Thursday, August 19, 2010

Mosque on the Hudson

What about the proposed mosque near Ground Zero?

On one hand, that roguish enemy of religion, Christopher Hitchens, is perfectly correct – what we are witnessing here is an alarmingly stupid debate, driven almost entirely by emotional incoherence and the lowest form of political demagoguery. But if the controversy is really so stupid, then why did Hitchens see fit to comment? Why did President Obama? Why are so many of us drawn to it? There’s something truly fascinating about the ferocity of emotion unleashed by this issue.

So why all the fuss? As a matter of rights and Constitutional Law, there’s no issue at all. In the United States of America, folks have the right to practice their religion even if you and I don’t like that religion or are offended by the beliefs that particular religion propagates. Freedom of religion includes the freedom to purchase land and operate a house of worship. To not know that is to not know the essentials of America’s history, the Constitution, or our founding principles. But enough Civics 101. Even Sarah Palin acknowledges that the Muslims behind the Park 51 Cordoba Initiative have the right to build a mosque (or more accurately here, an Islamic community center which includes a mosque). The question, Palin insists, is whether they should build it. That at least settles the practical aspect of the debate. If the organizers have a right to build it, what legitimate grounds are there for asking New York City (much less President Obama) to deny them that right? I’ve never heard a straight answer from Palin or anyone else.

But why do they have to build it there? This seems to be the question most often asked, though I’m never quite certain to whom this question is really being directed. The President? Mayor Bloomberg? NYC’s Landmark Preservation Committee? Feisal Abdul Rauf?

If you were to sort out the various comments made by those in opposition to the mosque – Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, Sunday morning talking heads and any number of bloggers and Facebook posters, you might have heard (or imagined) an exchange along the following lines:

A: Look, I’m not saying they shouldn’t build a mosque, I’m just saying they shouldn’t build it there, at Ground Zero

B: But it’s not at Ground Zero. It’s on Park Place about half a mile away.

A: That’s still very close.

B: Is proximity the issue? There’s already a mosque roughly the same distance from Ground Zero (Masjid Manhattan on Warren Street). That mosque and another one in lower Manhattan (Masjid al-Farah on West Broadway), routinely turn away worshippers because they are overcrowded. Should we object to those mosques too?

A: Those mosques aren’t 13 stories high.

B: True. But what’s been proposed by the Cordoba Initiative is a multi-activity Islamic community center. Is it really the height that’s the problem?

A: Not just the height. But at that location, such a prominent Islamic building is an insult to the victims of 9/11.

B. Would a more modest architecture be less insulting? Should the President get involved and insist on some different building size or design in order to minimize insult?

What are we really talking about here?

Among civil people, the usual answer is: Sensitivity toward the victims of 9/11 and their families. That’s what we’re talking about. OK. At least we know what we’re dealing with. Sensitivity. But it’s amazing how many people suddenly feel qualified to speak for the 9/11 victims and the feelings of their families.

I don’t claim that right. I am not qualified to speak on behalf of the victims or their families, but I am fairly certain of this:  Neither are Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich.  Unlike many of those claiming outrage, I do call myself a New Yorker. I lost a childhood friend on 9/11 and I lived close enough to Ground Zero that the sickening smell of burning flesh and rubble pervaded my nostrils for weeks and will remain in my memory forever. I don’t know what percentage of 9/11 family members really are offended by the Cordoba Initiative. I also don’t know what percentage is just as offended by the cynical exploitation of 9/11 by opportunistic politicians, especially those who don’t otherwise care much for New York City. But we do have some sense of how the community feels about the issue. The Local Community board for the actual neighborhood involved, including Ground Zero, voted 29 to 1 in favor of allowing the proposal.

But clearly some number of 9/11 family members are deeply hurt and offended - fairly, or not. Reasons are beside the point. This is raw stuff here. It’s not my place to tell any of them that they shouldn’t feel offended. But I will tell anyone that in a free society, offense is never sufficient grounds for denying others the right to practice their religion. But take heart, this freedom has a flip side. We should never allow offense to serve as a basis for stifling criticism either. That includes criticism of religion (a favorite point of Christopher Hitchens). Because if we are so willing to constrain our Constitutional freedoms, to kowtow to those who cry about hurt feelings, even in the name of “tolerance” or “hallowed ground,” we are practicing a corrosive form of capitulation that any free and decent society ought to resist.

We can at least acknowledge that an emotional response on the part of 9/11 family members is sincere and not calculated or ill-intentioned. Not so for the politicians. Florida’s gubernatorial candidate, Rick Scott provided a particularly disgusting example of how emotion and fear can be put in the service of demagoguery. And it’s not just the GOP.  Harry Reid was equally cowardly and opportunistic. But probably the least coherent “rationale” for opposing the Cordoba Initiative came from Newt Gingrich. “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia,” said Gingrich. Really? So our commitment to First Amendment freedom should be placed in the hands of Saudi Mullahs? In order to prove a point to those Muslims, we ought to debase our own society to the oppressive level of a theocratic dictatorship? Brilliant. Surely, THAT will show them. THAT will make us safe.

