The Mosque at Ground Zero by Bret Stephens
The Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2010
The conservative blogosphere is buzzing with outrage over plans to build a 13-story mosque and Muslim cultural center just a few hundred feet from Ground Zero. As a resident of lower Manhattan, I see it differently: The center—to be known as Cordoba House and built (if it is ever built) at a cost of $100 million—might yet serve as an excellent test case for tolerance.
Muslim tolerance, that is.
That, at least, is how the concept is being advertised by Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Kuwaiti-born imam whose brainchild this is. "We see it as a major step toward the Americanization of the Muslim community," Mr. Rauf told members of the financial district's community board, which approved the project unanimously less than a week after the attempted Times Square bombing. His wife, Daisy Khan, who runs an outfit called the American Society for Muslim Advancement, adds that "it's going to be a place not only for Muslim activity, but interfaith activity of the highest order."
Opponents of the center insist that Mr. Rauf's image as a moderate is a sham. In the American Thinker, an online magazine, Madeleine Brooks reports that in a recent sermon she personally heard Mr. Rauf "deny that Muslims perpetrated 9/11," though she doesn't quote him directly. Alyssa Lappen of Pajamas Media website notes that the imam has urged the U.S. to allow "religious communities more leeway to judge among themselves according to their own laws," which in his case means Shariah law. There's also a question of how Mr. Rauf's Cordoba Initiative, which in 2008 had assets of $18,255 according to its IRS tax filing, plans to raise $100 million.
Opponents also argue that building the center so close to Ground Zero is an insult to the memory of the victims of 9/11. Germany has spent six decades in conspicuous and mainly sincere atonement for Nazi crimes. But it surely has no plans to showcase the tolerant society it has become by building a cultural center down the road from Auschwitz. Japan is no doubt equally disinclined to finance a Shinto shrine in the vicinity of the Pearl Harbor memorial.
But discretion does not seem to be part of Mr. Rauf's playbook: He is nothing if not American in his penchant for publicity-seeking. He also seems to know exactly how to play to the great conceit of modern American liberalism, which constantly seeks opportunities to congratulate itself for its superior capacity for tolerance. Apparently it did not occur to the members of the community board who so eagerly green-lighted Cordoba House to suggest to Mr. Rauf that the $100 million might be better spent building centers of "interfaith activity" in Riyadh, Islamabad and Kuwait City.
Be that as it may, I still think Mr. Rauf and his wife should be taken at their word—provided they are also held to it. As a confidence-building measure for those of us who live in the neighborhood, it would help if the pair voluntarily answered some questions about the nature of their beliefs. A sampler:
Who perpetrated the attacks of 9/11, and what was their religion?
Are suicide attacks or other forms of violent jihad acceptable under any circumstances, including against American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Does Israel have a right to exist as a Jewish state?
Do they agree with the State Department's designation of Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations?
What aspects of Shariah law, if any, do they repudiate?
Will their center invite the input and participation of Muslim gay and lesbian groups?
Do they consider the Muslim Brotherhood to be extreme?
What influence will any foreign funding of Cordoba House have on its programs or on the literature it distributes?
Finally, it is worth asking Mr. Rauf and Ms. Khan the broader question of how they think about tolerance itself. In the case of the famous Muhammad cartoons, "moderate" Muslims typically make the case that while free speech has its place, the sensitivities of the Muslim community should be respected. But tolerance can't just be a one-way street, and sensitivity is not the preserve of Muslims alone. So what do they make of the sensitivities of 9/11 families in the face of their mega-mosque? And if they are prepared to so lightly traduce on those sensitivities, will they perhaps return the favor by hosting an exhibition of pictorial depictions of the prophet?
The offending Danish cartoons won't be necessary: For material, they can draw on a rich tradition of Islamic portraits of their prophet, not least from the collection of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.
Eager as the imam and his wife are to present themselves and their center as progressive, mainstream and all-American, I have no doubt they will answer these questions in a way that satisfies community standards in Tribeca. It certainly should not embarrass the Tribeca city fathers—so keen to show off their liberal bona fides—to ask them.
And by the way, also on Tuesday in The New York Times there was an excellent article about religious tolerance by Tenzin Gyatso, a Buddhist. His Op-Ed, Many Faiths, One Truth, is a must read alongside the Bret Stephens piece.