I hope you’ll excuse the last two weeks’ absence. I had the opportunity to appreciate the magnificent breadth of this extraordinary country of ours. Coming back to reality, I was amazed to find the headlines dominated by a story I thought didn’t have legs at all – the controversy over the Ground Zero mosque.
The argument seems ridiculous, because the “right” answer is so obvious. First of all, let’s stipulate that the Cordoba Project has a Constitutionally guaranteed right to build a mosque in the building they propose near Ground Zero. But having the right to do it doesn’t make it right to do it. And there’s the whole rub.
Frankly, I’m surprised that they insist on going ahead with the project in the face of such strong opposition. After all, the stated intention of the Islamic Center was that it should be a place of healing, of outreach, of building bridges between peoples of different faiths who so distrust each other in today’s world. If that is the case, why proceed when it has become so blindingly obvious that doing so will produce the opposite effect? It would seem to me that if they were true to their stated intent, the organizers would say, gosh, I didn’t realize you all felt that way, and take up Governor Paterson’s offer to find an alternate site.
What does it tell you that, in their view, moving to a different site is not up for discussion? Even if there are many in this country who feel that as a matter of holding to our own beliefs and traditions of religious freedom that the project should move ahead, there are many more who feel that this is a insult to the memory of the thousands who were murdered only steps away in the name of Islam. Recent polls show strong majorities, both in New York and nationwide, don’t like the idea. So pressing ahead is hard not to interpret as a thumb in the eye of people who feel strongly about this issue – hardly the best starting point for a center of compassion and bridging.
Would the Cordoba Center be so much less effective in its mission if it were located elsewhere? The symbolism is powerful, no question – that a place of brotherhood should stand near the spot where hatred once swung its mighty cudgel. But that type of symbolism doesn’t really work its magic if some have a diametrically opposite view of the meaning of the symbol.
Take a parallel example, mentioned by James Taranto of WSJ.com in the last day or so. Remember the controversy of the Confederate flag over the South Carolina statehouse? To some, that flag is a symbol of slavery and oppression, and flying it in a public place was an affront to black Americans. Others, who contend that the core issues in the Civil War were more fundamental issues of the rights of states to determine their own laws as opposed to the extending power of the Federal government, have the opposite view. To them, the flag represents a principled but ultimately unsuccessful stand in favor of the right of states to control their own destinies that is explicitly enumerated in the Constitution.
Now, my recollection of that debate was that good liberals insisted that the people of South Carolina adopt the first interpretation of that symbolism, and remove the flag out of sensitivity to the feelings of the injured party to the debate. In the end, that is what happened – the flag now stands elsewhere in Charleston. Why then, does the same logic not extend to the injured parties of the attacks of 9-11? In this case, liberals stand vociferously with Imam Rauf, insisting that said injured parties accept on faith the Imam’s interpretation of the symbolism.
It is hard to find an argument among the proponents that makes sense. First, they attack the critics is intolerant bigots. (This is a recurrent pattern in the sharp debates of the day. Whether it’s gay marriage, the Arizona immigration law, the Tea Party, or this, the left condemns their opponents as bigots. When you slap an epithet like that on your opponent, you don’t really have to engage them on the merits, since they’re bad people and so obviously wrong.) TIME magazine this week runs a provocative cover article asking if Americans are Islamo-phobic, complete with helpful photos of the KKK to remind people what they’re talking about. Actually, the conclusion they draw is that the answer is no – that America is far more tolerant of Muslims in their midst than any other Western country. And far, far, more tolerant than any Muslim country is of Christians or, heaven help them, Jews in their midst. So no, despite the 70%+ majorities against this mosque, we are not bigots.
Then they wrap themselves up in the Constitution and shout that this controversy is about religious freedom. Well, it’s not really; nobody is suggesting that the Cordoba Project should not exist, or that the mosque should not be built. They’re just arguing that it not be built there. For some reason, this is a distinction that is completely lost on supporters of the project. They insist that freedom of religion means that regardless of the pain it causes to people who were affected by 9-11, there is no legitimate reason to oppose the mosque. It reminds me of the ACLU’s support of the American Nazi Party’s right to march in heavily Jewish Skokie, Illinois many years ago. The feeling seems to be, because you have the right to do something I find completely offensive, I must applaud your doing it to show how my devotion to the First Amendment rises above my own personal feelings.
But freedom of expression or freedom of religion does not equal freedom from criticism. And it does not necessarily trump criticism, either. Particularly when it comes to places of worship.
An institution like a church or a mosque is more substantial than an afternoon’s parade. Communities have the right to determine zoning restrictions – negotiations over such restrictions take place all the time. The freedom of religion argument implies that any church could build its sanctuary on any site it wanted, regardless of the implications for traffic control, land use, etc. That’s just not so.
President Obama did his usual tap dance about this issue. First he makes a strong, unconditional speech in support of the right of the center to be built – and he makes it before a group of Muslim leaders at an occasion to mark the start of Ramadan, no less. Then, starting the next day, he began walking back the apparent support, claiming that he never said anything about the “wisdom, or the propriety” of building it, nor would he. Then what was the speech supposed to mean? Obama is notable for his skill in making everyone in the room think he agrees with them, and this was one more example of that. Except people are getting hip to that kind of trick, and they are growing resistant to his charms. I bet his Ramadan audience is feeling just a little bit like they’ve been had. And all the President accomplished was to keep the issue alive and bring it into sharper national focus.
And then there’s Nancy Pelosi, who can always be counted on for some lunatic non sequitur. She said that she is interested in “investigating” the funding of the critics of this mosque. That sounds ominously like the heavy hand of government coming down on people exercising their Constitutional rights to protest. I’m sure she didn’t mean it. But then, much of what she says she can’t really mean.
One point that few people have brought up is this: once the place is built and is a functioning center of Islamic teaching, what is to guarantee that it will continue to be a place of brotherhood and outreach? People come and go, and so do religious leaders. There are lots of imams in this country that preach a form of intolerant, jihad-oriented Islam. Who’s to say some such might not take the podium at the Cordoba House some day (assuming that the current imam is true to his stated goal)? Then those who find the idea of a Wahabi-oriented madrassa in the heart of the World Trade Center as something abhorrent will find their fears justified.
Some talk about the impact on the intolerant Islamists if this center is built – that they will find their hatred shattered on the stones of a house of love in the very site of their earlier triumph. But again, the symbolism can go both ways – others can see the jihadists celebrating the thought of the flower of Islam growing on the ruins of the World Trade Center, and use it as a recruiting tool. See how well it illustrates the defeat of the corrupt West, and the ascendance of the teaching of Mohammed?
I don’t have any inside knowledge about Imam Rauf and his beliefs. The government certainly takes him at face value that he is a leading voice for moderate Islam – he is being sponsored by the State Department on an outreach tour of Muslim capitals. Still, there are troubling hints – he has said that part of the blame for 9-11 can be laid at America’s door (sounds like Jeremiah Wright a bit there), he has resisted labeling Hamas as a terrorist organization, he has declined to reveal the source of his funding for this, or to state categorically that funding will not come from Iran.
But what is obvious from the outside is that this project has already lost its best chance of fulfilling its stated mission. If it is built despite all the opposition, it will rankle from day one, and become a center of resentment in the eyes of New Yorkers and Americans all over. If they hope this will build bridges, they have started by making the moat wider than when they started.