The Political and the Wretched

(Updated Below)

The separation of adjectives in the title is an act of forlorn hope against almost all evidence. There have actually emerged isolated instances of thoughtful, free-thinking, and humanistic consideration of the Cordoba Initiative Islamic center in lower Manhattan, but they are overwhelmed by the worst manifestations of reflexive political contention. All evidence now is that if any kind of compromise is reached on the center, it will be the product of political physics: opposing forces acting on a situation that is somehow altered by the pressures. Any ideal of exploratory democratic debate will have had nothing to do with it.

Let us stipulate two conditions of the current state of affairs. One is that the loudest public voices against the center, like the Republican leadership in general – from Palin and Gingrich to Limbaugh and Beck, from Pamela Geller and Rick Lazio to varied Christian and Tea Party voices – represent a debased low in American political culture below which it would be difficult to fall without demagogic threat to the republic. They actively incite fear and loathing, xenophobia and ignorance. It is a wonder to consider how conservatives, who nearly deify the nation’s founders in their rhetoric, can fail to recognize the descent in those they now lionize from a god-like golden to a paltry and dishonorable iron age.

The second stipulation is how little is known by most people, and how much is misrepresented by others, about the controversial mosque. I do not even mean by this especially what has become the tiresome refrain of “mosque supporters” that the “Ground Zero Mosque” is not even on Ground Zero. Yes, one wonders, and what is the precise location in space of a symbol? Where is the Cordoba of the Cordoba initiative – in the minds of those who claim it as a symbol of tolerance or of those who think it a signal of conquest? You say it is just a cigar, Herr Freud – then why am I so aroused?

The second stipulation begins with the fact that the mosque is already there, in lower Manhattan, only blocks from the WTC site. It has been there for years, symbolizing little to any other than those who pray in it. The controversy begins with plans to replace the mosque with a more imposing structure with more imposing ambitions. For in order to symbolize, a symbol first has to be detected: it has to be read as a symbol. The mosque-Islamic center is now being read.

According to The New York Times and other accounts that have developed in the aftermath of controversy, there was little if any original intent to create what is now a positively spun tribute to tolerance. The more mundane intent was to further pursue the mainstreaming of Islam in American culture by building the Muslim equivalent to a YMCA or YWHA.

“Strollers,” said [Joy Levitt, executive director of the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan], whom [Daisy] Khan had approached for advice on how to build an institution like the Jewish center — with a swimming pool, art classes and joint projects with other religious groups. Ms. Levitt, a rabbi, urged Ms. Khan to focus on practical matters like a decent wedding hall and stroller parking.

Ms. Khan and her husband, Imam Abdul Rauf, never anticipated, so never planned for – with PR representation, more extensive community outreach, any kind of deeply detailed briefing book – the volatile reaction that ensued. A briefing book would have been impossible since, by all accounts, no funds have yet been raised for the center, no architect and contractors have been hired to build it, and no board has been chosen to direct it. There is no evidence that Rauf and Khan have been anything other than surprisingly politically naïve in their approach to the project, especially given Rauf’s history as an active political voice of Muslim moderation. What might nonetheless sour some who resist the ugliness of the political Right is the subsequent political spinning about a tribute to tolerance. I don’t know, says the patient, ill and distressed, this doesn’t taste very good. Returns the good doctor, Well, it’s good for you. Now swallow it.

These stipulations offered, what is so wrong about the whole pathetic excuse for debate over the Islamic center is how completely driven it is by politics and ideological warfare rather than any truly human considerations. The outspoken voices on the Right, beyond their authentic nativist xenophobia, in political calculation play significantly to the fears and ignorance of a vulnerable and aroused constituency. They are working an electoral issue, and they are working it well, because the Left in all its intellectualized high-mindedness has engaged the issue only in response to the conservative political class, attacking the excesses of that class and completely ignoring at best and insulting at a common worst their fellow citizens.

