The issue of the building of an Islamic center at 51 Park Place, two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, has gone beyond controversial. It has, in my opinion, spiraled dangerously into a whirlpool of intolerance, ignorance, ill-will, and in some quarters, out-and-out, bigoted Islamophobia.
The decision by the real estate investment firm Soho Properties to build a center there seems to have been made in good faith. According to the company’s CEO, Sharif Al- Gamal:
Our hope is that by helping to revitalize downtown New York, this project will demonstrate to all Americans and to the rest of the world that the American Muslim community rejects the violence perpetrated on September 11 and wants to be a part of the healing and rebuilding process…
That decision may have been ill-considered, though. A lot of people have an emotional attachment to the World Trade Center and what happened there some nine years ago. As it is an emotional attachment, it is not necessarily a rational attachment. Dealing with the issues, dealing with history rationally can often be at odds with how people feel and behave.
The result of the controversy is the greatest rupture in American politics since the candidacy of John F Kennedy to become President, back in 1960. Then, there were those who were certain that were Kennedy to be elected, the US government would take its orders from the Pope in the Vatican. As it turned out, Kennedy was elected, but the secular nature of the US continued unabated.
Arguments against building the center and its encorporated mosque are held by some 68% of the American population, according to several polls. Reasons range from ‘sensitivity’ to fear of ‘the new Caliphate’. I think the reasons proffered, while many are heart-felt, are missing the point. In missing the point, Americans are feeding the dreams of Islamic extremists and spreading fear among Islamic moderates.
The facts are that building this center is supported both by American Constitutional law—both the 1st Amendment dealing with religious freedom and the 5th, dealing with private property rights. The would-be builders went through all the proper channels to receive zoning approval for its intended use. In sum, there are no legal barriers to its construction.
Matters covered by the Constitution are not open to interpretation by popular votes. The Constitution may be amended by popular vote, but it does not flex in the winds of popular opinion—or mob preferences.
Initially, I thought the decision to build the Cordoba Center at this location wasn’t the smartest choice. I pretty much still think that: Mr. Al-Gamal’s aspirations notwithstanding, he and his advisors just might have realized that this would be a very sensitive decision. Having the right to do something does not require that one do that thing, however. This is the same argument I’ve made about the ‘Mohammed Cartoons’.
The backlash over the proposed project, however, has changed my mind. Much of that backlash argues that Al-Qaeda, the perpetrators of 9/11, is synonymous with the totality of Muslims. That is utterly false.
If the builders now simply say, ‘Ok, bad decision’ and cancel their plans, they are accepting that false equation as true. That is not good for Islam, nor is it good for Muslims, American or otherwise.
It is yet possible that this center will not be built. The organizers do not have funding for it, currently, at least not enough. Their plan has caused so much anti-Muslim animus that potential donors may very well think it a bad investment or even a bad charitable donation.
Too, the State or City of New York could come up with an offer of other property that would be too good to refuse. I can’t think offhand what that might be—Seven floors of the Empire State Building? Ten acres of Central Park?—but it’s not impossible. Accepting such an offer would certainly provide adequate excuse for changing plans.
I am deeply dismayed that so much politics is being played with this issue and that the result is increased feelings of hostility toward Islam and Muslims. American Muslims, who would be the primary users of this center, did not fly those planes on 9/11. I fail to see how they should be blamed or forced to suffer unfair consequences.
The most distressing fact coming from this is that the new intolerance is coming from both Republican and Democratic parties and candidates. Arguments against the center, for example, have come from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reed, a Democrat. As a member of a religious minority (Mormons) that has, in its history, suffered from popular and governmental intolerance, one would think he’d know better. A member of a different minority—Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who is Jewish and who just happens to represent this part of New York City—on the other hand, calls for the center to be built.
President Obama has not helped to clarify the issues at stake. While he made a strong statement of support one night—at an Iftar—the next day he ‘clarified’ by backing off that support.
A couple of days ago, I received an e-mail from the Republican Party in the county in which I live. The e-mail asked that I take part in a poll about whether or not the center should be built. I did not. Instead, I contacted the Party and told them that they should be ashamed to even ask the question. The point was to incite anger at Muslims and no American political party should be doing that, whether or not it gave them some advantage in upcoming elections.
I’m deeply unhappy to find that writers and friends whom I had respected have shown themselves to be simply insane on this issue. Balderdash about ‘sacred ground’ (there are already bars and strip joints equally distant from ‘Ground Zero’) or ‘sensitivity toward those who died’ (Some 9/11 families support the center; some don’t) or the sheer lunacy of ‘giving into Islamic triumphalism’ is truly depressing.
There were times in my career as a Foreign Service Officer, representing my country and its policies, where I was not thrilled with particular policies, but nevertheless had to find ways to make them understandable, if not palatable. This, though, is a far more difficult challenge. Too many Americans seem to have forgotten what this country and its constitution are about. That is depressing.