Thursday, August 19, 2010

Cordoba House: Too Far Away

When an open and shut case stays open, there's something wrong with the investigation--not just with arguments for and against, but the terms of debate themselves. Does anybody really know how to talk about "religions" these days?

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Solicitor General Ted Olson, who was widowed on 9/11), would seal the case; that objections would be mysteriously withdrawn, like a Sarah Palin Tweet.

But, if anything, the furor seems only to be growing. And the center's opponents--even thoughtful people like Aaron David Miller--are buying into something like the following framing, which defenders do not quite know how to deal with:

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.

For Miller, say, suggesting that Cordoba House be built near Ground Zero would be like suggesting that Arafat visit the Holocaust memorial--something he once suggested, and now humbly regrets. For others, Cordoba House would be like nuns putting up a cross at Auschwitz, or the Japanese government putting up a Japanese cultural center at Pearl Harbor--you get the idea: too close, too soon.

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.

There seems to be a widely shared assumption that every Muslim, say, would be a member of Al-Quaeda if he or she simply believed in Islam more strongly, or had greater courage of conviction. By this logic, I suppose, every brave Jew is incipiently a member of Gush Emunim, every Catholic ultra-Montaine, every Protestant an evangelical fundamentalist, and so forth.

"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.

The question is not whether, as Kinsley says, the freedom of religion "can't be contingent on such what-ifs." The question is whether Krauthammer is right to assume that the difference between Feisal Abdul Rauf (and the people he inspires) and Anwar al-Aulaqi (and the people he inspires) is just a difference of degree. If Krauthammer is right, then one would be justified in asking, "what if." Given time and heat, presumably, the most toxic form of the thing may precipitate out.

The point is, of course, that Krauthammer is implying a caricature. Any religion, Islam included, is not a single revelation-cum-praxis, with people "believing" with greater or lesser intensity--all waiting, with corresponding levels of eagerness, to outlast Christopher Hitchens. Religions, rather, are encompassing traditions, systems of law (and ways of reforming law), rituals, philosophical claims, aesthetics, moral agendas, languages, musical riffs, literatures--I could go on--with competing movements and ordinary disputes all along the way, and in every sphere. People divide within religions in the same way they divide over whatever bears the marks of human perception and interpretation.

Members of a religion may all agree that a book is divine, but completely disagree about what divine means, which makes all the difference. Jesus was "a Jew" after all. Mohammed considered the Torah a revelation. (Where is Monty Python when you need them: "The gourd, follow the gourd!" "No the shoe, follow the shoe!")

Which brings us back to America. Jim Carroll is a Catholic. I am a Jew. But the way we each define our affiliation means we have more in common with each other than he has with Pope Benedict and I have with Ovadia Yosef. Much more. The 92nd. Street Y is a Jewish institution. But it was founded in 1874 by German Jewish immigrants in part as as form of kulturkampf against the rabbinic orthodoxies of the Eastern shtetl. (It would have a big job to do in the subsequent century, as Eastern Jews massed in Manhattan.) On the face of it, it will have far more in common with Cordoba House than with Kiryat Arba.To ask, today, what will prevent the proposed Islamic cultural center from hiring Anwar al-Aulaqi, is like asking what will prevent the 92nd. Street Y from hiring Rabbi Levinger. The very ethos of the sustaining community--the very purpose of the institution--will prevent it.

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:

Imam Rauf offers a lucid and loving portrait of Muslim faith, an essential statement of the "moderate" Islamic position that so many claim is nowhere to be seen. But it is here, plain and eloquent. Rauf's touchstone is Cordoba, the Iberian city that was home, under Islamic sponsorship, to the centuries' long and amicable co-existence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Hence the proposed building's name - Cordoba House. Making Rauf's position crystal clear is his book's appendix: a Fatwa, or Islamic religious ruling, that permits U.S. Muslim Military Personnel to participate in the Afghanistan war effort.

So the problem, you see, is not that Cordoba House is too close to Ground Zero. It is too far away. What could be a more poignant, fitting response to the attackers than a center of this kind right at the site of the attack itself; a living monument to a tolerant, liberal, American strain of Islam that gives the lie to the terrorists and their pathetic narrow-mindedness--their creepy desire for purity? The arguments against the center do not just insult Muslims around the world, as Kinsley complains. They insult anyone for whom religious imagination--what William James calls religious experience--is something more than a childish play for certainty.