Poll after poll tells us that the majority of Americans are uncomfortable with this particular Islamic center at this particular location. No – a free, democratic nation is not governed by polls, despite what Republicans have tried to argue for nearly two years about health care and other issues. But we take polls in order to gain insight into what the populace thinks and feels. Does the Left – those outspoken supporters of the center – even care what the American people think and feel? And if they feel it, is that beneath degrading consideration? The loudest voices on the Left appear consistently no so much as advocates of the Islamic center, but as opponents of the opponents of the center. Typical of many old and new media Left organs has been Talking Points Memo, which from the start has paid scant attention to Americans themselves and simply cannot entertain an argument against the center other than to mock and belittle it as cynical.

It isn’t enough for Republicans to call on “peaceful Muslims” to “refudiate” the mosque and community center proposed for a site near Ground Zero, or to imply that the funding for it comes from terrorist organizations, or even to tell American Muslims that their religious freedoms should be held hostage to the decisions of the Saudi government. Nope. The new Republican talking point used to try to stop the construction of the community center and mosque — and to make political hay of that opposition — is that Ground Zero is their Auschwitz, and the Muslims who seek to build anywhere near it should know better, just like some nice nuns did in the eighties.

This brief passage, except for the missing, common and genuine Leftside paeans to religious liberty, perfectly reflects the nature of Liberal argument these many months. There is no argument against the location of the Islamic center that TPM and others will dignify as genuine or genuinely offered or offered by anyone other than a Republican hack. The Auschwitz analogy, while not my proposed solution, is that rare analogy narrow enough in comparison to offer worthwhile consideration, and this non Republican-talking-point would be happy to debate it with Megan Carpentier as soon she can turn off the Liberal snark loop she has running in her brain.

Even today, after not very ingenuously using the George W. Bush and Karen Hughes post 9/11 outreach to Muslims as a Liberal talking point against today’s Right, now that Hughes – agree with her or not – has come out sensitively and reasonably against the location of the center, TPM has engaged the predictable campaign against her honesty. If you read the links, whether Hughes remembers working with Rauf in the past and whether she is being honest about remembering is completely irrelevant to the argument she made about the Islamic center. But why engage arguments when there is mud to be slung and a case to be built on the mound of it?

In a debate like this the Left gets to dress itself in better garb than the Right. The Right at its worst seems angry, hateful, even ignorant. The Left gets to stand up for tolerance and civil rights. The Left gets to be big because it has so well left the pain of 9/11 behind and distinguishes oh, so properly about who is an enemy and who is not. Something strikes, however. The Left, does it not, bleeds compassion for the wronged and the wounded? That is the dismissive conservative charge against the Left – bleeding hearts. The hearts bleed so much that even after 9/11 – to varying degrees at various points along the scale of Leftness – there were public expressions or private thoughts of understanding of what had happened. It was blowback from American foreign policy. Yes, it was wrong to do what the obviously crazed extremists had done, but it didn’t come out of nowhere, so many on the Left thought. Imam Rauf himself is now widely quoted from a Sixty Minutes interview as condemning the attack but acknowledging that the U.S. was, in a sense, an “accessory” to the crime because of some of its policies. No sense holding this thought particularly against the Muslim but nonetheless American Rauf, because many other non-Muslim Americans thought it too.

All this understanding, but none – and I mean none – for their fellow Americans. You will find solid citizens of the Left answering phones at rape help lines, at trauma centers for the victims of torture, lending helping hands to political refugees and the scarred of war torn nations – but for the American hurt of 9/11, in this argument, little but contempt. Let there be a third stipulation – that wherever there is pain and mistrust and the unfamiliar or foreign, there will be ignorance and bigotry. There will be people who act from out of those feelings and narrow ideas. But if you listen to the purely politically-trained arguments of the anti anti-mosque voices, they would have you think that there are no others uncomfortable with the location of the Islamic center. If you are opposed in any way to the Islamic center being constructed just as conceived by its originators and supporters, you are a bigot acting out of an “Islamophobia” increasingly likened to anti-Semitism.

