Monday, August 23, 2010

Twin Mosques Take (Away?) Two

I leave for one week and the dung hits the proverbial fan - all because of my Parrot's Lamp post. Or so in my delusions of avian grandeur I would like to believe.

What happened? President Obama inserted himself into the mélée, striking another blow for a "right" to practice religion that was not being challenged, at least not by any of the respectable voices in the debate. Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin count as "respectable" for these purposes insofar as they do not propose that no mosques should be built anywhere or declare that Islam is a "gutter religion" (does that phrase ring a bell?). But Obama had clearly not read The Parrot's Lamppost until after he was attacked for his stand, or he would have been clear from the beginning about the distinction between "right" and "ought" on which we harped at some length. Instead, he pontificated à la Bloomberg to the effect that "I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country" (NY Times 8/14/10 A1). As the Times correctly interpreted it, the comment was a defense of "the right of a Muslim community group to build a mosque and Islamic center two blocks north of ground zero in Lower Manhattan" (8/17/10 A26).

What if nobody was actually saying they don't have that (legal, constitutional) "right" to build the mosque there? (In a building which has now apparently grown to 15 stories, replacing three older buildings?) No matter; interpreting his own phrasing literally, rather than the way he actually meant it, was a sufficient dodge to get him out of hot water. Thus Obama backtracked the next day with the claim that he "was not commenting... on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there"; i.e., more or less what the controversy was actually about; but was rather "commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding"(NY Times 8/15/10); i.e., on what was never at issue in the first place. An astutely imprecise formulation, "the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there" avoids referring directly to putting a mosque there, and restates the issue as one of making a decision to put a mosque there. No matter, after finally having read our Why Not Twin Mosques? post, and having fully grasped the distinction we drew attention to, Obama took the opportunity to pretend that he himself was making this very distinction betwen what one has a right to do and what one ought to do. Better late than never.

On the other hand, a far less distinguished voice - the blog/online press which calls itself GetReligion.Org put the point succinctly: "...ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain — unnecessarily — and that is not right." I have some reservations about this formulation, but I will get to that later; substitute "mosque" for "Islamic Center" and it makes exactly the point I made at the beginning of the previous post.

Meanwhile, the political fray expanded, with light and dark being shed on both sides. Rick Lazio, in a memorable fit of opportunism, stated (alone among major public figures) that the issue is "one of safety and security" (NY Times 8/14/10 A15). What planet is he from, exactly? Oh, Long Island that explains it! (LOL) Perhaps he thinks a group of bearded Muslims are planning to march in their bathing suits from the pool directly to the new WTC in a suicide attack? Maybe they'll be storing dirty bombs in the cafeteria? (Not in a Halal cafeteria they won't!) For the substantial majority of people who oppose the idea of building a major mosque there, losing the love of Lazio and his ilk would be about the best thing that could happen.

Newt Gingrich, not satisfied with the reasonably moderate comment I quoted in my previous post, blurted out that "Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington"; though he might have actually said "a site", as in the next brilliancy prize: "We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl harbor." (NY Times 8/17/10 A12). 'Scuse me? First of all, does anyone have the "right" to put up a sign, or a site, next to either of these places? If he is talking about the moral right to create provocations near national memorials, obviously no one has the right to do it, whether they are Japanese, Nazis, or anyone else. If he is talking about the legal right (the illustrious former history professor is no clearer about this distinction than the general run of political windbags) then again, rights are governed by the laws and Constitution and in the same sense that Muslims have the right to build a towering mosque near the WTC site, others have the right to build things that we might consider provocative. Second, is the Holocaust Museum the site of a terrorist attack on Jews, or is it, as I suspect, an arbitrarily located building? Newt's analogy seems to be completely off. Third, by "the Japanese" does he mean Japanese-Americans, the appropriate analogy to the Muslim-Americans who want to build Cordoba House (CH)? Because if he is suggesting that Japanese-Americans have any different rights regarding the Pearl Harbor site than the rest of us that is beyond the pale of legitimate democratic discourse in this day and age; just as it is beyond the pale to suggest that Muslims because they are Muslims have less rights than the rest of us. Obviously Mr. G. has resumed his role as chief demagogue and is unable to back up his opinions with anything like a reasonable argument.

Unfortunately, such bottom-feeders are drawn to any populist cause that thrives partly on narrow prejudices; and there are plenty of those in the air around the mosque issue. We must therefore follow the advice of Benjamin Constant on having unwanted political allies: "If I happen to agree with them on a single point I grow suspicious of myself; and in order to console myself for having seemed to be of their opinion... I feel I must disavow and keep these false friends away from me as much as I can." (Cited by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958, p.79.)