Gingrich may not be interested to know it, but the Imam behind the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is a Sufi Muslim. In Saudi Arabia, Sufis have traditionally been targets of discrimination and abuse. Their shrines have been destroyed, their literature banned and their leaders excommunicated. While we don’t know what shape the completed Cordoba Initiative on Park Place will ultimately take, it’s a safe bet that it won’t be the sort of establishment that would ever be allowed to exist in Saudi Arabia.

I don’t suggest that Feisal Abdul Rauf, simply by virtue of being a Sufi, is admirably moderate or a good candidate for a more liberal, pro-western brand of Islam. Hitchens, for one, is skeptical, noting several controversial and disappointing statements made by the Imam following 9/11. (Nothing terribly shocking - just the ordinary bit about how 9/11 was the result of American foreign policy, Bin Laden was made in the USA, etc. etc.) Former President George W. Bush, on the other hand, held a more favorable view of Rauf, deciding that the Imam was exactly the right kind of Muslim. He even asked Rauf to represent the administration as a diplomat to help build a bridge between the United States and the Islamic World. The foreign policy views, intentions, and associations of Rauf are indeed fair questions for the public. But they are not the point of the current debate. We don’t get to say that only those clerics whose views and friends meet with our approval are entitled to build houses of worship.

When I listen to the public mosque debate (if we can be generous and call it that) it seems to me that many defenders of the mosque don’t quite have it right either. Some champion the Mosque proposal on the grounds of “tolerance.”  They like to remind us that Islam didn’t attack New York City on 9/11. Al-Qaeda did, and Al-Qaeda doesn’t represent all, or even most, of Islam. That’s true enough but it’s not very satisfying, probably because it’s not complete. It is superficial to frame this as a battle of manners between those urging “sensitivity” on one hand, and “tolerance” on the other. For one thing, tolerance is an overrated virtue. To “tolerate” something is to put up with something we don’t like. We do it only when we have to. The value that matters most here isn’t “tolerance” but freedom.

And what of the victims of 9/11?  Do we really dishonor them by building an Islamic center within a few blocks of this hallowed ground?  Well, we certainly don’t honor them by exploiting fear and division, by straining and shouting just to prevent that building. And let’s remember what actually happened on 9/11. The U.S. wasn’t merely attacked. We were violently joined in a war that has been raging for decades. A large portion of the world, from Northern Africa to Southeast Asia, has been ravaged by a war within Islamic world. It’s a conflict that exists irrespective of any particular U.S. foreign policy decision (and would certainly be taking place regardless of whether Israel existed or not). What we learned on 9/11 - or what we should have learned - is that we have a great stake in the outcome that war. Let’s remember that the primary victims of Al-Qaida’s Jihad are Muslims. And it is Muslims, who pray in mosques, who have been doing most of the suffering and dying at the hands of murderous Islamist extremists. If we lose sight of that, we also lose sight of what we are fighting when we say we are fighting terrorism.

I am not arguing that Islam is a peaceful religion (a statement we hear often – it’s more meaningless than false). But today, the questions of how Islam should express itself and who gets to define it are hotly contested and have enormous consequences for us. Consider Iran, a nation of 70 million Muslims. Here is a theocratic regime and regional power. Yet bristling beneath the harsh clerical rule is a significant reform movement, sympathetic to the west, and hungry for civil rights. Millions of Muslims seek to redefine their society, their laws and the role of Islam in their lives. Yet they are believers in Islam. Shall we conclude that only Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Shi’a clerics are entitled to decide what it means to be Muslim in Iran? Similarly, shall we declare that Al-Qaida is the legitimate and authoritative voice of Islam globally? Isn’t that what we are essentially doing when we associate all things Islamic with the murderous vision and deeds of Al-Qaeda – and worse, when we use this as an excuse for curbing religious freedom at home?

Like most Americans, I too would like to see ordinary Muslims as well as Islamic leaders do more to distance themselves from the barbaric conduct and totalitarian views of the Jihadists. But shouldn’t we be encouraging them? Instead, with these mosque protests, we seem to be sending the message that their rights don’t matter and that we don’t care about their views – except for the ones that offend us. They need not bother with reform, with assimilation, with civic virtues or with resisting the likes of Bin Laden - we’ve already decided that Bin Laden speaks for them. When we do this, we show how unserious we are about fighting terrorism. We are essentially handing Bin Laden a crucial victory.

By indulging in the ugliness of this Ground Zero mosque controversy, we are missing a key point. It’s not that we need to make nice with Muslims for the sake of tolerance. It’s that we need to be true to our own values and principles of freedom for our own sake.