It is a not-so-secret dirty secret of the Left that many on it are dismissive of the intelligence of the general population. How else to account for decades of mostly conservative rule? And poll results like those about President Obama’s religion, in part the cynical product of the conservative campaign against him, help make the argument that there will always be a segment of any population that is ignorant and susceptible to manipulation and fear of the other. But if you listen to the tenor of Liberal arguments, then you must conclude that most of the country and Liberal New York City now fits this description. Good luck to the Dems in November.

It’s time, then, to question some shibboleths. Religious tolerance, for instance. Oh, my God – what? No, I’m not against it. I am very much for it, because I am for – like my own self – freedom of speech and of the press and of association and all the other freedoms that along with the right of privacy create for the individual what should be an inviolate integrity of personhood. But tolerance can be the way you tolerate your neighbor’s obnoxious kid. It does not mean you have to like or respect him or even the parents that produced him. Tolerating a religion and its practice does not mean you have to like it either, and if you are free to disapprove of another’s political ideas, or your neighbor’s ideas on child rearing, then you are free to disapprove of someone else’s religious ideas too. If you aren’t running for political office, you don’t need to mouth the usual palaver favoring all and preferring none.

Because of the role of religion in the nation’s origins, and because religious faith, unlike a national narrative of identity, addresses the most profound fears and aspirations of every human life – the matter of any meaning at all to our existence, and of our existential terror about life and death – the very notion of the sacred adheres to it. No matter how preposterous the theology or doctrine, religion, concerning itself with God, is sacred. Nationalism, no more or less a narrative of personal meaning, is storytelling bound by the constraints of this world. Far from sacred, it is mean. Better challenge the worth of a man’s home team as question the value of his religion. In the spirit of good citizenship and religious fellowship, we are supposed to offer that all those insignificant differences of doctrine and practice aside – all those absolute declarations of straight gates and narrow ways discounted – all religions are really just about God and love and eternity. I wear pinstripes; you wear Dodger blue. We all love the game of baseball.

However, the indigenous populations of the world, among others, might be forgiven – actually, not, for the most part – if many among them, given the religion’s role in abetting and justifying their conquest, do not think Christianity the greatest thing since the Resurrection. Similarly, if one looks around the world at Islam, what does one see?

There are over 50 states with majority Muslim populations.  Some, like Indonesia, are relatively democratic but are also largely secular.  Others, like Kuwait, hold free and fair elections for a parliament that has no real power.   In fact, there are a wide variety of political systems across the Islamic world, but as of yet there are none that could truly be considered both Islamic and democratic.

In fact, many of the most undemocratic nations of the world are identifiably, theologically Muslim. Sam Harris among lots of others cites chapter and verse of elements and concepts of Islam to which he objects in stating his own opposition to the center. If one objects to Islamic theological doctrine, or to Christian doctrine, or to that of any other religion, if one notes with displeasure the culture and the political nature of a religion – such objection does not an “Islamophobe” or “Christophobe” or any other contentious political nonce word make. Of course, American Muslims did not attack the U.S. on 9/11. They are not Al-Qaeda or the Taliban or the Iranian theocracy. They have every right of every other American. But to argue that the 9/11 attack had nothing to do with Islam – as do not the Taliban and the Iranian Ayatollahs and Hamas and Hezbollah and the Gulf State patriarchies, the Muslims elsewhere who rejoiced at the attack? – is sheer casuistry.

Religious faiths are systems of ideas. They are not biological characteristics like skin color and ethnicity. One may reject a system of ideas and not despise the person who adheres to it. To sweepingly dismiss opponents of the Islamic center as bigots, or to liken the passions of the moment to anti-Semitism, as Daisy Khan did this Sunday on ABC’s This Week, is an insult that obscures the very low nature of racism and the long historical virulence of anti-Semitism. Those Americans who mistrust Islam, even dislike it, do not come by their feelings irrationally – they have cause for what they think and feel. They have eyes and ears to see and hear Islam in the world around them, just as the Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere can see that the Christian civilization that usurped them has no regret for what it did, can hear the Pope justify the Church to them on a visit to Latin America.

