A Lower Manhattanite’s Take on the Cordoba House

As a three-year resident of Lower Manhattan whose apartment is situated no farther from Ground Zero than the future Cordoba House—that is, a couple of blocks away—I might be expected to entertain no very tepid feelings toward this Islamic complex and the controversy it has provoked. As it happens, my take on the whole enterprise has undergone quite a bit of reassessment since I first heard of plans by Muslim developers of suspect financing to build a mega-mosque on Ground Zero. The phrasing of the last sentence alone should give some inkling as to the first corrections in order.

If built at all, the Cordoba House, or Park51, as it’s now being called, will be an Islamic cultural center hosting a library, auditorium, gym, swimming pool, day-care center, and culinary school—out of which some space for an indoor mosque shall be carved, true. But what a far cry from a mega-mosque of towering minarets, blaring out the calls of muezzins five times a day, summoning the faithful to prayer! And it wouldn’t stand on Ground Zero or even overlook it. As to the sources of the funds, the developers have so far raised only enough money to buy the old building on Park Place, which they intend to demolish. The rest, an estimated $100 million needed to actually build, furnish, and staff the 13-story Islamic complex, remains to be vouched for. No terror-tainted sources have been tied to the developers’ financing, nor any irregularities found with their assets. At this point, none are likely to surface either, at least not before more funds can be raised and their sources scrutinized.

And yet, even after the smoke cloud of misleading rhetoric is dispersed, a sour taste still lingers about this Cordoba initiative, which no profusion of goodwill can clear away. For one thing, there is the questionable symbolism of Cordoba, where Muslims, Catholics, and Jews admittedly lived in relative peace for a few centuries, but only as far as the former subjugated the latter two, at least nominally. However enlightened this Caliphate of the Middle Ages was, and whatever the merits of the arrangements that prevailed between its religious communities, none of them could be held up as a model for emulation in the 21st century.

Then there’s Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf, the public face of the project. Though professing himself a moderate dedicated to improving relations between the West and the Muslim World—and taken as such at his word by the State Department, in whose employ he is currently journeying to the Middle East on a mission of “interfaith outreach”—he can supposedly reconcile said religious tolerance and liberality with the implications of the following statements (emphases mine):

I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened [September 11, 2001]. But the United States’ policies were an accessory to the crime that happened. … Because we have been accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world. In fact, in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the U.S.A.

Asked whether Hamas meets the definition of terrorist group:

I’m not a politician. I try to avoid the issues. The issue of terrorism is a very complex question. … I am a peace builder. I will not allow anybody to put me in a position where I am seen by any party in the world as an adversary or as an enemy.

Is Feisal Abdul-Rauf a woolly cleric, well meaning but naïve, and perhaps somewhat scornful of consistency—moral and intellectual—that alleged hobgoblin of small minds? Or is he rather a subversive, astute fanatic, well versed in those formulaic platitudes that make a leftist’s heart melt but wholly unmoved by the charms of such things as Coexist bumper stickers? Of course, he might even be a mere career fundraiser, secretly indifferent to questions of theology or conscience, jealous of his professional reputation as bridge-builder extraordinaire, and too mindful of wealthy donors and patrons in the Middle East to risk stepping on their toes by damning their pet terrorist groups. In any case, Mr. Abdul-Rauf does not seem the kind of man anyone in his right mind would want to welcome into his neighborhood, especially as the head of his local Islamic community center.

Last and most important, although the most incensed critics of Park51 have shamelessly overstated the actual proximity of the complex to Ground Zero, I cannot but judge it in very poor taste to insist that this Islamic cultural center should be built nearly two blocks away from where the World Trade Center once stood. Even if the most honorable intentions could be imputed to the developers, demolishing a building damaged on September 11, 2001, by fragments of the hijacked planes, in order to erect in its place an Islamic center, is so obviously crass that they shouldn’t wonder why the majority of Americans—68 percent, by the latest count—oppose the undertaking.

That’s as far as I can sympathize with the opponents of the Cordoba House. And the American Center for Law and Justice could have obtained both my signature and my support had it organized a private petition for New Yorkers to civilly register their disapproval of Park51 instead of trying to block its construction through the courts. But, I should hope, the distinction between finding something distasteful and justifying coercive action against it cannot be so subtle as to elude most Americans. It is a hallmark of civilization—conspicuously wanting, by the way, in those Islamic societies whose young men seethed with rage and destroyed everything they could get their hands on because the portrayal of their prophet in certain Danish cartoons had mortally offended them.

It might have been possible to shame the developers of Park51 into reconsidering where to build their Islamic center, had their right to build it wherever they pleased not been called into question. But because most opponents started to conflate that matter with whether the mosque and Islamic center in Lower Manhattan were generally desirable or publicly acceptable, so, in turn, did some champions of the other side of the debate. In the process, the shady imam and his fellow developers have acquired the aura of noble “martyrs” to the cause of the First Amendment, bold visionaries molested by a growing mob of bigots—which is unfortunate and counterproductive. Of course, they must build near Ground Zero now, to prove that they can, their plight carrying such a high symbolic weight and what have you.