Of less my less comtemptible, if not always commendable, political allies, Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader from Nevada, Gov. Basil Paterson, Rabbi Meyer May of the Wiesenthal Center, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan have all put in a plug for moving the center to another site that would not raise so many hackles, and Paterson and Dolan have offered to mediate the issue. Unfortunately, to date, the CH backers have not given anything like a positive response, even when Paterson said he would help locate a new site. This is rather troubling; the more Imam Rauf and his backers insist on a defiant stance in the face of overwhelming national opposition, the more their own stated ideals of reconciliation and interfaith harmony are compromised. There is a point at which you must say: "I still think you are wrong and we are right, but for the sake of compromise, to avoid ongoing discord, and in consideration of the feelings of those who were directly affected by the attacks, we will move it to a more neutral location - especially since it does no harm to the purpose of our mission." Still waiting to hear that sort of sentiment emerge from the builders and backers.

Be that as it may, other things have come to my attention since I wrote my first post, and I think they deserve more of a focus than they have been getting. In my previous post I cast aspersions on the claim by Imam Rauf that the Cordoba House "is not a mosque". A building devoted to Islamic worship is a mosque, by definition, and mosques have always had a community function as well, as do many Jewish and Christian places of worship. So I suggested that Rauf was just dissembling about the building.

Since then I have read some Muslim blogs which suggest otherwise. For example, the Cordoba Initiative (CI) itself maintain a blog which includes two posts about the status of the building. In these posts they describe the building as being, by religious as well as practical standards, unqualified to count as a mosque, pointing for example to spaces for musical performance and a restaurant. In addition, they assert that there will be an ecumenical "prayer space", though it is not completely clear whether the "prayer space" for Muslims is to be separate from this or if this is the only prayer space. Even so, I think I underplayed the fact that a "prayer space" to a Muslim need not be in a mosque; and therefore, a building containing a prayer space for Muslims is not necessarily a mosque. The question is actually quite open, I think. Is the center going to be a space for religious sermons by the Imam, or other Islamic leaders? Will religious services of any sort be held at CH? The fact that it is led by an Imam and not, say, by a professor of Islamic history or (imagine...) someone with experience running Islamic cultural centers suggests that its overall guidance is religious, and that it will support more religious functions than prayer alone. That in turn suggests that it is, after all, a mosque of some sort; and the report that he is already holding "services" of some sort in the building lends more weight to the idea that it is in fact intended to be a mosque, with the usual functions of one. "Come to hear my sermon on Sufi Islam" is a quite different invitation from "Go pray to whomever you want in room 1241b". Furthermore, the rationale that the center is needed because the downtown mosques are overcrowded pretty much undermines the argument that it is not really going to be a mosque.

But it is worth inviting Rauf and the CI to answer these questions before we decide. Of course, if he is as cagey about this as he has been about other things, the likelihood of that happening is slim. But he should seriously consider it. I stated pretty plainly that I had no objection to an Islamic cultural center near the WTC, and that the significance of a mosque is very different from that of a purely educational and cultural institution. And even if politicians of various stripes are not as impressed with the distinction as I am, I think it would be far less comfortable for most of them to oppose it than to a oppose a mosque. Islamic culture has a lot more to it than religious worship or proselytizing, and if you take the latter out of the mix, it is hard to see anything objectionable about putting such a center anywhere at all. The 9/11 attacks, and all the other manifestations of Islamic radicalism that I discussed, are defended by radicals based on concepts that are part of religious instruction, debate and training. It may not be the interpretation of Islamic law and religion that is most widely supported, but it is pretty hard to write it out of Islamic religious doctrine altogether (see below). That is why building a mosque, whoever may currently be its guiding light, is the wrong signal to send at "ground zero". But no such argument attaches to an institution devoid of explicit religious doctrine, and dedicated solely to entertainment, education, and dialogue.

Thus it seems to me that the author of another Muslim blog has a valid point in suggesting that much of the current debate may be attributable to Rauf, the CI and their associates missing opportunities to get their message out in the strongest way possible. (Indeed I want to refer readers to this post as one of the most intelligent things I have read in this entire debate.) If so, then not only did I underestimate the significance of this question, but the entire national debate has been completely skewed.

In any case, I really don't see why the "community center" must have the function of providing even a "prayer space", much less expanding the mosque acreage of downtown Manhattan. Granted the existing mosques in the downtown areas are insufficient; but why does this space next to the WTC have to be the particular site on which additional "prayer space" is to be located? Build the community center, exactly where they want to build it, and move the divisive "prayer space", which is the reason the project has been branded as a mosque in the first place, to another location. Then the CI gets everything it allegedly wants: an impressive new community center, and a nearby mosque that expands the available space for Muslim worship and services. Frankly I can see nothing wrong with this alternative from any reasonable ideological or emotional perspective.