In all this global reality, to take cover in thoughtless, general accusations of bigotry is to belie the claim of an open hand of reconciliation and healing.

There may be no more telling truth in this dispute than one I pointed out before. Nowhere in these debates is it ever mentioned, still – certainly not by those who oppose the opponents – that the war that began as a response to the 9/11 attacks is still going on. Feel about that war as you wish, in the name of Islam, men flew planes that attacked the nation and killed thousands. They perpetrated the attack led by men who were harbored in a nation ruled by a barbaric Islamic theocracy. The United States sent its army to that nation, Afghanistan, to wage a war – and that war is still in progress. American soldiers die there every week.

Are Americans so small that they still feel the wound of the attack? Are they so mean and common that they might wish the World Trade Center itself rebuilt, and the war ended, and no more Americans dying because of 9/11, before there would be talk of so high profile an Islamic construct so close to the source of their pain? Are those who appear to live ideologically and ideally so far above such base emotions really so much better than this?

If the past decade has persuaded me of anything, it is that a healthy, powerful democracy, if it is not to be led astray into empire, if it is not to fall into decadence, should not rely in time of war on a professional, standing army. Any extended conflict should require the full commitment of the nation’s resources, there being no greater and more pronounced resource that the bodily and mental investment of the citizenry. If the leadership of a nation will pursue wars that its people will not support through obligatory military service, then there is something wrong with the war, the leadership, or the nation. And if wars are fought – two even! – for nearly a decade, with most of the population able to live their lives as if the conflicts were those not of their own, but of foreign nations, among peoples they do not know and with whom they have no personal connection, then we will reap at best, not worst, the kind of cluelessly superior emotional disconnection and condescension to be witnessed among so many who so disdain the feelings of their fellows.

The principles are clear. American Muslims, as do any other religious adherents, have a right to a house of worship wherever law otherwise permits. In the light of circumstance, a right existing need not be a right exercised, but the reality is that the mosque is already there. The question surrounds not the mosque, but this greater Islamic center, burdened now in the prospect with the weight of a disputed symbolism its proponents have given it as much as anyone. Rauf and Khan say they want it to bring us together. It is driving us apart. They can stand their ground amid the growing acrimony and pretend that what they are doing is good for the nation. Well, it’s good for you. Now swallow it.

Alternatively, they could move the site of the new center. But if the present mosque serves an actual local residential community, a move would be a disservice to its members, and the present mosque should not be driven away. Since the planned center is to contain, again, a mosque for religious prayer, as already exists, but was to be greater with the addition of so much more – why not alter the planned additions. Let it not be an Islamic center or another “Y.” New York has other centers and other “Y”s. An Islamic center can be built anywhere. Let it be, instead, something truly extraordinary. Let it be what I proposed before and propose again.

I propose the following. The deeply, institutionally religious of all faiths, those such as the Imam, are great preachers of the universal godly love their religions have to offer. Privately, we know they have offered many people solace and courage against the losses of this world and the fears of what may lie beyond. Communally, they have offered rewarding and reassuring fellowship. Publically, however, the world’s great religions have been among the greatest sources of divisive hate and destruction in human history. From the era of the great Crusades, to the wars and bloodletting of the Protestant Reformation, to the panoply of historical religious persecutions, to the conquest of the Americas and 9/11 itself, organized religions have unleashed a scourge of hatred upon the world to match the love they all profess. Why not, instead of a Muslim center that welcomes all, a truly nondenominational religious center established and endowed by all of the world’s major faiths and dedicated to the study and reflection on this great and sorrowful contradiction in their legacies.

That would be a monument to the lives and deaths of those in the Towers and elsewhere, and there need be no bad feelings, and no politics of image restoration, or charges of bigotry – just a commitment to reflecting on the nature of a spiritual disease that has long beset the world.

