On The Cordoba House Project

I’m thinking of converting to Islam, just to annoy a Republican.

I’ve watched the news coverage the past month of the “controversy” over the Cordoba House project in New York City where a 13-story Burlington Coat Factory building two blocks from where the World Trade Center stood will be renovated into an Islamic community center. Republicans have turned this into a cause celebre, claiming that (for example) it violates the “hallowed ground” of the Trade Center, that it is a symbol of radical Islam’s desire to convert the United States through jihad. It’s difficult to keep up with the anger on the right toward the Cordoba House project, because so much of it strikes me as nonsensical and incomprehensible.

As an example, former Speaker of the House and 1945 co-author Newt Gingrich wrote:

The proposed “Cordoba House” overlooking the World Trade Center site — where a group of jihadists killed over 3000 Americans and destroyed one of our most famous landmarks — is a test of the timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American elites. For example, most of them don’t understand that “Cordoba House” is a deliberately insulting term. It refers to Cordoba, Spain — the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex. […I]n fact, every Islamist in the world recognizes Cordoba as a symbol of Islamic conquest. It is a sign of their contempt for Americans and their confidence in our historic ignorance that they would deliberately insult us this way.

Yet, as Got Medieval explained, Gingrich had none of his history correct, except for the part about a group of Jihadists destroying the World Trade Center. Spanish Cordoba was actually a multicultural society and one of the leading centers of learning in medieval Europe; if there was any intolerism in Cordoba, it happened centuries later when Ferdinand and Isabella reunified the Spanish peninsula and expelled the Jews and the Muslims.

Republicans, since the criticism of the project comes entirely from the Republican Party, are arguing for a hypocritical double-standard — they want more religion in the public sphere, but they only Christian religion, and other religions, like Islam, need to respect that. What they forget is that favoring one religion over another is un-American and anti-Constitutional. As President Obama said last week:

As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America.

The media has interpreted this as the President inserting himself into a local issue. It’s not. The President is simply stating the fact of the matter — the Constituional guarantee of a freedom of religion respects all religions, not just the ones we like. A poll cited by The Guardian indicates that Obama’s defense of religious freedom runs against the tide of public opinion — 70% of Americans are opposed to the mosque — but civil liberties are not and should never be defined by what’s popular or what the majority will allow. Just because a position is popular does not make the position right. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York is right, Obama issued a “clarion defence of the freedom of religion” on Friday, one that every American should applaud.

Islam, it seems to me, is simply a side issue in Cordoba House. The real issue may be that the United States is changing demographically. The demographic trends are running against the Republican Party, and now they are turning to a nativist — an emotional — appeal to the electorate. Republicans want Cordoba House to be a campaign issue, Senator John Cornyn says that “Washington, the White House, the administration, the president himself seems to be disconnected from the mainstream of America.” Josh Marshall wrote at Talking Points Memo this morning (emphasis mine):

For most of us who are anything but quite young, we grew up in America where Islam, as a domestic social or cultural reality, was close to invisible. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any Muslims in the US. The fact that some of our most searing and for many of us some of our first experiences with Islam came in the form of a catastrophic terrorist attack by Islamic radicals creates a situation ripe for exploitation. And here we have it. We’re in a midst of a spasm of nativist panic and raw and raucous appeals to race and religious hatred. What effects this will have on the November election strikes me as not particularly relevant. What’s important is compiling some record of what’s afoot, some catalog for understanding in the future who was responsible and who was so willing to disgrace their country and their principles for cheap advantage.

That the appeals from the right opposing Cordoba House have become more shrill and more emotionally manipulative is, to my mind, indication that the opponents and opportunitists know they have lost the argument and appeals to bigotry and demagoguery don’t change that. (Not to mention that we have to invoke Godwin’s Law on Newt Gingrich now.) And the opposition to the center is damaging to the view the world abroad has of America. Because so much of the opposition is centered around Islam, opponents are actually fostering the very clash of civilizations that al-Qaeda wants by pitting American society against Islam. But more importantly than that, opposing the cultural center on religious grounds violates America’s own history, where many of the colonies were founded for reasons of religious freedom and plurality; to deny a group, any group, their free right of worship would make a mockery of the beliefs of millions, from the Puritans of 1620 to the Mormans of 1840 and beyond.

I will grant that there are reasons not to develop the site and build an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan. But the real questions are these — Does the developer have the right to build the community center? Do Muslims have the right to practice their religion freely in this country? New York City’s planning commission has approved the plans, so they have the right to build. And Muslims have the same right to practice their religion that I, an atheist, have the right not to practice.

In the end, I think allowing the construction is the better thing to do. It will demonstrate to the world that the United States really is the open and free society we claim to be and that we as a society have not forgotten our core values, no matter how much the Republican right has.

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