I’ve resisted posting about this, since everything that could be said has been said. But I can’t abide the views expressed everywhere, even among my friends and colleagues, that I’m a bigot or ignorant or anti-Muslim or xenophobic for thinking the proposed Park51 project (nee Cordoba House) should be voluntarily moved by its backers.I don’t hate or fear or care about Muslims as Muslims. My grandfather was from Lebanon, and I grew up in an around people from the Middle East my whole life. My wife is pregnant and our doctor is a practicing Muslim, fasting as I type for Ramadan. There are two mosques within one mile of my house, and the home of the Nation of Islam is literally around the corner. I’ve never thought for two seconds about these facts, giving them the time I pay to the religion or cultural facilities of Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Mormons, and so on, all of which also have a presence in Hyde Park. I do not practice religion, but if that is your thing, go for it. People probably think I’m nuts for my Steelers fandom. To each his own.
But I am strongly opposed to the construction of Park51, and I’ve given it a lot of thought. Not because my friend Chris Ingrassia was murdered a few blocks away and not because I think Muslims should be forbidden from practicing their religion in Lower Manhattan or anywhere else for that matter. (As supporters have said, there are currently mosques near Ground Zero, and there are as many mosques in Manhattan as Catholic Churches.) What irritates me is the bad manners and intransigence on the part of the sponsors. If they are trying to build better relations with non-Muslim Americans, and for now let’s assume that is true, do they think this is working? Clearly not, since nearly 7 out of 10 people think the proposed facility should be moved. (How far away, I don’t know — far enough so 7 out of 10 people don’t care.)
And the stakes are rising. There were marches today for and against, the issue has become national, and the sides are digging in. Oh, and the sides here are Muslim and non-Muslim, precisely the opposite of the goal of the backers of the planned facility. When one tries to be nice, is told they are not being nice, and persists in their course, they are simply rude and insensitive. Which is ironic, since they are trying to increase tolerance and mutual respect, which, is after all supposed to be “mutual.” Their plan is, as one friend said, “we are building this bridge to you whether you like it or not!” Durable bridges are not built this way.
So we are left wondering whether the backers are deliberately provoking this fight or are just completely obtuse. The former is possible. One motive is publicity, especially abroad, in the hopes of a financial windfall. The backers have raised little to date, and this story is likely to play well among well-heeled Saudi sheiks. Another is simply to show the muscle of Islam, which is, thanks to 9/11, now in the news more than ever. There are certainly stories on the Internet about the true beliefs of the sponsors, but I don’t know what to believe. Maybe the imam is a Sufi mystic pacifist; maybe he is a closet jihadist. I know it doesn’t matter. His beliefs are irrelevant to the lack of wisdom in his plan.
Another possible reason to persist is to try to make this a test case for religious tolerance. But does America need this lesson? No. This country was founded on this basis and is the most religiously tolerant one on earth. There are thousands of mosques and very little bigotry against Muslims or any other practicing creed. There was shockingly little backlash against Muslims after 9/11, and few people really care about others’ faiths. We are, in addition, spending billions per month and thousands of young lives to help Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as we did in Kosovo. We don’t need to show our bona fides to anyone on this subject, and it would be the height of arrogance and stupidity if the backers of the project thought that they were the ones to teach it to us.
The mosque or community center or whatever it is should be moved. It should be moved as a common courtesy. Moving it will not make America less religiously tolerant and it won’t make us more anti-Muslim. In fact, the opposite is true. Showing Americans that these particular Muslims understand our sensitivities will help build the bridge the imam claims he is trying to build. Calling opposition to the project “beyond Islamophobia” and showing a “hate of Muslims,” as the wife of the imam sponsor of the project has, may get the center built, but at what cost?
Moving a few steps in the direction of the vast majority of Americans will not be a loss of face for Islam, but a gesture of incredible goodwill. (One I’m sure lots of politicians, most notably the president, are likely to appreciate.) In addition, backers should be worried that the center will be used for propaganda purposes — “we took down the WTC and built a mosque in its place!” (they won’t say “community center” in the recruiting video, I’m sure). If and when it is, their intent will be irrelevant. All America will see is an insult that could have easily been avoided had cooler heads and wiser people prevailed.