Like most who might otherwise have ventured an opinion, I've not commented on the appropriateness of building an Islamic cultural center, provisionally called Cordoba House, two blocks from Ground Zero, because I kept thinking the arguments against it were so weak, if not offensive, that statements from Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama (and, most recently, the Republican former Solicitor General Ted Olson, who was widowed on 9/11), would seal the case; that objections would be mysteriously withdrawn, like a Sarah Palin Tweet.
Islamic radicals, so the argument goes, attacked the towers and thousands of Americans died. Therefore people who practice Islam, even Muslim Americans, should not do so close to where other Americans, the victims, may be grieving. Muslims may have a right to. (Some Muslims may have died, too.) But it would be tactless of Muslims to put the center so close. Exercising a right does not mean ignoring what people feel.
MANY HAVE MADE the case, Jon Stewart most agreeably, that it is crazy to pin the most fanatic crimes committed by members of a religion on all of its members or exponents. And, moreover, the sensitivities of people with grievances cannot be a standard for exercising rights. Put the two together and you get farce ("It is too soon to put a Catholic Church next to a school-yard!") Of course, Arafat had once actually killed Jews at random; the Carmelite nuns, as my friend Jim Carroll explained, represented that conservative strain in the Church that had never come to grips with the way many in Poland's Catholic hierarchy had fomented antisemitism. But never mind.
What talk of rights, and "Daily Show" farce, do not really refute is the premise that religions have, or inspire, a kind of core sensibility. That a Muslim, Christian and Jew have each been subjected to a kind of distinct socialization--that each has ingested a distinct radioactivity, now lodged in emotional and intellectual bones--so that the only real question to ask is how "moderate" they are in expressing this sensibility--how manageable or toxic is the dose. We hear all kinds of strange questions, like how close is too close, as if the matter can be settled by Geiger counter.
"WHO IS TO say," Charles Krauthammer writes, "that the mosque won't one day hire an Anwar al-Aulaqi--spiritual mentor to the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas Day bomber"? Michael Kinsley answered, adorably, "Who is to say that the Fifth Avenue Synagogue won't hire Bernie Madoff as its next cantor?" But this doesn't really get at Krauthammer's stupidity.
THAT WORD KULTURKAMPF is critical here. For every religion has in its precincts leaders who are trying, generation after generation, to work for the solid principles of emancipation and (what we used to call) the Enlightenment. As it happens, Jim Carroll knows Feisal Abdul Rauf very well, and will write about his book in tomorrow's Daily Beast. "Cut through the Mosque-near-Ground Zero blather," Jim writes, "by reading the book written by one of its chief backers - What's Right With Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West," by Feisal Abdul Rauf. Carroll continues: