Sunday, September 05, 2010

Thinking intelligently about the Cordoba House/Park51/"Ground Zero Mosque" controversy

I keep putting off writing something substantial about the ongoing controversy over the proposed Islamic Center near the site of the former World Trade Center—originally to be called Cordoba House, now renamed Park51, and misleadingly labeled the Ground Zero Mosque by many of its opponents. That's not because I feel ambivalent about the matter. As far as I'm concerned, the question of whether or not this project should be allowed to continue is an open-and-shut case. Of course it should. General principles, specifically American ideals and Constitutional traditions, as well considerations of simple fairness and political common sense all point decisively to that conclusion, in my humble opinion. I will elaborate a bit sometime soon.

Meanwhile, plenty of other people have written about these matters. So for the moment I will just say that I am in accord, perhaps with a few qualifications and caveats in some cases, with Christopher Hitchens, James Fallows, Andrew Sprung, Jeffrey Goldberg (also here & here & here), Jonathan Chait, Matthew Yglesias, Isaac Chotiner, Alan Dershowitz, Mark Thompson, Cathy Young, Anthony Wiener (though I would have hoped for more from him), David Frum, Kenneth Adelman, Jacob Sullum and Matt Welch of Reason magazine (who have some valuably pointed things to say about the "loathesome ex-House Speaker" Newt Gingrich, "who has been singularly awful on the Ground Zero mosque issue"), and even (to my slight astonishment) Orrin Hatch ... among others.

I also commend the position taken by President Obama. But the most impressive and admirable statement on this controversy by a public official remains, by far, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's speech on August 3.

=> It ought to be acknowledged that not all the opposition to the Cordoba House/Park51/GZM initiative is motivated by anti-Muslim bigotry and the cynical exploitation of that bigotry by sleazy and irresponsible political demagogues. And it's worth noting that even though national polls show big majorities of respondents opposed to the idea of building a "mosque" at that site, solid majorities also say that the Muslim group promoting this project has a legal and Constitutional right to build it (see also here).

But it would be foolish to ignore or whitewash the fact that most of the agitation against the Cordoba House/Park51/GZM initiative, especially the noisiest and most intense part of it, clearly is driven by anti-Muslim bigotry and the demagogic exploitation of bigotry and xenophobia for political advantage, whether the demagogues involved sincerely share that bigotry themselves, or are just acting out of cynical calculation, or both (some examples come to mind). Without those factors, this certainly would not have become a national controversy.

Opponents of the project who don't fit into those categories are, in my (possibly fallible) opinion, confused about the issues, carried away by their immediate reactions ... or just honestly mistaken.

=> Leon Wieseltier recently wrote a very fine set of reflections on this controversy, "Mosque Notes," from which I will quote a few paragraphs because they cut though cleanly to some of the crucial issues.
Sacred space. Nationalism has always arrogated to itself a hallowing power, and the sanctification of Ground Zero is the natural expression of the memory of a nation. But this is a secular sanctity. I see no justification for establishing a mosque, a church, or a synagogue at Ground Zero, even though Muslims, Christians, and Jews died there. (Irreligious people also died there.) Yet nobody is proposing to establish a mosque at Ground Zero. Sacralization is an act of demarcation: its force is owed to its precision. Outside the line is outside the line. Park Place is outside the line, in the “profane” realm. Or has the right finally found a penumbra in which it can believe? On September 13, 2001, a construction worker at Ground Zero discovered two large steel beams in the shape of a cross. Given the design of the towers, the likelihood of such perpendicularity was high—when I visited the unimaginable place a short while later there were smoldering right angles everywhere—but the discovery of this cross was deemed a miracle, and it was raised on a concrete base, and there was talk of incorporating it into the memorial at the site. (It now stands a block away, at a church on Barclay Street.) I was always discomfited by the sight of it. Christianity was not attacked on September 11. America was attacked. They are not the same thing. The image of the Ground Zero cross now appears in TV ads excoriating the “Ground Zero mosque.” The people behind those ads do not deplore a religious war, they welcome one.

Insensitivities. There are families of the victims who oppose Cordoba House and there are families of the victims who support it. Every side in this debate can invoke the authority of the pain. But how much authority should it have? I do not see that sentiment about the families should abrogate considerations of principle. It is odd to see conservatives suddenly espouse the moral superiority of victimhood, as it is odd to see them suddenly find an exception to their expansive view of religious freedom. Everybody has their preferred insensitivities. In matters of principle, moreover, polling is beside the point, or an alibi for the tyranny of the majority, or an invitation to demagogues to make divisiveness into a strategy, so that their targets come to seem like they are the ones standing in the way of social peace, and the “decent” thing is for them to fold. Why doesn’t Rauf just move the mosque? That would bring the ugliness to an end. But why don’t Palin and Gingrich just shut up? That, too, would bring the ugliness to an end. Certainly the diabolization of Rauf, an imam who has publicly recited the Shema as an act of solidarity and argued that the Declaration of Independence “embodies and restates the core values of the Abrahamic, and thus also the Islamic, ethic,” must cease. In a time when an alarming number of Muslims wish to imitate Osama bin Laden, here is a Muslim who wishes to imitate Mordecai Kaplan. Turn away, from him? But he may be replaced at his center by less moderate clerics, it is said. To which I would reply with a list of synagogues whose establishment should be regretted because of the fanatical views of their current leaders. I also hear that there should be no mosque on Park Place until there are churches and synagogues in Saudi Arabia. I get it. Until they are like us, we will be like them.

A night at the J. At the JCC on Q Street a few weeks ago, there was a family night for “kibbutz camp.” As the children sang “Zum Gali Gali,” an old anthem of the Zionist pioneers, I noticed among the jolly parents a Muslim woman swaddled in black. Her child was among those children! Her presence had no bearing on the question of our security, but it was the image of what we are protecting. No American heart could be unmoved by it. So: Cordoba House in New York and a Predator war in Pakistan—graciousness here and viciousness there—this should be our position. For those who come in peace, peace; for those who come in war, war.
There's more, and the piece is short, so read the whole thing. Further thoughts on these matters soon ...

--Jeff Weintraub