THE MOSQUE CONTROVERSY
First, let us get straight on the facts underlying the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” controversy. Park51, named after its proposed location at 51 Park Place, would be a combination community center and mosque. It is a 13-story facility that, according to present plans, would include multiple theatrical venues, sporting facilities, a childcare center, a cooking school, a food court, and space where up to 2,000 Muslims can pray. The proposed facility is also known as the Cordoba House, after the city in Spain that is beloved in the interfaith community as the place where the Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures flourished together during the period from the 8th through the 11th centuries. While Park51 would not be located on Ground Zero itself, present plans call for this facility to be about one-tenth of a mile away, or two city blocks by foot. It is that proximity to what has become a hallowed site in this country that has stoked the flames of controversy, with both sides blaming the other – proponents of the facility blaming the naysayers for their “bigotry,” and opponents of the facility blaming their rivals for their “insensitivity.”
The Imam that is associated with this facility has also been in the eye of this storm. Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf is an Egyptian-born Sufi who moved to America as a child and graduated from Columbia University. He has been criticized by some of the facility’s opponents for, among other things, warning Americans that terrorism against the West will not end until the West acknowledges the harm it has done to the Islamic world. Others, however, have praised him as a “moderate,” and have pointed out that the FBI enlisted his help in counter-terrorism efforts and the family of Daniel Pearl invited him to speak at Pearl’s memorial service in New York.
At present, public opinion polls in America run slightly more than 2-1 against building the facility at 51 Park Place. Republicans tend to be much more likely to oppose this facility than Democrats, though more Democrats oppose it than support it.
With that as an introduction, allow me to begin with an impression. Last week, I watched as two Congressmen from New York State informally debated the proposed facility on CNN. Peter King, the Republican, started out by saying that the Muslims behind the facility have every right to build it as proposed. But merely because they have the legal right, King argued, does not mean that it is the morally right thing to do. He went on to talk about how hurtful this facility would be to many of the families who lost relatives in 9/11 to terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam, and analogized the proposal to the time when Carmelite Nuns opened a convent adjacent to Auschwitz, sparking protests from Jewish groups. Ultimately, the Catholic Church asked the Nuns to remove that convent, and so should the Muslim community agree to move the Cordoba House, suggested King. There is simply no reason why the decision to build a religious facility should result in such distress if this can be avoided, and there are plenty of other locations where this facility can be built that would not re-open the mourners’ wounds.
The Democratic Congressman who debated King was Jerrold Nadler. All of his remarks were variations on a single theme: above all else, this country stands for religious freedom, and how can we pretend to have this freedom if we deny Muslims the right to build mosques wherever they are legally permitted to do so Over and over again, Nadler returned to this fundamental point. Once a Jewish group receives a permit to build a synagogue on a spot, nobody would dare tell them to move it, and the same goes for Christian churches. How then can we possibly justify making such a demand of Muslims? Are they not entitled to equal rights under the law? Is their right to worship freely not to be treated with the same respect we afford to others?
In my opinion, King clearly won the debate. To be sure, Nadler was making a point to which King could not argue. Of course it is important to give Muslims the RIGHT to build mosques wherever they are permitted to do so by local authorities. But King was making a deeper point: what is legally permitted and what is wise are two different things. It is legally permitted for adults to smoke five packs of cigarettes a day. But think of all the pain this causes – and not just to the smokers but to all their loved ones. Should we who care about such people try to persuade them to see the error of their ways? Similarly, even if it were to be stipulated that those behind Park51 have every right to build their facility one-tenth of a mile from Ground Zero, that hardly resolves the issue of whether this makes sense. Why should they cause pain and anguish for scores, if not hundreds, of families who have already suffered unimaginably due to what they view as Islamic-inspired terrorism? Maybe those families aren’t thinking entirely clearly about the true nature of Islam, and how it is a religion of peace that decries the acts of the 9/11 bombers. But while these mourners’ thoughts about Islam might be shallow, their feelings about Islam are profound. And why shouldn’t we respect those feelings? Why punish them further than they have already been punished simply because their interpretation of Islam, for whatever reason, is very different from our own?
In short, do we really want to turn this issue, given all the domains of human experience that it brings to bear, into one that deals solely with legal rights? Or, in fact, would that make no more sense than if a sobbing pregnant teenager, after approaching her father and asking whether she should keep her baby, was told nothing more than “It is your legal right to keep the baby or abort it, and I feel that it is your business and your business alone what to decide.” That might sound like an appropriate opening line. But is it really all there is to be said on the matter? With all due respect to Congressman Nadler, the answer is surely no.
It’s pretty much a given that if the best thing you can say about something is that it is “legal,” it’s a pretty awful idea. Entering a diabetic in a pie-eating contest might be legal. It also happens to be crazy. Can the same be said for Park51? Perhaps. But once we stop calling this facility Park51, and refer to it instead as the Cordoba House, then it stops being crazy and starts being inspired.
Newt Gingrich has his own opinion of the name “Cordoba House.” I have mine. Gingrich said that this was a “deliberately insulting term,” since Cordoba represented the capital of a Muslim caliphate at a time when Spain fell into Muslim rule. Implicit in such a statement is the idea that Gingrich might approach the world from the standpoint not altogether different from Bin Ladin – both see their own religion as the “Church Triumphant” and take umbrage at the idea that any rival could ever conquer wide stretches of land that are associated with their own faith. When reminded of a time when Muslims ruled over Spain, he thinks of this as an insult to Christianity, the true religion of Spain.
By contrast, when I hear the name Cordoba, I am reminded of a place and time when Judaism, Islam and Christianity co-existed and thrived. I associate Cordoba primarily with the great 12th century Jewish sage Moses Maimonides and his contemporary, the Muslim philosopher ibd Rushd, a/k/a Averroes. Cordoba represents, on the one hand, a golden age of peaceful, co-existence -- of cross-pollenization among religions and cultures. But more to the point, it represents the best, and perhaps the only, formula for our ultimate salvation as a species. For as long as we continue to hunker down with our own kind and demonize the “other,” our days are surely numbered. Sooner or later, given the increasing potency of our weapons, we will strike out against this “other,” or they will strike out against us. It happened during 9/11, when the weapons used were planes and fuel; someday it could happen again, only then the weapons could involve biological weapons or nukes. Of all people, the widows and orphans of 9/11 should recognize that something must be done to confront the xenophobia that fueled the terrorists’ resolve. I know of no better antidote than to summon the interfaith spirit of Cordoba.
What does this interfaith spirit look like? Consider these words, uttered by Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf at the memorial service of Daniel Pearl. “If to be a Jew means to say with all one’s heart and soul Shma’ Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ehad; hear O Israel, the Lord of God, the Lord is One, then not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one.”
Those are not the words of Bin Ladin or Mohammed Atta. In fact, they would be viewed as anathema to the terrorists who gave us 9/11. What they do provide is a profile in contrasts – two faces of “Islam,” one exclusivist and violent, the other pluralistic and peaceful. Do we, those of us who are not Muslim, care to involve ourselves in helping one perspective become dominant over the other? Or do we wish to distance ourselves from the battle – to allow the moderates and extremists fight amongst themselves, and the chips to fall where they may?
Prior to 9/11, that latter attitude was certainly the prevailing one, and all it gave us was 9/11. Since then, we’ve decided as a society to be more “pro-active,” but our pro-activity is primarily associated with the realm of militarism. Yes, we’ve invaded Muslim countries and taken the fight to the extremists. But the “moderates” we’re most associated with propping up aren’t mystics like Imam Faisal; they are corruption-stained statesmen like Hamid Karzai. Somehow, I don’t see the Karzai’s of the world as the kind of spiritual leaders we need to reclaim the soul of Islam from those who have sought to hi-jack it.
Admittedly, it is difficult to nation-build thousands of miles away from home. What should be less difficult is identifying representatives of Islam here in the States who can serve as leaders of a new coalition between Christians, Jews, Hindus, Unitarians, Buddhists, and yes, those who profess no religion at all but are deeply concerned about the betterment of the human condition. From all appearances, Imam Faisal is just such a leader, and the Cordoba House is poised to be a place where interfaith flowers will be allowed to bloom.
I learned a long time ago that you’ve got to crack a few eggs to make an omelet. It would be more than just a tad regrettable, though, if the eggs here include families still in mourning over 9/11. But the fact remains that they are standing in the way of an incredible opportunity for interfaith dialogue. In fact, the very publicity surrounding the Cordoba House has created a space for it truly to matter as an American institution. We cannot blow this opportunity. In the end, it will present the best chance available to minimize the number of families in America and around the world who must mourn future acts of terror.
When I co-founded the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS) in late 2008, I never dreamt how difficult it would be to encourage active Jews and active Muslims to take the time to get together and talk about the various subjects that both unify and divide us. With few exceptions, religious people in America today are either too preoccupied, too fearful, or too apathetic to take time away from intra-faith activities and open their hearts to the “other.” What I have learned from my experience at JIDS is that if Imam Faisal took the advice of most Americans and relocated his facility to a less central location, he could spare his community this controversy but would also spare his society the prospect for progress.
Surely, Imam Faisal could give in to the pressure and still make a pretty good living. He could continue to bring hundreds or perhaps even thousands of worshipers from time to time and engage in some sort of Kumbaya event, all the while receiving the kind of inter-denominational praise that has already solidified his reputation among the small, but stalwart, interfaith community. My sense is, though, that Imam Faisal isn’t just in this for the narcissism. He’s not looking for accolades; he’s looking to make a difference. And if he and his mosque are going to matter, they’re going to have to generate some controversy. Such was the way with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Such is always the way whenever a fledging movement goes toe-to-toe with the forces of xenophobia. The easy way out is surely to listen to the public opinion polls and back off. There is always plenty of room in the back of the bus – no fuss, no muss. But just as it was a half century ago in Montgomery or Birmingham, so is it now in New York. This moment already could be called pivotal or even teachable. But it has the potential to be called magical. Right now, Imam Faisal and his community need not do anything but stand firm. Let’s pray that they do that.
As for President Obama, Jerrold Nadler and the other statesmen who have weighed in to support the “Ground Zero Mosque,” it is time to knock off the half-hearted, legalistic arguments in favor of “Park51” and start speaking with a passion about the “Cordoba House.” What we are talking about could be one of those signature opportunities for our President to stand as a statesman for what he campaigned for as a candidate – inclusiveness, open-mindedness, dialogue, courage. If public opinion polls are going to sidetrack him, someone will have to explain to me what exactly he meant by “We are the change that we have been waiting for.”