Larry said...

The political argument is only (and sadly) characteristic of the level of discourse that predominates in the U.S. today. Which is why John Stewart appears more reasonable than most of the serious commentators. Your point about having more in common with a Catholic than either of you have with illiberal coreligionists is echoed in an article in today’s Ha’aretz by Anshel Pfeffer about the complexity of political and religious labels ( Amartya Sen’s book, Identity and Violence addresses some of the issues of complex identities quite nicely.

Ralph said...


Having a mosque near the site of the attack can be a very important symbol of how much we value religious freedom in this country.


I compared the situation to a historical situation in [EIRE]: During the Easter Revolution the [FENIAN TERRORIST] were very careful to protect the rights of the Protestants in the [REGIME]. They did not take back their cathedral or close their churches. Instead, they wanted people to see they believed in freedom of religion.





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Shoded Yam said...

Someone once told me that God is a stand-up comedian playing to an audience that doesn't want to laugh. Your article reminds me of this, Bernie, :-).

The simple truth is that while your intentions and principles are of the highest order and under normal circumstances would be unassailable and most likely shared by many of those in the opposition. We are not living an anything that could remotely be termed as "normal circumstances" and this fact cannot be ignored, good intentions or not. This is country at war, or at the very least percieves itself in that manner. Many Americans lost their lives on 9/11 at the hands of muslims and have continued to lose their lives in a war that has lasted almost 10 years. Who's at fault is not relevant to most Americans who have either suffered a loss because of this or know someone who has. While Muslim-Americans have a right to religous freedom like any other Americans, it might behoove them to utilize this opputunity to show some tact and a sense of propriety as a sign of compassion (not to mention gratitude) to their fellow Americans. If they're actually interested in peace, I should think that this substantive gesture would go much farther in demonstrating that than the empty symbolism of a muslim community center. Having said that, imagine what the response would've been to someone suggesting planting a Japanese flag atop the Arizona Memorial 10 years after WW II ended.


Anonymous said...

Sir, you are one of the few voices of wisdom in this ridiculous and ugly brouhaha.

All religions have admirable tenets--and all religions have been the given reason for the commission of crimes and atrocities.

But what needs to be remembered the ALL Jews are not the same, ALL Christians are not the same, and ALL Muslims are not the same. It depends on WHAT KIND of Jew, Christian or Muslim one decides to be.

That's what seems to be forgotten by the hysterics. Feisal AbduL Rauf is deftinitely NOT Osama bin Laden. Nor, I suspect, is American Islam anything like the crackbrained version practiced by Al-Queda.

Potter said...

Bernhard Avishai this is one of your best ever. A real keeper. We need our public intellectuals to do just what you have done. We need those that have the intelligence and sensibility, to lay it out, to argue the points, to correct the reasoning, to appeal to our better selves, to appeal to our basic humanity.

The "mosque" ( really a community center) issue hit a nerve and was seized upon by political animals of all stripe as well as spiritual leaders. Those looked to for their opinions had to weigh in. Howard Dean disappointed. Harry Reid I wish I could say disappointed. Bloomberg did good, surprisingly so. This is a moment where people in the public light have to register one way or another so we know their idea of this country we live in that we claim to be above the others in principle and righteousness.

Obama said that a mosque or any house of worship could not be prevented from being built anywhere it is legal to do so. But then he said that he was not going to say whether it was wise. Well that in fact tells us that he did not think it was wise! So he said the minimal. Heaven forbid if people accused him of being a Muslim. What forbid him to say that he was proud of his background?

In fact there is no better place for and Islamic community center- right where it matters most, where people must come to terms with not only with Islam, and the variety of people who take this path ( to the same place that all religions essentially wind up), but come to terms more with themselves.

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Peter Schwartz said...

But you know, Potter...

It would've behooved the organizers of this center to have planned and publicized the new center around this message to begin with.

Instead, they seemed to have chosen this spot because, well, it met their needs for space, location, etc., all the normal stuff.

