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 Cathy Young, 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?