Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What the fight over Park51, the planned Muslim community center near Ground Zero, is really all about

We really are in the dog days of summer.

Americans, apparently with nothing better to worry about, are still clashing heatedly over Park51, the planned Muslim community center (note: it's not really a mosque) near (note: not at) Ground Zero. I wrote about it before I went away on vacation a couple of weeks ago, my co-bloggers addressed it during my absence, and here I am writing about it upon my return. It's the story that just won't go away -- and understandably so, perhaps, as it has all the easy-to-digest and easy-to-regurgitate elements needed to keep the media interested and eager to feed it, including the language of the culture wars and the simplistic, self-serving conservative-spun narrative of us versus them, good versus evil, "America" (the distorted idea of America according to current conservative ideology) versus Islam(ism).

I don't need to rehash the clash here, and I probably don't need to restate my position on it. But let's go back to August 4 for a moment, when I responded to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's brilliant speech in support of the community center:

The conservatives attacking the "Ground Zero mosque" -- which is neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque -- do not honour those who died on 9/11, nor the Constitution, nor America itself. Rather, they spew bigotry, anti-Muslim bigotry, and seek to divide the country into "us" and "them," in so doing playing right into the hands of those who question America's commitment to its long-held values, proving America's enemies right. And in opposing the construction of the community center, these conservatives are proving to be a lot like al Qaeda and bin Laden, intolerant religious extremists who reject religious conciliation and understanding.

America should be better than that, and better than its enemies, and Michael Bloomberg clearly wants it to be. Ground Zero will remain what it has become, sacred ground, no matter what surrounds it, but the Islamic cultural center will be proof that America actually lives up to its values and principles -- to freedom -- even in the face of uncompromising adversity.

Nothing has changed -- other than the conservative attacks, which have gotten uglier, nastier, and stupider -- and I stand by that today.


Bloomberg has continued to champion the community center, putting in the larger context of what this is all about. As he put it yesterday:

But if we say that a mosque and community center should not be built near the perimeter of the World Trade Center site, we would compromise our commitment to fighting terror with freedom.

We would undercut the values and principles that so many heroes died protecting. We would feed the false impressions that some Americans have about Muslims. We would send a signal around the world that Muslim Americans may be equal in the eyes of the law, but separate in the eyes of their countrymen. And we would hand a valuable propaganda tool to terrorist recruiters, who spread the fallacy that America is at war with Islam.

Islam did not attack the World Trade Center -- Al-Qaeda did. To implicate all of Islam for the actions of a few who twisted a great religion is unfair and un-American. Today we are not at war with Islam -- we are at war with Al-Qaeda and other extremists who hate freedom.

A stirring speech, and a stirring articulation of what America should be fighting for.


Let me be clear about something, though. While I applaud the Cordoba Initiative's efforts to bridge the divide between Islam and the West, as well as to "[seek] to actively promote engagement through a myriad of programs, by reinforcing similarities and addressing differences," as it states on its website, it's not like I think Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the head of Cordoba (which is closely involved with Park51), is such a wonderful guy. As Christopher Hitchens noted at Slate on Monday, Cordoba "full of euphemisms about Islamic jihad and Islamic theocracy." That might be overstating it somewhat -- Rauf is closer to Fox News (as Jon Stewart has pointed out in some fantastic reporting recently) than to jihadism or theocracy -- but it's fair to say, I think, that Rauf's record is not without its troubling points. (Fox News is gleefully reporting Rauf's remarks made at a 2005 conference in Australia that "[w]e tend to forget, in the West, that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than Al Qaeda has on its hands of innocent non-Muslims." But Rauf obviously wasn't excusing al Qaeda, he was just pointing out an undeniable fact, one that Americans, who generally have no idea what the world thinks of them, and why, would apparently rather ignore.)

As a liberal, I agree with Hitchens that tolerance must be a two-way street. Rauf, Cordoba, and Park51 ought to be tolerated, not least in a country that claims to value liberty and diversity, but there must also be tolerance by Muslims as well. And, yes, tolerance is sorely lacking in some quarters of the Muslim world, including among some American Muslims. (But, then, it is also sorely lacking in many, many quarters of American society, including among conservatives, as this clash has highlighted.) So while I object to the efforts to stop the community center, I also object to efforts, whether by Muslims or non-Muslims, to restrict liberty generally. America should be welcoming of Muslims and Islam, but, in America, Muslims and Islam also need to play by America's rules.

That applies, say, to Christian fundamentalists as well. I abhor Islamic theocracy, but I also abhor Christian or any other kind of theocracy. Liberals, after all, must be vigorous in the defence of liberty and must not let tolerance subvert freedom. There is nothing wrong with not tolerating theocracy and jihadism.


But let us not go too far the other way either. What we must strive for, even as we promote and defend liberty, is balance. The question comes down to what ought to be tolerated.

It would be one thing, obviously, if Rauf were setting up a terrorist training facility at Park51. That would be acceptable neither close to Ground Zero nor anywhere else. But he isn't. He's involved with setting up a community center that "will be dedicated to pluralism, service, arts and culture, education and empowerment, appreciation for our city and a deep respect for our planet. Park51 will join New York to the world, offering a welcoming community center with multiple points of entry," one that "[u]phold[s] respect for the diversity of expression and ideas between all people." And the project is hardly disrespectful of the victims of 9/11: "[T]here won't be any views of the Ground Zero memorial from the building. To honor those killed on September 11th, we have planned for a public memorial within our future facility as well as reflection space open to all.

But of course the demented conservative worldview has no place for such things, so inflamed is it with fear, hatred, and loathing. Which means the clash isn't over, not with Republicans hoping to cash in politically on a manufactured controversy like this come November, not with conservatives seething with rage and spewing propaganda, and not with the media more than happy to play into conservatives' hands by keeping the story alive.

The fight for liberty and diversity, for the very heart of what it means to be American, must continue, even as the un-American ideas and activities of conservatives spin further and further to the extreme.

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