They didn't see the symbolism or the symbolic value, and they didn't take the initiative in imbuing the project with this symbolism.

They were surprised by the reaction. The meaning that you and others have given to this project...

"...there is no better place for and Islamic community center- right where it matters most..."

...has been overlaid onto the project retroactively. It's almost as if we're saying, "Now that we're thinking about it, this IS a really good idea and here's why..."

This would have been and could still be an opportunity for Rauf to take center stage...become somebody in the public eye...and speak of these things. And yet he remains in the background where rumors incubate. All the people involved are "strange dark people" whose portraits in the newspaper are reminiscent of the unadorned, flat photos you see of criminals.

And the fact that all this meaning is being adduced retroactively only makes the haters more suspicious that this is all a bunch of bull cooked up by elitists (Bernie) acting as the willing tools of terrorists (Rauf).

EYE find it hard to parse Bernie sometimes. Imagine the guy in the street. I agree, a great piece, but not what's needed really.

Because notice, Bernie is dissing fundamentalists and turning their world upside down. How do you think Christian fundamentalists protesting in Tenn are going to feel about that? ("He feels closer to Muslims than Jews and Christians--huh?").

Potter said...

Peter, sometimes the work involved is revealed only after taking first steps. Then you either turn away from it or roll your sleeves up. The Imam has his work cut out and he will need help.

I think what matters most is forcing some familiarity, educating. There is a lot fear based on ignorance and people in high places taking advantage of those fears for personal gain. So it will take spending days weeks months years for such a center to alleviate the worst fears while also enduring violence perpetrated upon it. But perhaps it will soon add to the cultural richness of NYC as every other group/religion has: the Japan Society, the Asia Society, the Hispanic Society of America, and other Islamic Centers in the city... and set an example for the rest of the country in doing so.

Since Islam spans many ethnicities this center can have rich and varied exhibitions, lectures, music programs. It can address the September 11th tragedy head on vs. a vs. Islam.

I grew up in NYC and I will tell you that we were never taught anything about Islam. Being Jewish, I learned a lot about Christianity, I can tell you that. The study of history in those days, and probably still, focused on western civilization as if that is all the history that mattered.

We enter this 21st globalizing century pretty much handicapped in our knowledge about a huge part of the world. I think this center is a very small step and it needs to happen just at this sore point precisely because of all the uproar. Not ten blocks away where it can be ignored.

Shoded Yam said...

" fact there is no better place for and Islamic community center- right where it matters most, where people must come to terms with not only with Islam, and the variety of people who take this path ( to the same place that all religions essentially wind up), but come to terms more with themselves."

I'm sorry Potter, but I don't agree. I think to either ignore or discount the sensitivities of millions of Americans as they relate to 9/11 and ground zero in order to make some grand statement about religous freedom in America under these particular circumstances is irresponsible, foolhardy as well as being intellectually dishonest.

In general, I don't buy into the concept of altruism and "the public good" as a motivator for anything. Most people are self-asorbed, narcissists and I see no reason to believe that muslim americans are any different. I suggest that the reasons behind the Cordoba House intiative have more to do with Muslim-American insecurities rather than some abstract civic expression. I also suggest that the demand to construct a muslim community center on the site of the WTC is a demand by Muslim Americans that other Americans reassure them that their community will not share the blame for 9/11. If Muslim Americans want to have this discussion over the rubble of ground zero, than fine. Lets have that discussion, but lets cut the bullshit.

Potter said...

It's not about altruism Shoded Yam- or the public good. It's about overcoming fears and ignorance which allows people who would to take advantage. Okay call it the public good- but it's not altruism. It's understanding tolerance of those who are not you but who you would be or could be.

Self-absorbed narcissists learn the hard way- but there is no need for them to take us all with them.

As well- this world is fantastically varied. There is no one truth or one beauty.

Perhaps you are right about Muslim American insecurity as a motivator but that is ( or could be) the point of entry into the broader community. Why not have or start the discussion at ground zero? let's have the bullshit as a starter course.

I usually agree with you but you are more cynical than I- and perhaps I more hopeful about breaking through bullshit.

Potter said...