But I still maintain that building an Islamic religious institution there is morally problematic, and that you cannot reasonably expect people to completely dissociate the 9/11 attacks from Islam in general. There is an understandable desire of reasonable, democratic and humane Muslims not to be associated with the acts and religious views of those who are called "radical". But this is made difficult by the fact that the radicals claim to have as much textual support for their views as the moderates. Like those who argue for a "strict interpretation" of the U.S. Consitutition, they often take intolerably reactionary positions. But one cannot say that strict constructionists therefore fail to uphold Constitutional principles, nor that Islamic "extremists" fail to be Muslims. To uphold the principles of Islamic texts is to be a Muslim, so there is no room for a distinction between "real Muslims" and those who hold strict interpretations of Islamic texts.

The following post at is a good example. While virtually all scholars agree that whipping is specifically sanctioned by the Qu'ran (80 lashes for a married man committing adultery, 100 lashes for an unmarried man), the practice of stoning is said to be sanctioned by the Sunnah, in which the actual day to day practices of the prophet Mohammed are (allegedly) recorded. Those who say that stoning has no textual basis in the Qu'ran are either reinterpreting, revising or disregarding the Sunnah. Since we cannot, unfortunately, form our opinion of Islam on the basis of taking sides in scholarly debates among its proponents, we cannot really decide whether Osama bin Laden is more or less representative of Islamic thought than Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. All we can say is that we'd rather the latter prevailed than the former.

You can see here just how fine-grained the debate is. But the important point for us is not whether the Sunnah are an authoritative basis for Islamic law or not. Public whipping, a primitive, brutal and perverse form of punishment last used here in the slave system, is carried out in countries not known for their radicalism (e.g., Singapore). It is explicitly condoned in Islamic texts, and is barbaric enough to put in question whether strict Islamic law is within the bounds of civilized practice. And this carries over into concepts like Jihad, which in one interpretation justifies acts like 9/11, and on another is supposed to indicate a purely ideological struggle. Maybe both interpretations are possible, and the real issue is, which do you want to prevail? We cannot simply claim the mantle of Islamic scholarship and insist that what millions of Muslim people and thousands of clerics believe is not representative of Islam. And members of the Muslim faith cannot expect us to do that, either. We can say whose views and practices we prefer, who makes more sense to us from a modern point of view, but not who is right. No one is right. But some very scary forces have been gaining the upper hand over the last few decades and putting an indelible stamp on the religion.

The only alternative for contemporary religious practice is to reject the idea that modern legal, social, criminal, international or any other system should be based on what the Qu'ran, the Bible, the Talmud or any other ancient religious text has to say. But this is not what most moderate Islamic voices are saying. They believe that the rules and practices in the Qu'ran, Sunnah and Aditha have some validity just by virtue of being in the Qu'ran, Sunnah or Aditha; anything else is heresy. But I think that the price you pay for looking to ancient texts as a guide to how we should live today is to either buy into absurd anachronisms or become a hypocrite who picks and chooses but pretends to respect the texts.

In any case, "radical" or not by textual standards, the so-called radicals are anything but an isolated group of extremists. The recent NY Times articles on the Taliban-organized stoning to death of a young couple in Afghanistan and the suicide bombings in the Muslim-dominated Russian republics are only the latest reminders of this. According the Times, though the stoning was organized by the Taliban, more than 200 villagers took part in this barbaric act, including the father of the male victim. Moreover, the action was approved ex post facto by the head of the local Ulema (clerical) council; and the national council, which consists of 350 clerics from across the country, recently called for a strict implementation of Shariah law. The Times reminded us of another gruesome case of a widowed Afghan woman who got pregnant and was then given 200 lashes and shot to death. The Time magazine story on a woman whose nose and ears were sliced off as punishment was another reminder. Then came the story of a request to Saudi hospitals to damage the spinal cord of a man who had caused the paralysis of another man in an attack. The reminders of barabaric practices by Islamic authorities, done in the name of Islam and given textual support in Islamic law, could be offered on a daily basis if the media had nothing else to write about.

Neither non-Muslims nor moderate Muslims should kid themelves about the influence of radical Islam or its claim to represent the true Islam. Stonings, whippings and maimings are of a piece with suicide bombings and Fatwas calling for the death of novelists. The connections are deep and ineradicable: in essence, the refusal to endorse the separation of church and state (or even church and judicial process), the attempt to legislate personal morality, a theory of punishment that takes the body as an object for the infliction of pain and disfigurement, and a belief that the most brazen acts of terror, murder and torture are justified if given a religious gloss. This entire ideology has to be disowned, and only the spiritual, cultural and humanistic aspects of Islam preserved. Otherwise we can never really separate Islam-in-general from radical Islam. It is no dullminded bigot who sees a connection between the version of Shariah law implemented by the Taliban, the Iranians, and the Saudis, and the willingness to carry out suicide attacks in the name of Allah. Therefore, no mosque at the site desecrated by one such attack.

