August 19, 2010
If there is one thing we should have learned from the Bush administration, it is that voters eventually get tired of wedge issues being exploited for political gain, and it ends up backfiring. (See Oct. 2006, for example.) Nevertheless, that is exactly what seems to be taking place in the heated debate over the proposed Islamic Center in lower Manhattan. (It is not exactly a "mosque," but almost.) There are already dozens of houses of worship for Muslims in the New York area (see citysearch.com), but this one would be within a couple blocks of "hallowed ground" of the former World Trade Center. Other establishments in that area include a strip club, various fast-food joints, and jewelry shops.
This controversy didn't suddenly materialize out of thin air, it has been brewing for several months now. At salon.com Justin Elliott gives a good summary of how the situation developed since last December. He characterizes the project's organizers as "progressive Muslim-Americans," which is an interesting choice of words. The "Project Cordoba" (referring to the period of enlightened Islamic rule in Spain during the medieval era) is led by a moderate Muslim cleric, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. He was quoted as saying, "We want to push back against the extremists." It's a noble sentiment, certainly, but one questions the prudence of Imam Rauf and his associates. It was bound to generate controversy sooner or later. Elliott makes clear that much of the hubbub started in May when blogger Pamela Geller (Atlas Shrugs) began agitating people against the proposed mosque. She leads a group called "Stop Islamization of America" (SIOA). And so, another opportunity for cross-cultural understanding was wasted, and the American body politic became more divided once again.
Sadly, even many of the most intelligent and thoughtful commentators have fallen prey to taking sides on this issue. For example, Andrew Sullivan declares,
This is a defining moment -- not just for America but for conservatism as a political philosophy. philosophy. The campaign to prevent the construction of a Muslim interfaith center two blocks from Ground Zero strikes me as so dangerous in its assumptions, so pernicious in its bigotry, and so dangerous in the war on terror that it needs to be repudiated as swiftly and as powerfully as possible.
To me, what he writes sounds just as hysterical as some of the mosque opponents. Of course, Sullivan takes the opportunity to deride conservative opponents as "paranoid, infantile grasping for cultural dominance -- white, evangelical, rural -- that is only one part of America."
On the right, meanwhile, Newt Gingrich raised alarms about the project in a way that sounded like he was fishing for votes. Very tacky. Former Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie showed up on FOX News today to express caution in the way this issue is handled, but the FOX people just didn't seem to get it.
Here's what I wrote in response to Bruce Bartlett derisive criticism of right-wing activists on his Facebook page:
To paraphrase Bruce, I think this would be a winning issue for any politician with the sense not to make a big deal about it one way or another. I detest the exploitation of wedge issues just as much as I detest elitist posturing.
For a take from the Muslim perspect, watch what Zead Ramadan of the Council on American-Islamic Relations had to say, via cair.com. He considers him a "moderate mainstream" Muslim, and the Imam Faisal is to the "left" of him.
One of the most reliable bloggers I follow, Donald Sensing, casts doubt on the project's purported goal of building bridges between cultures. They turned down Gov. Paterson's offer to help them find a different site, making him look like a fool. As Sensing says, "Abdul-Rauf has steadfastly refused to renounce or denounce terrorist acts done by Muslims and has likewise refused to characterize violent Muslim extremist groups, including Hamas, as terrorist." Asserting that U.S. foreign policy was a contributing factor in the 9/11 attacks is a very troubling sign as well.
For a very fair and thoughtful take on the issue, read Sam Harris at thedailybeast.com, via Andrew Murphy on Facebook. Harris agrees with President Obama's statement that the Muslims have a right to build a mosque there, but the President fails to "acknowledge that Islam is different than other faiths." The politically correct crowd doesn't like to hear it, but there is a pathological violent aspect of Islam that is in dire need of remedy. That is one of the reasons why the freedom of religion argument needs to be balanced against other considerations, such as security. My comment:
I would like to think that a majority of Americans are sensible enough, as Mr. Harris is, to grasp the distinction between legal rights and simple decency. In today's polarized climate, of course, few leaders are willing to do so. Obama fumbled this one badly, paving the way for a brand new "wedge issue" to be exploited by the GOP. Sigh...
In conclusion, I think the best thing you could say about Project Cordoba at Park51 was that it was poor judgment. Now that the necessary permits have been granted by local authorities, I don't think there is much more that can or should be done about it. The more that opponents raise hell about it, the less likely I am to voice my concerns. I hope the Muslim organizers reconsider what they are doing, and I hope that they aren't the subversive threat that some people think they are. It was nearly one year ago that I lamented "hysteria" with regard to the so-called "death panels." My use of that term does not mean that I categorically reject the possibility of the alleged threat, it is just that the frantic tone in which many people are warning about said threats is grossly out of proportion to their actual likelihood. And win or lose, such tactics invariably detract from more important issues, making the problem of political polarization even worse. And that leaves us all weaker as a nation.
Speaking of Bruce Bartlett, he recently explained his political-ideological orientation on his blog capitalgainsandgames.com. He's a former Reagan "foot soldier" who voted for Obama, and remains deeply hostile to the Republican Party of today. I largely share his self-identification as "basically libertarian but tempered by Burkean small-C conservatism." Unlike Bruce, I have not totally given up on the Republican Party, though I seem to be moving farther away all the time. While many of his criticisms of the Party of Lincoln are very apt, I think he took the ostracism by Bush loyalists too personally and is making a vendetta out of it.
NOTE: This is my first politics blog post in well over a month. Part of the reason for that hiatus was my trip to the Midwest, but I am also reconsidering my political status. Suffice it to say that when a fund raiser for Michele Bachmann called today, I gave him an earful.