"I'm sorry Potter, but I don't agree. I think to either ignore or discount the sensitivities of millions of Americans as they relate to 9/11 and ground zero in order to make some grand statement about religous freedom in America under these particular circumstances is irresponsible, foolhardy as well as being intellectually dishonest."

As I understand this- It's not merely about religious freedom,ie the right to pray, the right to have a house of worship close-by. It's an attempt to address what people are hiding and harboring under their "sensitivities". Not allowing such an endeavor is placating our worst instincts, covered over by a different color bullshit and given a seal of approval.

Peter Schwartz said...

I can't disagree with your principles, Potter. A lot will depend on how this "turns out."

Looking back, it will seem to be a brilliant move that was a turning point. Or it will strike people as an obvious, dumbshit move, and why couldn't they have relocated.

A lot will depend on the imam and his friends. All those folks who are supporting him now will need to STAY with him through the years to make this a success.

None of this making a big statement about religious freedom and then exiting stage left. The center, if it gets built, will only be the beginning of this.

And don't forget, there are quite a few parallel struggles with other mosques going on around the country.

I have to smile, though, at the way the hinterlanders have suddenly adopted NYC as "their" land, too. I thought it was the land of the elites and natter nabobs and sinners. See how Muslims have brought us together already?

Potter said...

Michael Kinsley's piece in Slate linked above in Bernard Avishai's puts it very well.

The news tonight ( Sunday) showed the opposing demonstrations for/against this project. People who know they are bigots were out their with their signs, admitting it and proud of it. They have been outed. Now they should see themselves.

Mission ( at least partly) accomplished.

Peter Schwartz said...

Yesterday, I got an email from a friend with a bunch of photos of Muslim men in the middle of the street, or taking up much of the sidewalk, in various spots in NYC praying.

The photos looked like these men had decided to "put on a mosque right here"...or the crowd had overflowed the prayer room out into the street. They could have been real, or they could have been doctored.

She asked me if I thought these photos were real or photo-shopped. The caption mentioned that these men were even "blocking traffic."

I said I didn't think so. If they were, it would've been on the news and would have drawn bigger crowds than were apparent from the photos.

Anyway, this devolved into a red hot rant centered around her fear of Muslims, Islam, what was going to happen to this country, how Muslim women are like the oppressed Jews, how it creeps her out to be standing next to a woman with a full burka concealing her entire person, including eyes, why would an observant Muslim want to live here in the first place, and so on.

Really took me off-guard, especially as this woman, a conservative, is reasonably well educated, well traveled, and doesn't live in a gated community of any sort.

Nor is she Jewish or a member of the Jewish establishment.

She felt I was being PC in my responses (which you can imagine), and she was talking about "how it is." I stayed calm, but she got hotter and hotter.

Made me realize how strong the feelings are around this issue and other interconnected issues.

potter said...

What we have been seeing in this country lately that has been coming out of the woodwork, so to speak, makes me feel that we have no right to claim that we are such a great example here of tolerance. We have our own bigots to battle.

What's worse is that this works contrary to our "security" both here and in the lands that we have sent forces presumably to battle terrorists.

I have had such disarming conversations as well- my own mother has disappointed me in this way. She knows better too. But it's a visceral thing. I think the only way to overcome this reptilian brain reaction is to expose ourselves to what we fear, to educate ourselves- to be made, if necessary, to experience the people who we have to live next to in our society. This happens already a lot in New York City and has happened through it's history. City people have and will work this out quickly if there is no interference from elsewhere.

Let Muslim women fight for their own rights if they want them. I often see Muslim women in headscarves around here ( suburban MA)- we are surprisingly multicultural. Only once, in the supermarket I saw a woman in a burka and it was really startling to see. She floated under this pale blue tent. Her husband and the kids, dressed as we normally do here, looked so ordinary... but she stood out. I thought it was awful if he, dressed in shorts and a tee shirt, made her wear it. But that is her choice or her battle. In France, they are legislating against the burka, which is extreme, one reason, perhaps legitimate, is because it can hide people with ill intentions- because we, in the public space, have a right to see faces. But France has a hard time with people who are different too.

Peter Schwartz said...

What's odd for me, as a Jew, is that I've been to Israel and have never known an Israeli. Never once spoken to one in my 58 years. I have some distant family there, but have never communicated with them.