In spite of all this, there is a ray of hope, and this leads me to another point regarding the CI's sales job on its center. A NY Times op-ed piece by William Dalrymple drew attention to the particular situation of Sufi Islam, its antagonistic relationship to the radical trends, and its generally liberal and ascetic and universalist outlook. Though I am no expert in comparative religion, it sounds like Sufism is roughly analogous to Kabbalistic Judaism, early Christian mysiticism, and Zen Buiddhism. The interesting point, and one that has hardly even been mentioned, is that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is an exponent of Sufism, and the CI is positioning itself and its Sufi outlook as just the voice of reason and moderation that the U.S. needs to communicate with Islamic regimes and organizations throughout the world. Thus they have formed ties with the State Department, and Rauf is now embarking on a diplomatic mission to the Middle East on their behalf - as he has previously done for the Bush administration. (It is interesting, to say the least, that Bush sent off a diplomat who had previously stated that U.S. policy was "an accomplice" to the 9/11 attacks, but no one ever convicted Bush or his cronies of either intelligence or consistency.)

Whether or not Sufism is a natural choice for Islamic diplomacy, it does seem to be the case, from what I can gather, that Sufism represents a form of Islamic belief that is open to liberal, democratic, humanitarian values, and has no interest in the extremism that has proliferated throughout much of the Arab world (and some of the non-Arab world - Iranians, Malasian and Indonesians are not Arabs). There does not seem to be much hope right now that Sufism will become the dominant trend, or even a particularly strong one, in international Islam. But the fact that it is the guiding ideology behind CH has been heavily underplayed, to the point of making one wonder if some of the project's more acerbic critics are either ignorant or trying to suppress it. And Rauf has typically been nothing if not ascetic himself, failing to reframe the issues in this light, or to divulge any details of his current diplomatic trip, just as he felt he did not have to discuss the funding sources for CH or engage with criticism of his comments after 9/11. Too bad - there could be a lot to say on behalf of supporting moderate Islamic voices. Explaining Sufism to the public and saying why it stands diametrically opposed to acts of violence in all forms would go a long way to calming the waters around the CH issue. It could at least show that an Islamic cultural center near the WTC site is unobjectionable and perhaps even a bulwark against the likes of Al Qaeda.

Although I have surely tested my readers' concentration (as usual) I cannot help adding one last comment. On Friday the Times published an article containing interviews with Muslims living in New York City (some of whom I probably stand in line with at the local fruit and vegetable markets). I am not going to characterize any of them as wholeheartedly agreeing with my position. But many of the comments suggest that there is a more sober, practical and non-ideological attitude toward the project in the Muslim community than there is among the more bellicose white liberal voices in favor of it. A typical comment: "If they want to put it 10 blocks away, that's fine; I believe in compromise, too." (NY Times 8/20/10 A1) Can somebody please hold community board elections so I can vote for this guy - or others who expressed similar views? It is a typical foible of the left that when abstract principle clashes with personal sensitivity, the latter loses every time. This is one reason why ideologues of any stripe are dangerous when they obtain a platform and a little bit of power. I have taken many hours out of my days for the last few weeks defending the idea that rights are a red herring here, and the real issue is one of sensitivity and sensibility.

This, in the last analysis, is a question of the aesthetics of architecture. Every new building is in a public space; every new construction project is conceived and realized in a political environment. The aesthetics and politics of architecture are always interwoven; you cannot appreciate a building that has damaged your sense of the proper use of space, that is out of proportion to its perceived legitimate purpose, that mocks the social ecology of the neighborhood. These are the things we need to consider in approving or disapproving a piece of architecture. The "right" to build doesn't even enter the picture, and had no place in this picture from the beginning.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Why Not Twin Mosques?

The subject of this blog is culture and the public function of art, and I generally focus on the New York scene and riff off what's going on here. We've been pretty quiet for awhile, but what better opportunity to get back in the swing of things than a a national debate on a Mosque to be built near the former site of the Twin Towers. A work of architecture devoted to a branch of culture, with a distinct political twist: that is our very bread and butter here at the PL. We always have some political twist as well; in this case, it is safe to say that the political is going to be more primary than in other discussions.

To the enormous consternation of some of my close family and acquaintances, I have said that the mosque should not be built. In that very phrase, and what it means, resides the crux of at least one major misunderstanding that has guided the entire debate. A sad spectacle for a philosopher: two sides, intending to engage one another, and each missing the target through the utter confusion of concepts. What to do, except, we pray, show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.

