The controversy over the proposed Islamic Centre — The Cordoba House, now known as Park51 — several blocks from the site of the World Trade Center evokes a rather strange memory from my own youth.
During the 1950s, the Jewish community in a small Long Island town, to which my family belonged, wished to build a Jewish Center on that town’s Main Street. After all, that was where all the other communities had built their churches. Of course, the Jewish community was reassured that building a house of worship and community center was certainly within its rights. And no one would dream of denying the Jewish community its rights. It would, of course, have been difficult to deny that a young community of returning World War Two veterans had failed to demonstrate the appropriate spirit of patriotism — military service, evidently, being the truest measure of its commitment to the American way of life. That denial had been the fall back position of polite pre-war anti-semitism. It was rather a question of sensitivities. If the Jewish community wished to be truly respected, wouldn’t it agree to a small sacrifice by locating their community center a block or two from Main Street?
It was one thing to recognise Jewish civic rights in general. But wasn’t it just expecting too much of Christians that they be forced to worship on an equal plane with, well… Christ killers? What message would this send about Long Island to the rest of the United States?
This all seems rather absurd today. But this scenario of suppressing religious minority rights is bubbling to the surface again. And this time it’s not so polite. Set off by the right wing slime machine, with the ever predictable support of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, prominent, oh-so patriotic right wing politicians, such as Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich — demagogues who otherwise delight in insisting that the Constitution privileges religion over secularism in every aspect of civic life, and abetted by Democratic liberals in retreat such as Harry Reid, this attack on immigrant and American Muslims has ripped the scab off the myth of American tolerance.
Muslims of course have Constitutional rights, but this, according to the reactionary guardians of American dignity, is not primarily a question of religious rights, but of proprietary rights to political symbolism. And that symbolism, they insist, is one of iihadi triumphalism in the shadow of 9-11 carnage.
That the Cordoba House, a proposed cultural centre with a pool, gym, auditorium and prayer room modeled on the 92nd Street Y (a Jewish landmark of cultural inclusion in upper Manhattan) is a symbol of jihadi triumphalism is entirely a concoction of the right’s fevered imagination. But it reverberates solidly with a Republican base, the majority of whom believe that Obama favors the interests of Muslim Americans over all others and maintains a secret agenda to impose Sharia law on an unsuspecting public. And this nonsense plays equally well off the larger chauvinist insecurities of an America in social decline, where whites can now envision being forced to concede their majority status to an influx of third worlders.
This ground swell of deliberately cultivated fear and suspicion has triggered a raft of particularly ugly, anti-Muslim outrages: a recent throat slashing of a Muslim cabdriver in Manhattan, a bombing of a mosque in Jacksonville, Florida, opposition to a mosque expansion in California, an arson at the site of a proposed mosque in Tennessee, and a coordinated Christian fundamentalist bacchanal of Koran burnings planned for September 11th.
Neither has there been any leadership from the Administration. President Obama endorsed the abstract right of Muslims to build institutions free of external coercion, only to equivocate on whether this centre should actually be built in its designated site in light of the intolerance that the proposal itself engendered.
Whether the Cordoba House proves to be the open space equivalent of the 92nd St. Y or falls far short, it is clear that it is not a Wahabi madrassa nor is it being built at ground zero. Its primary influence is Sufi’ism, a relatively pacific current within Islam. Its imam, Faisal Abdul Rauf, has to be sure, made some questionable remarks about Hamas , is all too careful not to offend the Iranian dictatorship and has offered support for Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual guide. But Americans don’t generally propose a comprehensive political litmus test, or, for that matter, political consistency from the leaders of other faiths. And the imam’s evasions are no more grievous in the larger scale of religious outrages than rabbis who will not distance themselves from semi-fascist, far-right Israeli parties or priests, who failed to renounce IRA terrorism, nor of ministers, who all but endorse the murder of abortionists.
As centrist commentator, Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek stated, the imam “speaks of the need for Muslims to live peacefully with all other religions…emphasizes the commonalities of all faiths…advocates equal rights for all women, and argues against all laws that in any way punish non-Muslims…His vision of Islam is bin Laden’s nightmare.”
Whatever else it will become, the Cordoba House is unlikely to be an incubator of terrorism. It is far more likely to be a magnet for that very American true blue form of homegrown “patriotic” terrorism, no less threatening than jihadi terror, but to itself and the inhabitants of downtown Manhattan. However, this, as recent experience demonstrates, would be true wherever the mosque was located.
What is truly remarkable, however, is this. The entire opposition to the Islamic cultural centre sounds eerily familiar. It is “offensive” to the memory of the victims of 9-11, and it is precisely this “offense” no matter how irrational and bigoted that somehow takes precedence over all other democratic considerations. Evidently, not so offensive to that memory are the topless bars and sex shops in the area, no doubt patronised by not a few who are so otherwise sensitive to the issues of “desecration”. Evidently, the proposed construction of banking houses and hedge fund headquarters” — the trigger point to so much current economic misery- — on the actual spot of this “hallowed” ground still falls under the rubric of proper battle ground memorials. Evidently, too, denying other — Muslim — peaceful citizens, who also lost family members, homes and livelihoods, and who also were among the first responders, their Constitutional rights best honors 9-11 victims.
Now, where else have we seen this demand for sensitivity to the prevailing bigotries of the majority so revered? Wasn’t this appeal to “sensitivities” the justification for murdering unflattering filmmakers, issuing fatwas against blashpemous novelists, and making death threats against Muslim apostates? Wasn’t that the apologia of those, including not a few self-proclaimed socialists, who insisted that the Danish newpapers refuse to publish cartoons that “offend” Muslim sensitivities?
Fifty years ago, the Jewish community my parents belonged to acceded to the prevailing bigotries and relocated their community centre one block off Main Street. The proposition of collective guilt, whether it be for a murder supposedly committed by Jews two millennia ago or collective Muslim guilt for the attacks of 9-11, is itself a simple moral outrage. This is not a question of tolerance, although one should never fault the value of a virtue so short in historical supply. It is a question of democratic justice and equal rights for those who think differently, for those who pray differently.