Under the circumstances as they have developed, I can see even less reason for anything other than such a reconceived center than I did before. The alternative is a zero-sum game with winners and losers, lingering resentment, and abiding animosity. The alternative is a deepening of the chasm already opened among the American people, who have fled from it to find their refuge on peaks of safety among camps of the like minded. There they stand, looking out across the way at those on the other side. They are calling to each other, their voices swallowed by the distance and the wind rush. They are trying to say something to one another. If we listen, if we lean in and cock our ears just so, we can just make out what they are saying. We can hear their calls.

“Fools,” they are crying. “Fools.”


UPDATE: A major, thoughtless meme being promulgated by the critics of Islamic center opposition is that the opposition represents an outbreak of bigotry, an “Islamophobia” that is, by nature of that phobia, irrational. I addressed that idea argumentatively above. Yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, Jonah Goldberg offered an empirical argument. (Yes, I know – it’s Jonah Goldberg, but evidence is evidence, at least that’s what I teach my students. Shall I revise the official course outline? If anyone has contradictory data, send it on in.) In contrast, Keith Olbermann led his broadcast last night – the lead national headline – with the story of the Muslim New York cabbie who was attacked yesterday. Surprise – there are troubled, drunken, stupid boobs in the world. As I recall, there was a rather disturbed Army psychiatrist who killed a bunch of people a while back, and did he for Olbermann represent anything beyond himself? (Of course, Major Nidal Malik Hasan had been in communication with terrorist elements abroad. We’ll find about the taxi cab slasher. That evidence thing again.) For yet another perspective, from today’s New York Times, Looking at Islamic Center Debate, World Sees U.S.:

Far more common, however, was a sort of shrug of the shoulders from clerics and observers accustomed to far more unpleasant debates. While extremists have presented the controversy as proof of American hostility toward Islam, some religious leaders have taken quite a different stance, arguing against placing the center close to ground zero.

Dalil Boubakeur, head of the Grande Mosquée of Paris and one of the most senior Islamic clerics in France, told France-Soir: “There are symbolic places that awaken memories whether you mean to or not. And it isn’t good to awaken memories.”

A senior cleric at Egypt’s Al Azhar, the closest equivalent in the Sunni Islamic world to the Vatican, said that building at the proposed location sounded like bad judgment on the part of American Muslims.

“It will create a permanent link between Islam and 9/11,” said Abdel Moety Bayoumi, a member of the Islamic Research Institute at Al Azhar. “Why should we put ourselves and Islam in a position of blame?”

Now swallow. It’s good for you.


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3 thoughts on “The Political and the Wretched

  1. Today’s Washington Post offered “Five Myths About Mosques in America”. The article included the facts that “[o]ne of the first mosques in North American history was on Kent Island, Md.” (1731-33) and that in the first half of the 20th C., the Midwest claimed “the greatest number of permanent U.S. mosques”.

    It’s an interesting read. Its author is Edward E. Curtis IV, who wrote “Muslims in America: A Short History”. He’s holding an online discussion at noon on 8/31 via the Post.

  2. Cordoba and the “Golden Age” of Islamic conquest and dhimmitude is a complete white-wash of history. The mosque can easily (and reasonably) be interpreted as a symbol of Islamic dominance and imperialism and have already been endorsed by terrorist groups.

    This proposed building is absolutely not a symbol of tolerance. If it was, they would not be building here as it is clear that people do not want a mosque built in a building that was damaged by 9/11, and especially they do not want it being built by a radical Muslim who refuses to condemn terrorist groups, advocates for the destruction of Israel, and describes America as an accessory to the 9/11 attacks. This is the man who is building a mosque on a property damaged from the 9/11 attacks, to be completed on the 10th anniversary of such attacks… and he has refused suggestions to simply move it’s location to date. The reason behind the stubbornness is because they were not building a “YMCA” at all. The project is not about “tolerance” or “dialogue”. It is a one-way conversation. It is all these factors together, as a package, that cause the problem.

    I could write more, but you wrote so much(!) 🙂

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