Issue #1: Right and Ought Are Two Different Concepts! Let us begin, then, with the following utterance of the illustrious Mayor Bloomberg, who was said to be on the verge of tears, so ardently did he support the plan to build the Mosque: "We do not honor [the first responders to 9/11's] lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting." So strong, indeed, are the emotions around this issue that my argument may at times devolve into certain tangential points, such as the fact that the "first responders" died trying to put out a fire and rescue people, partly as a result of a badly inadequate communications system; they did not die defending anyone's "rights". Be that as it may... Here in a nutshell is what has caused perhaps 75% of the hysteria and misunderstanding in the debate. To wit: neither I nor anyone I have heard or read about denies that the Cordoba Initiative has the RIGHT to build a mosque on the site in question. "Right" is a legal and constitutional concept, which inscribes in the law certain basic protections that are said to be inherent in the person. Rights protect minorities from majorities, individuals from higher powers, when the majority or power might otherwise ride roughshod over the rest. One of those rights is religious freedom, which by any reasonable interpretation includes the right to build houses of worship. There are limitations to every right, of course, but only an extremely narrow conception of Islam would hold that that religion, practiced by well over a billion people and in nearly every country in the world, stands outside the realm of legitimate religions. Muslims have a right to build houses of worship wherever anyone else has a right to build them, period. Anyone who denies that is a scoundrel and no pal of mine.

"Ought" is not a synonym for "right". "Ought" is concerned with what people should do, not with what they have a right to do. At almost any moment of the day, in the life of almost any human being (or organization), there exist inumerable possible actions that one might take, and has a right to take, but that one should not do because they are morally wrong. I might attempt to seduce my best friend's wife later today; or find a complete stranger in the street and tell him that his house is on fire and his children are dead. I might promise to mow my neighbor's lawn if he lends me his car when I have a flat, and then returning from the garage, I might thumb my nose at him, laugh at what a sucker he is and walk away. To my knowledge, I have a clear constitutional and legal right to do these things; and just as clearly I should not do any of them. Equally, if you were aware that I intended to commit such acts, you would have no legal obligation to stop me; but you might well have a moral obligation to do so, or at least try to dissuade me.

The problem is that rights are laid out in very broad strokes - they have to be, or they could not have the force of constitutional mandates. Morality, on the other hand, speaks to what we should or should not do in any particular situation. It does not necessarily provide us principles in advance; it is rather an obligation we have to consider the justice of our actions in each and every case where matters of justice might enter into the picture. Right does not track morality; it only determines at a very general level what permissions are granted to us. Should those permissions conflict with other things we want to preserve, a decision must be made. The right then no longer holds complete sway, and we have to figure out how to proceed.

This distinction has sadly been lost throughout the debate. It surfaced, however, in a letter to the Times today in which the Anit-Defamation League defended its position against a Times editorial supporting the mosque: "We have not denied the right to build the mosque on the site. We simply appealed to the initiators to consider the sensitivities of the victims and find another location." Therein lies the whole of the legitimate opposition: to make a moral appeal to the Cordoba Initiative and its leaders not to build a mosque in that location.

Issue #2: Radical Islam is not a negligible fringe movement but a substantial international trend within Islam. Supposing ourselves to have established that one can make a legitimate moral appeal on an issue without suggesting that anyone's rights be violated, the argument then changes direction. Fine, some say, you can ask that, but why should anyone grant it? We know that the 9/11 attack was a heinous act from which the victims and their families have suffered greatly; but, to quote the Times editorial, "The attacks of September 11 were not a religious event. They were mass murder. The American response... was not a war against Islam."

The right/ought confusion is perhaps a subtle one; but the confusions here are not subtle, and it is hard to see them as innocent. The attacks were indeed not "a religious event" if by that we mean something like the the Jewish Day of Atonement, or perhaps the suppression of the Albigensian heresy; but they were events done in the name of religion. Indeed, outside of major territorial conflicts (and even in some cases including them) there is more mass murder committed in the name of religion than for any other reason, by far. So the meaning of "not a religious event" is a bit too refined to have any real substance. "Religious events", sadly and to the great detriment of humanity, include an untold number of acts of mass murder, not to mention every other form of abuse. Acts undertaken in the name of religion, by members of a single faith, with the explicit or tacit approval of leaders of that faith, are religious acts, like it or not.