So we must contend with a thorny First Amendment case—and no, zoning laws cannot treat a mosque near Ground Zero as they might treat liquor stores near schools or strip malls in places where they offend local sensibilities, because neither liquor stores nor strip malls are expressly protected by the Constitution, whereas the free exercise of religion is. Therefore, no government interference with the developers’ property rights could be warranted. And this marks the first topic of public interest on which I fully agree with President Obama, who said:

Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. The pain and suffering experienced by those who lost loved ones is unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.

But let me be clear: as a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.

Neither did I find his subsequent clarification the least bit disingenuous; quite the contrary:

I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.

So there is no arguing on whose side the law is. As for decency, well, I wish I could say that decency, at least, were squarely on the side of Cordoba’s opponents, but their cause has been hijacked by the likes of Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, bottom-feeding activists who, collectively, allege that Barack Obama is the love child of Malcolm X and extol Serbian war criminals indicted by the Hague Tribunal as valiant paladins of our civilization (for having slaughtered thousands of Muslims in the Balkans). Another leader of the opposition to Cordoba, John Joseph Jay, considers every single Muslim a legitimate target for murder. These three have founded the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which sponsors the anti-Cordoba ads now plastered over New York buses, and work closely with the aforementioned American Center for Law and Justice. Suffice it to say, such people do not represent me and should not represent anyone who understands what they are up to.

But leaving these anti-Muslim fanatics aside, the sane opponents of Cordoba—most of them staunch conservatives and champions of individual liberties—must still account for the unprincipled ease with which they propose to infringe the property rights of private developers. Hypocrisy, however, is a plague on both houses, conservative and liberal. For it is the latter, the usual proponents of Eminent Domain, most of whom have never heard of a Walmart or casino in their remotest vicinity whose construction they didn’t want to stop, but whose lips are now curling up in self-righteous indignation at the gross encroachment upon these Muslim developers’ property rights. Of the many counterfactual scenarios and thought experiments so popular with those pundits fond of reasoning by analogy, my favorite is by , from her excellent piece in RealClearPolitics:

Let us consider a hypothetical, leaving aside for a moment the usual examples involving Germans and Auschwitz or the Japanese and Pearl Harbor. Suppose a group of Christian anti-abortion fanatics bombed the offices of Planned Parenthood in New York, killing hundreds. Suppose that, 10 years later, a conservative Christian group, strongly pro-life though repudiating violence, wanted to build a 13-story community center and church next to the site of this tragedy.

Most likely, the roles in this debate would be reversed. Quite a few liberals would denounce the planned construction of the center as a slap in the face to the victims and their families; the likes of Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin would decry anti-Christian bias and voice outrage that the actions of a handful of extremists would be used to denigrate all Christians or all abortion opponents.

Indeed. Apparently, no ground is as hallowed as to deter some from exploiting the sentiments it commonly excites. But of the 68 percent of Americans opposed to the Cordoba House, I wonder what percentage concede that the developers have every right to build their mosque and Islamic complex near Ground Zero. And whatever our numbers be, I also wonder, who represents us in this debate?

Author: Kejda

Born: Tirana, Albania Residing: New York, NY University of Waterloo, Economics '08

13 thoughts on “A Lower Manhattanite’s Take on the Cordoba House”

  1. I almost agree except the US also has a tradition of zoning. Places of worship do not have an unfettered right to build at all if that is incompatible or unacceptable to the local planning authorities or sometimes the vote. In the trans-Mississippi West these decisions are much closer to the citizens actually being able to block certain sites from being built upon. While the East has over the years and by tradition insulated its planning depts or boards from public input unless taken outside and tarred and feathered.

    But once built no restraint can or should be placed on that building except in cases where the doctrine of compelling interest comes into play. So the president was half right in that no restrictions can be placed on the practice of religion but the Constitution and the courts have firmly decided where those rites can take place can be in the realm of the powers of government or the citizens.

    1. Ms. Young,

      The honor is all mine–that you have taken notice of my blog post and commented on it so favorably. I just finished reading your second article, also very good. However, I must say that the quality of most of the comments your article received and the overall lack of mental life they evinced did disappoint me. I was hoping that such a well-reasoned piece as yours would spark intelligent debate in the comment section. But, when it comes to contentious topics, most people believe what they believe and don’t want to hear anything else.

      If you don’t mind, I’ll drop you an e-mail this week with some more private reflections on this “Ground Zero mosque” debacle.

  2. Please do email me – I’d love to chat privately. Also, I live only about an hour away from Manhattan (in NJ), so if you’d like to meet for lunch, dinner, coffee or whatever at some point, I’d love to do that.

    By the way, I read your Robert Spencer exposés with great interest. I locked horns with him four years ago on my old blogsite (I now have one on WordPress though I don’t blog much, partly because I really don’t have the time or the energy to deal with malicious or moronic commenters). It does not surprise me in the least that he and Geller are associated with pro-Milosevic types — back when I was writing on this issue, I detected a strong whiff of denialist/apologist attitudes toward Serbian nationalist war crimes. I didn’t know about the disgraceful attacks on Michael Totten. It’s amazing how people who have a very strong record of opposing radical Islamism (Totten, Bernard Lewis, you) are quickly labeled practically stealth jihadists the moment they speak out against the Spencer/Geller brand of bigotry. Disgusting, really.

  3. Thank you!! I have to say I’ve been following this issue very closely and this is without a doubt the best, most comprehensive, level-headed and well-written piece on the this controversy I have seen. I just came across this blog post by searching “sane take on the cordoba house” on Google. This was the first match (and one of the only ones true to the search query). That this is the case was at once entirely justified (as I said, this is an amazing article) and extremely disheartening (it seems to have won this search position by default, not due to the popularity and incoming links from the rest of the internet that it should definitely have).

    I really wish this article got distributed more widely on the internet. I don’t know if you are a member of any community blogging sites, but I would highly encourage you to cross-post this to such places. People should read this!

    I regard myself as fairly liberal, but I’ve been extremely dissatisfied with both sides on this debate since it began. The problem, I suppose, is that many intelligent people (on either side) at first assumed the debate was appropriately be framed as a ‘pro-mosque’ vs ‘anti-mosque’ dichotomy. These people took the /right/ for the mosque to be built for granted, and considered the question one of if the Imam et al. should /choose/ to build it at 51 Park Place. This was quickly rendered a vast oversimplification of the issue once a significant number of people began to consider legal recourse a viable option. After this occurred — either intentionally, ignorantly, or wantonly — the public, media and politicians, however, to varying extents have failed to release this dichotomy in deference to the more complex debate that has emerged.

    This saddens me greatly because, indeed, some politicians (Obama, for instance) are facing pressure and/or retribution from others because their more nuanced stances on the mosque are being coerced into this dichotomy and simplified as simply ‘pro-mosque’ (in every possible way). Many other politicians, foreseeing this political attack and in fear of their jobs, have taken it upon themselves to reduce their views to fit into the pro/anti dichotomous paradigm (so that no one else can do it for them). Consequently, these pols come down near-unanimously on the anti-mosque side. At best, they don’t mention First Amendment rights/implications at all (for fear of their position being twisted if they stand up for the First Amendment), and stick to opinions on the advisability of the Imam et al.’s choice of location. This silence from our nation’s leaders denotes a very troubling deficiency in their political courage, brought on by the politicians themselves, but also our nation’s media, political climate, and very electorate.

    I don’t have time to write them right now, but if I do get a chance, I do have a few minor criticisms about your article, though I still do totally agree with the overall point. I’ll try to post them tomorrow if I get an opportunity.

    (In particular, I’m not sure I find the choice of location as distasteful as you do. I’m legitimately agnostic. I can appreciate both sides, however. And as someone with some communications experience, I can certainly agree that from a PR standpoint, if you’re trying to do outreach to other groups, it’s a really bad idea – if you can help it – to start out from a place where a significant membership of those groups you’re targeting – no mater if they’re right or wrong – are inclined to find you crass/inappropriate.)

    1. Mike — thank you for your comment. I don’t do cross postings with other blogs, but if you know of any bloggers who might find this article interesting, please feel free to pass it along. This dispute over the mosque has saddened and disappointed me by degenerating into something very unintelligent very quickly. The “pundits” on both sides are simply exploiting it, fabricating and managing the outrage. It’s how they make their living and try to remain relevant. My take remains simple: I don’t like Park51, I think the good imam’s moderation is only skin deep, I find the choice of location very crass, but none of these are remotely good enough arguments for stopping the construction of the complex. As far as politicians go, they’re damned if they comment on this, no matter what stand they take, and damned if they don’t. Some idiot bloggers were mad even at George W. Bush because he declined to comment. I thought, for once, that Obama took a principled stance here, as he must have known he had nothing to gain by saying what he did. But in the end, this is not about what any public figure says.

  4. Calling it Park51 makes it sound like a disco. They should have called it American House or New York House, to invoke the image of people of all faiths living in harmony–without the being subjugated by Muslims bit.

    I believe that the backers are acting in all sincerity. Still feels like a touchdown dance in our endzone to me, though.

  5. Ndoshta te takon t’i besh duva Islamit, se Tirana ate fryme ka, por nuk e di se cfare te mire ka per te sjelle nje xhami tjeter ne varrin masiv te ish-dy kullave binjake.
    Te uroj te blesh nje kuran e ta lexosh prej fillimit ne fund se sa dashamires e modern ka qene zanafilla e Islamit.

    Te uroj nje jete te gjate ne vendin e “qafireve”.


    Shof gjithnje e me shume se fara e mbjelle ne kohen e xhaxhit, me se fundi pruni frytet e veta, nje prej te cilave jeni edhe ju znj. Gjermeni

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