brooklyn. Author of two books, a novella, Every Day is for the Thief, and a novel, Open City. Contributor to the New York Times, Qarrtsiluni, Chimurenga, the New Yorker, Transition, Tin House, A Public Space, etc. Currently at work on a book-length non-fiction narrative of Lagos, and on Small Fates.

9 Comments


  1. There’s so much wrong with that I don’t even know where to start. Now wait, I do. Start here.

    Then I suggest checking out the Making Light thread on this manufactured controversy, as an anodyne to the cluelessness displayed by the conversationalist Cole encountered .

    Reply

  2. That’s harrowing. That’s exactly what it’s like, too, the phantasmagoria, the floating away whenever you get close to anything concrete. The sheer saturation of bogus stories.

    Reply

  3. You know — apropos of nothing, maybe — our nation was on this kind of reactionary binge between 1993 and April 1995, when McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Public opinion began to settle down from that April forward.

    But this binge is worse — deeper and more complicated since it involves race and religion as well as the role of the federal government. I fear this binge (2009 – ?) won’t end as quickly or with as little bloodshed, relatively speaking, as the last one: our society is even more fractured, there is little regard for truth beyond tribal understandings of it, and the world is shaking loose of American hegemony.

    Reply

    1. little regard for truth beyond tribal understandings of it
      Well put. I share your apprehension.

      Reply

  4. Another response, one far better than one I could have made, from Keith Olbermann. Listen to it, “because this is America, dammit!”

    Reply

  5. I find it really and truly frightening. I mean the things people said in this crowd, the hatred and violence behind their words.
    Bravo Teju for recording it.

    Reply

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