The point here does not depend on Osama bin Laden personally representing Islam, or his explicitly tying the attacks to Islam, or to the great battle against Western corruption of the Islamic world (though he certainly has made such claims on more than one occasion). It does not depend on 9/11 being a legitimate expression of Jihad, or on the meaning of Jihad being a literally physical fight against all non-Muslim societies. (Not that the history of Islam lacks evidence to support that contention.) There are a great many Muslims who deny that bin Laden has any particular expertise with regard to Jihad or Islam in general, and who say that on their understanding of Islam such acts would never be condoned. (There are passages in the Hadith, for example, which suggest that Mohammed counseled his followers not to deal with people harshly. Of course, their is also an evident and widespread practice of doing just that in countries which implement strict versions of Shariah law.) But bin Laden did not come from nowhere; he is not a single, isolated, extremist voice within a placid Islamic world. He was supported by Saudi Arabia. He and Al Qaeda were harbored by the Taliban in Afghanistan. They were tolerated by Pakistan, Yemen and other Islamic nations. They have found supporters all over the world. And their stated political goals are shared by many Muslim groups (and only by Muslim groups) throughout the Middle East: by Hezbollah and Hamas, by factions in Yemen, by the ruling party in Iran, and in many other places. (Oddly enough, Iraq is
probably one of the places they are least welcome.) Not coincidentally, many of these same groups espouse a particularly conservative brand of Islam. There is, in other words, an undeniable link between the source and inspiration for the 9/11 attacks and the espousal of radical Islamic ideas. Anyone who defends Islam by writing off bin Laden as a crank with no real base is not being honest. It is like saying that Jerry Falwell is not a real Christian. He may not be the voice of Christianity you would like, but he is the voice of Christianity we got. Ditto for radical anti-abortionists: to deny that they are acting in the name of Christianity when one of them murders an abortion provider is ridiculous. To deny that they represent Christianity when the Pope belches anti-abortionist propaganda across the world, equating it with murder, is almost as absurd. We cannot whitewash Islam by hauling out scholarly works and showing that bin Laden doesn't know his Qu'ran. He a big part of what Islam is in the world; and it's the world we are primarily concerned with, not the word.

In light of this - a great deal of which everyone knows, not least the Times and Michael Bloomberg - to argue that the 9/11 attacks were just a random act of mass murder, or, slightly more coherently, an act of pure politics with no reigious component at all, is just sheer deception and demagoguery. It is one thing to remind people that such radical ideologies are not expressive of all versions of Islam, nor even, most likely, of a majority version of Islam. But to say it simply has no relationship to Islam, or is a fringe movement with no base of popular support, is just wrong; indeed, almost willfully blind. Who is bin Laden, and who were his 19 henchmen, anyway - members of the Palestinian forces carrying out an official military mission? Emissaries of the Palestinian Resistance? What were these people doing, thinking they could intervene in this conflict in this way? Were they like the lincoln Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, selflessly helping out a just cause in the face of overwhelming force? Nobody hired them or asked them to intervene on behalf of the Palestinian cause. What were they driven by if not religious solidarity? And weren't they promised a bevy of vestal virgins in heaven for their service to Allah? Sometimes I really do wonder about people on the left, and their ability to bury their heads in the sand in support of an ideological view about tolerance and rights. There can be absolutely no doubt that the destruction of the Twin Towers was intimately and inextricably tied to one very strong conception of what Islam is and what it ought to be doing in the world today, and no amount of scholarship or empty phrasemongering is going to change that.

To hold, therepore, that building a large mosque right next to the site known as "Ground Zero" (a slightly bizarre appelation) is not offensive because the attacks had nothing to do with Islam, is nothing more than a rhetorical sweep of the hand, an attempt to befriend a certain (hopefully dominant) trend within Islam by denying that Islam is anything else than this more humane, tolerant ideology. You can't change the world, unfortunately, by wishing away the parts you don't want to see.

One further point must be made here. People who see the 9/11 attacks as connected with Islam are not simply reacting to verbal statements made by the perpetrators. They are seeing it on a continuum with a practice of suicide attacks that are endemic and almost unique to the Islamic world. The attacks are launched in and around Israel, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, the Islamic republics of the former Soviet Union, and in many other Islamic areas, always by people inspired by Islamic leaders and told that they woud be rewarded by Allah for their acts. Other than the Japanese kamikazi attacks in WW II, it is hard to think of another example of such tactics. To say that suicide attacks by a group of all Muslim individuals has nothing to do with Islam or religion is not even a comprehensible position, much less a correct one.

Furthermore, all these acts are seen as being on a continuum with a broad lack of respect for human life and for the bodily integrity of individuals. Thus you see in various places throughout the Islamic world the practice of beheading enemies, severing limbs as punishment, stoning people to death in public, brutally whipping people (including women) in public, and other such acts that are shocking and abhorrent to the moral conscience of the modern world. This is not to deny that at one time, similarly brutal acts were committed in Western societies too, and may still be by isolated individuals and even covertly by arms of the government. We cannot forget that Hitler committed far worse terrors than any Islamic leaders, that forms of torture are practiced behind closed doors in U.S. police stations, that waterboarding is part of the legacy of the worst President in recent U.S. history. The difference is that such things, when they come to light, are considered deviant. The response in the U.S. to discovery of torture and humiliation at Abu Ghraib was one of almost universal condemnation. Whereas one sees government-sponsored public torture as a matter of course in a number of Islamic nations or territories (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, etc.).

So I think the effort to dissociate Islam from the terrorist attacks fails. There is a multifaceted association between the 9/11 attacks and Islam, the Islamic world, and Islamic culture. Those who are trying to paint a rosy picture in order to deny the association of Islam with the attacks will fail to win over the U.S. public, who have seen or read about enough of what I have just described to know what is going on. We must avoid using this against the more humane, wordly, pious and beneficent currents in Islam -which, once again, may still be the majority, and which deserve our tolerance and indeed support. But to deny it outright is an enormous mistake.