By contrast, I've known and worked with Palestinians, Syrians, tons of Lebanese, Iraqis, Moroccans, including Berbers and Jews, Sudanese, Egyptians, Iranians galore, Pakistanis, Bengalis, Somalis, Nubians, Malians, Afghans, Yemenis, Saudis, Kuwaitis...and probably speak more Arabic than I do Hebrew.

I haven't gone out of my way to make this so; it's just been the way it's turned out. Many of the women dress with head scarves, and it's rare to see the full burka, which does make them look a bit like they're floating down the street on a carpet of air-:)

So I find it a bit hard to empathize with this particular fear, even though I can point to the reasons for it. No doubt I have other fears they don't have.

Peter Schwartz said...

Should have said..."never been to Israel."

David Fryman said...

Nicely said.

Peter Schwartz said...

Potter said: "Let Muslim women fight for their own rights if they want them."

I know what you mean, I think, but it's complicated. There ARE legitimate difficulties when cultures with opposing views and practices try to live with each other.

Live and let live is relatively easy when one's beliefs are purely private. It isn't so easy with religions like Judaism and Islam that attempt to legislate the public square. Christianity, too, with people who genuinely believe that abortion is murder.

The idea of simply allowing Muslim women to fight for their own rights--in effect abandoning them--seems a little odd. There are places where we clearly support the larger society "interfering" in people's private lives IF the public interest is compelling enough.

Beyond that, there are cultural clashes that need to brokered and resolved, hopefully peacefully.

Not well put, I'm sorry, but I think there are a host of issues we sometimes glide over without much thought because we've decided that it's all about X.

At the level of culture, it's disturbing for Saudis to see women walk around uncovered. Women who go to those cultures try to respect those customs. Similarly, some Americans find it disturbing to stand in line next to a woman covered head to toe peering out from behind a mesh.

Of course, in our society, she has every right to do so. But it's also true, that many Americans find it unnerving, culturally. It's somewhat limiting to think America is culture-free and that it's culture shouldn't be respected or is simply a matter of what the law and the Constitution say. After all, we do largely ban women and men from standing in line naked or, in the case of women, topless--yet one could argue that, as a matter of right, they should be allowed to dress the way they want to.

Susan said...

NY Neighbors for American Values was formed in order to provide support for Park 51 and the elected officials who have spoken out intelligently and a more tempered voice in this manufactured controversy. We include a large number of "mainstream" groups and are gathering more each day. Our press conference on Wednesday announcing the formation of the coalition and it organizing principles got a decent amount of coverage. Keith Olbermann referred to the coalition as a "possible antidote" to the fear-mongering. We are seeking to cap and turn this frenzy. Unfortunately, it is probably the slashing of the Pakistani taxi-driver which will do more to stop the irresponsible provocations of politicians in silly season than anything anyone else does. More information here:

Potter said...

Peter- I don't mean abandon Muslim women. We might join them in their fight, giving moral support- and get the law to operate if any practice is against it. But it has to begin with them. Some Muslim women want their veils and burkas. We have not legislated against what people wear- as long as they wear something it can also be skimpy. Some people might find it offensive to stand in line next to someone barely clad... or wierdly clad. I found the burka disturbing, but it had to do with lack of exposure to such things and also my wondering about the woman's freedom not to wear it. I also found it disturbing not to see her face. I am used to looking at faces. But it ended there with a shrug.

No religion or cultural/political group can "legislate" regard to the abortion rights or any rights; this is the battle line because attempts are made, strong pressure is applied. So cheers for

The opposition to the center who claim "sensitivities", when you listen to them seem to actually be voicing fear hatred and prejudice. They should not get to "legislate" in the public square... mob rule in which those most agitated get their way.

Anonymous said...

You a lot you self hating non descript professors who make money from crap and extended logic so that it is not logical anymore but breeds hysteria.
You are enemies of the stae of Israel and I am not even a Jew.

Just a physician in Georgia.
Leave Isreal go to East Jerusalem or the USA or Canada.

Potter said...

More out of the woodwork. I guess if you make too much sense it explodes some folks', even supposedly educated folks, brains. Which reminds me of this:

This Man Already Knows Everything He Needs To Know About Muslims

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