Mau-Mauing the Mosque
The dispute over the "Ground Zero mosque" is an object lesson in how not to resist intolerance.
The dispute over the construction of an Islamic center at "Ground Zero" in Lower Manhattan has now sunk to a level of stupidity that really does shame the memory and the victims of that terrible day in September 2001. One might think that a mosque or madrassa was being proposed in the place of the fallen towers themselves or atop the atomized ingredients of what was once a mass grave. (In point of fact, the best we have been able to do with the actual site, after almost a decade, is to create a huge, noisy, and dirty pit with almost no visible architectural progress. Perhaps resentment at the relative speed of the proposed Cordoba House is a subconscious by-product of embarrassment at this local and national disgrace.)
I don't like anything much about the Cordoba Initiative or the people who run it. The supposed imam of the place, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is on record as saying various shady and creepy things about the original atrocity. Shortly after 9/11, he told 60 Minutes, "I wouldn't say that the United States deserved what happened, but the United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened." He added, "In the most direct sense, Osama Bin Laden is made in the USA." More recently, he has declined to identify the racist and totalitarian Hamas party as being guilty of the much less severe designation of terrorist. We are all familiar by now with the peddlers of such distortions and euphemisms and evasions, many of them repeated by half-baked secular and Christian spokesmen. A widespread cultural cringe impels many people to the half-belief that it's better to accommodate "moderates" like Rauf as a means of diluting the challenge of the real thing. So for the sake of peace and quiet, why not have Comedy Central censor itself or the entire U.S. press refuse to show the Danish cartoons?
This kind of capitulation needs to be fought consistently. But here is exactly how not to resist it. Take, for example, the widely publicized opinion of Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Supporting those relatives of the 9/11 victims who have opposed Cordoba House, he drew a crass analogy with the Final Solution and said that, like Holocaust survivors, "their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted." This cracked tune has been taken up by Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, who additionally claim to be ventriloquizing the emotions of millions of Americans who did not suffer bereavement. It has also infected the editorial pages of the normally tougher-minded Weekly Standard, which called on President Obama to denounce the Cordoba House on the grounds that a 3-to-1 majority of Americans allegedly find it "offensive."
Where to start with this part-pathetic and part-sinister appeal to demagogy? To begin with, it borrows straight from the playbook of Muslim cultural blackmail. Claim that something is "offensive," and it is as if the assertion itself has automatically become an argument. You are even allowed to admit, as does Foxman, that the ground for taking offense is "irrational and bigoted." But, hey—why think when you can just feel? The supposed "feelings" of the 9/11 relatives have already deprived us all of the opportunity to see the real-time footage of the attacks—a huge concession to the general dulling of what ought to be a sober and continuous memory of genuine outrage. Now extra privileges have to be awarded to an instant opinion-poll majority. Not only that, the president is urged to use his high office to decide questions of religious architecture!
Nothing could be more foreign to the spirit and letter of the First Amendment or the principle of the "wall of separation." In his incoherent statement, Foxman made the suggestion that it might be all right if the Cordoba House was built "a mile away." He appears to be unaware that an old building at the site is already housing overflow from the nearby Masjid al-Farah mosque.
I notice that even the choice of the name Cordoba has offended some Christian opponents of the scheme. This wonderful city in Andalusia, after the Muslim conquest of southern Spain, was indeed one of the centers of the lost Islamic caliphate that today's jihadists have sworn in blood to restore. And after the Catholic reconquista, it was also one of the places purged of all Arab and Jewish influence by the founders of the Inquisition. But in the interval between these two imperialisms it was also the site of an astonishing cultural synthesis, best associated with the names of Averroes ibn-Rushd and Moses Maimonides. (The finest recent book on the subject is María Rosa Menocal's The Ornament of the World.) Here was a flourishing of philosophy and medicine and architecture that saw, among other things, the recovery of the works of Aristotle. We need not automatically assume the good faith of those who have borrowed this noble name for a project in lower Manhattan. One would want assurances, also, about the transparency of its funding and the content of its educational programs. But the way to respond to such overtures is by critical scrutiny and engagement, not cheap appeals to parochialism, victimology, and unreason.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images.