Issue #3: The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.
Lining up against the mosque are a list of Republican ideologues, from Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin to Rick Lazio, as well as various opportunistic Republicans who have a campaign axe to grind. Whereas all the sane and lovely people who favor building it are Democrats or liberals of one stripe or another (Bloomberg, the Mayor by, of and for the rich, has been perversely canonized as a liberal for the purposes of this discussion). Opposing the mosque is therefore reactionary and wrong, Q.E.D. Similarly, the community board that voted overwhelmingly in favor of the mosque, and the Landmarks Commission that has approved it, are said to represent the true voice of the people and of the democratic spirit.

But I have to politely demur from all this. Even a paranoid has enemies. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. A lot of these Republicans are pretty much stopped clocks, in my view; there ain't much going on upstairs except kneejerk opposition to all perceived enemies from without and within. That their ideological blinders should occasionally intersect with a political truth only shows that one might occasionally have the right position for the wrong reasons. And what I would less enthusiastically call "kneejerk liberalism" might have a much more benign internal logic, that of defending basic democratic rights, which occasionally intersects with an incorrect and pollyannaish line. The conservatives also have a not-very-well-hidden agenda in arrousing anti-Muslim sentiment: not just rally-round-the-flag patriotism but using Islamic terrorism as a wedge
to undermine privacy and civil rights. It's not like someone just alerted us to this yesterday, thanks. But I have never, will never, adjust my views to espouse something false because someone else who espouses something true is a reactionary jerk with an immoral agenda. That would be unphilosophical; it is also spineless and thoughtless. We need to uphold the truth and do it for correct reasons, not phony reactionary reasons like pushing through the next version of some anti-immigration law or preparing the ground for the next federal attack on privacy. (Unfortunately that may well come from Obama and not the Republicans, but that's another story.)

As for the execrable, racist, bigoted trash that has been quoted from various mosque-opponents around the country, to the effect that we should oppose the building of any mosque, anywhere in the U.S., that all Muslims are terrorists and that they should be swept into the sea (as unfortunately the PLO at one time suggested should happen to the Israelis) I have only the utmost contempt. If anyone suggests that opposing the construction of a major Islamic house of worship right next to the World Trade Center site somehow leads inexorably to, or is on a continuum with, extremist views like that, I can only say that I fail to see how it does, and that I am extremely comfortable taking the one position and rejecting the other outright. The burden of proof is on them to show how these apparently quite distinct views are actually the same, or brands of the same thing.

Issue #4: A mosque is a mosque is a mosque. Or to put it in a perhaps more enlightening way, a mosque is an Islamic place of worhsip, by defnition. Any place that is set aside as an Islamic place of worship is a mosque, and by Islamic law, once it is a mosque, it is always a mosque and cannot be any other kind of space. Non-Muslims may be invited into the mosque; they are, however, guests, and have no inherent right to enter it. It is true that the traditional function of the mosque has always been to function as a community center; it is said that Mohammed condoned the use of the mosque as a treasury, as a place to give shelter, as a place to mete out punishment, and perhaps other uses. But all those things are peripheral to its function as place of worship.

Now it seems to me that there are various levels of dissembling going on at the Cordoba Initiative and among their supports. First and foremost, the leader of the project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, has stated in a public speech, broadcast in video on the CI's home page, that the building they plan to build "is not a mosque, this is a cultural center". This claim casts serious doubt on the integrity of Imam Rauf, because he knows better than anyone that the intention is that the building will contain a place of worship, and that it is not a matter of how many square feet are devoted to worship; it will be understood and seen as a mosque with the traditional peripheral functions of a mosque. Indeed, one argument that has been offered for building it (I can't locate the source for this right now - possibly the community board hearings) is that the Muslim population in downtown Manhattan has outgrown the existing mosques there. Indeed, it was reported a few days ago that the Imam is already holding services in the new building, which means, technically, that it already is a mosque, and is to become an elaborate and impressive one.

It is disappointing to hear those who point to the Qu'ran to defend moderate versions of Islam nevertheless ignore the fact that a mosque which also functions as "a cultural center" is a mosque in Islamic law, and in fact, is as traditional conception of a mosque as there is. I cannot therefore abide the mendacity of stating that because it is also a community center, it is not really a mosque. That is pure rubbish, and the comparisons to the 92nd Street Y, which Rauf has used to defend the conception and location of the mosque, are also dishonest: there is no place of worship at the 92nd Street Y; it is a not a synagogue, by any definition. Now, it may be true that some Jewish and Christian representatives are to be on the board of Cordoba House. The only person currently listed on the board of the CI is Rauf himself. Randy Benn, identified as an Elder of the Presbyterian Church of Northern Virginia, is listed as a policy advisor. No Jews are listed as belonging to the CI in any capacity, and no board is listed on the page for Cordoba House, though apparently some rabbis have been approached.

