The objections to an Islamic centre near Ground Zero should give Muslims pause for thoughtby Aatish Taseer / October 20, 2010 / Leave a comment
When, in early September, the New York Times published a poll in which two-thirds of New Yorkers described themselves as uncomfortable with the location of a Muslim centre downtown, only a few blocks from where terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Centre, I thought the message was clear: even in the most diverse city on the planet, a place that has made room for every language, faith and ethnicity, people are uneasy about Islam.
I would have thought, given that New Yorkers need no lessons in tolerance, that this message, painful as it is, might give Muslims pause. Even as the whole affair has cooled—now that the imam behind the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, appears to have agreed to shift his Cordoba centre a few blocks away—I would have thought that Muslims, and their allies on the left, might take time to reflect.
But I was wrong. Not only did the poll prompt a tide of screaming liberal criticism, citing freedom of worship and the peacefulness of Sufi Islam, but accompanying it was an unsigned New York Times editorial scolding New Yorkers for their squeamishness about a religion that, for all its claims to love and peace, has in modern times offered a basis for some spectacular displays of violence and rage.
The question of the downtown mosque is not about freedom of worship. As the triangulations of Barack Obama on this issue have underlined, Muslims, like everyone else, have the right to worship and Americans know they have that right. Nobody in New York is denying it; in fact, 72 per cent of those polled acknowledged that people have every right to build a “house of worship” near the site. What this affair is about is the mistrust of a religion and religious culture that has shown itself to be singularly scornful of these rights. And which, even among its most moderate adherents (Rauf included), has thrown up alarming historical and political opinions that are incompatible with the source of these rights: America’s liberal society.
I, for my part, have been in too many “Sufi” settings, where after the whirling and talk of love, people have settled down to some pretty ugly political discussions, to be fooled by soft spoken men of faith.
Take Cordoba itself, the Andalusian city after which the project was named. The Republican ideologue Newt Gingrich is not so far off the mark when he questions what place this city occupies in the Muslim imagination. In a Damascus mosque, I once listened to the Grand Mufti of Bosnia (another feted moderate; and one, who, unlike Feisal Abdul Rauf, is a real Islamic scholar) tell a long allegorical tale of lament about how the west had robbed and enslaved this Andalusian daughter. The Grand Mufti then seamlessly linked Cordoba to the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, in which the Ottomans lost the Balkans, and swiftly a narrative was woven for the faithful: one whose only purpose was to remind them of the great Islamic past, solidify the difference between Muslim and non-Muslim, and mourn the loss of that time when Muslims ruled the world.
Even Rauf, who says the name was inspired “by the city in Spain where Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed… during a period of great cultural enrichment created by Muslims,” does not mention that this famous Spanish convivencia ran both ways; that there was a Christian convivencia just as there was a Muslim convivencia. I also suspect that the “created by Muslims” is of more importance to Rauf than he’s willing to let on. For, to the majority of Muslims, Cordoba remains the emblem of a sacred history, and it flourished precisely and only because Muslims were ruling. In their minds, then, it is not the convivencia that is being celebrated, but rather a pax Islamica.
I also have some sympathy for New Yorkers, who, enjoying a peace of their own (arguably a far greater one than that achieved in Cordoba), might wish that Muslims who seek to make their peace with the modern world—through Islamic centres and inter-faith dialogues—go and do it a few blocks down the road. Rather than two blocks from where their failure to do so produced one of the ugliest acts of Islamic terrorism in our times.
Rauf—soft on the tyranny in Iran, but dissatisfied with secularism, which has apparently “failed to deliver what the Muslim wants”—argues that we cannot “cede the discourse and, essentially, our future to radicals on both sides” of this issue. But can there really be a comparison made between the fanatics who attacked New York and the broad objection to an Islamic centre which, but for a tiny fringe, is comprised of sensible New Yorkers, uneasy about a monument to the religion in whose name they were attacked? A monument that is championed by a man like Rauf who, in the aftermath of 9/11, wrote: “The only law that the Muslim needs exists already in the Koran and the Hadith”?
Ultimately, if this centre gets built, even ten or 20 blocks from Ground Zero, it will be only one more tribute to the gracious spirit of this great city. And there is real power in a gesture of this kind. An element of wonder might be borne in the hearts of men when they contemplate how this city, attacked in the name of Islam, did not allow that attack to diminish the freedoms that are at the heart of its greatness and appeal.