The idea of including Jews and Christians in the project may seem extraordinarily liberal, but only to those who do not understand that Islam has always seen Judaism and Christianity as kindred religions; the Qu'ran itself contains retellings of numerous stories from the Old and New testaments, while rejecting Christian idolatry and some other aspects of the older religions. The fact that CH would include Jews and Christians in leadership is interesting, but not startling. What would be startling is if they put some Buddhists, Hindus, atheists and other pagans up there too; but I don't think you are about to see a "community center" quite so inclusive. It is a mosque, with the traditional function and ideology of a mosque, and others are invited to participate (even to swim in their pool? wow!) at the discretion of the Imam.

If the Cordoba Initiative wants to build a real cultural center, a secular institution without a place of worship, nothing and no one is stopping them. Remove the place of worship and I withdraw my opposition instantly. A mosque and a cultural center are totally different kinds of symbols. The latter is not a monument and factory of Islamic belief but an invitation to explore a people's history. The former is an arena of contention for any faction whatever, a forum for all elements however radical. It is like the difference between a sword and its sheath. The fact that the CI insists on building a mosque in spite of the obvious symbolic value of a building on that site, and refuses to build a true cultural center while saying that they are, is a sign that they are not dealing honestly with the public.

Issue #5: Try a little tenderness. Why, after all, is there a legitimate, non-bigoted, politically neutral position opposing the building of the mosque? Tying together what we have said above, a criminal act of terrorism with an unmistakable Islamic component was committed on 9/11, It was an enormous, if temporary, victory for the most radical brand of Islam; it destroyed, in a dramatic way, a complex that was in many ways a symbol of the West and what it represents to the backward, hateful, intolerant elements in the Muslim world. It was not primarily an act of defense of Palestinian interests; it was a statement that the U.S> and the West should get out of the Middle East altogether and let the radicals continue their frightening expansion of influence, along the lines of the Iranian Revolution. This in-your-face attack on Western values and influence is indelibly stamped with the thumbprint of Islam. Erecting a mosque - one that will be notable for its size - directly at the site of the attack has enormous sybolic value, and has the effect of gloating - a sentiment that has been expressed from time to time by the most radical Islamic opponents of the U.S.

That Americans should be sensitive to this is not surprising. But there are still thousands of people who were directly affected by the attacks, either through having lost someone, or having been injured, or having lived in the neighborhood, or like myself, having simply been on the way to work and seen the buildings burning and the human bodies falling from the windows and having swallowed the blackened air. (There are a great many other stories of exposure of one sort or another - too many to go into here.) It is not an exercise in community-building or reconciliation to sweep aside the feelings of these people and erect a mosque in a building that was actually part of the damaged site (the landing gear of one of the planes went through the roof, shutting the Burlington Coat Factory store that was there before.)

It is of no help that as a matter of historical record, Muslims have previously built large mosques on the site of military victories. This effort smacks of a kind of stealth "victory mosque", whether or not that is the intention of Imam Rauf and his supporters. It is additionally of little comfort that the Imam has refused to quell suspicions that the funding for the mosque is coming from radical Islamic governments, such as Saudi Arabia. This only adds to the sense that there is an agenda other than bridge-building here.

If the Islamic community wants to build bridges, the right way to go about it would have been to make their contacts first, and determine a neutral and convenient place to site the mosque. And even if that moment had passed, they should have responded immediately to the discomfort in New York City and across the world and offered to locate it elsewhere, rather than standing on ceremony about their rights and attempting to paint the mosque as a not-mosque. They should have done this even if they thought the opposition to the location was wrongheaded or discriminatory, if for no other reason than that conceding on this point would have demonstrated beyond all doubt that their agenda was solely one of improving mutual understanding. That would have shown a true intention to go down the path of reconciliation and enlightenment. Instead, they have chosen to fight. That is very unfortunate. This particular location has no inherent importance for the community center, while it has tremendous importance for the victims of 9/11. The harder the CI fights to locate it there, the less reason there is to trust their stated intentions. In fact, I wonder if having one mosque there is really enough. Perhaps they should build another one right next to it. Why not the Twin Mosques, I mean cultural centers? In fact, maybe that should be the 9/11 memorial, and we don't need that below-ground pit they are planning to install? I don't know why any of the proponents of the mosque should have a problem with this. After all, if you like the idea in the first place, then two mosques are better than one.

(Please note: I am leaving on vacation and will not have internet access for a few days. I have not had time to do as much fact-checking and editing as I normally would for a post this long and controversial. I regret any factual errors or typos that may exist above, and will correct them when I return. Also, I encourage your comments, but it may take a couple of extra days to read and post them. Thanks for your patience.)