Sunday, August 15, 2010

In Support of the Imam

Spending this past weekend in New York, talking to the taxi-wallahs and the museum security-guards and waiters I have realized this: everyone who is not in New York City has a very strong opinion about Cordoba house. To New Yorkers the answer is as simple as it is profound: duh. Of course. What is the debate about? The loudest voices of disapproval stem from places far away from NYC, and from a class of largely bigoted people who want to make voters afraid of Muslims, of foreigners, and then to exploit this fear and skim their votes. It is important to support the building of the Cordoba House for two reasons: first, to oppose it because it is a Muslim institution is to oppose everything that America stands for. Second: to oppose it would be a strategic blunder that would seriously impede America’s security interests.

Let’s face it: the opposition is only from a sliver or the political spectrum and has, as its best predictor, a membership in the GOP. They dislike Muslims and foreigners (except when it comes to sending money to Pakistan, when they are exceedingly generous) and blame them for everything. If Arizona has a copious serving of crime, it is because of immigrants. If the jobs are going abroad, it is those evil Chinese/Indian/Bangladeshi sweatshops; if a Chinese company wants to acquire an American one, it is the evil Communist Chinese government plotting to overthrow America. These politicians look to blame foreigners for everything that they do not understand. Their world view is simple and toxic. They are simply angry at Muslims, but know better than to oppose the construction of Cordoba House on any legal ground. To do so would be legally unjustifiable.

Instead, they have turned, using Twitter, to tell Muslims that it was their fault that a bunch of lunatic people flew planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. That by practicing their religion Muslims are celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers. How else can you interpret the following from the WSJ:
But the objection here is not about the right to religious free expression. It is about the prudence—and some would say effrontery—of seeking to build a symbol of Islamic faith at the doorstep of a site where terrorists invoking the name of Islam killed 3,000 Americans.
A logical extension of this would be to denounce the building of any Christian Church anywhere that was affected by the Crusade. It would be to tear down every building built by a white man that condoned slavery. The matter of time—the pain is too raw, Sarah Palin says—is rather silly. Would 100 years be enough? How about 49? How about now? This center is an expression of the best of Islam in America, a symbol of the maturing of Islamic institutions in America, where a place to formally deliberate Islam out in the open is being created. It is spearheaded by an imam who unequivocally condemned the 9/11 attacks just like any other American; an imam who has done more to promote interfaith dialogue than most politicians. Ask Sarah Palin if she knows the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite.

Ostensibly their problem is location. It is two blocks away, but their geographical skills are so weak that commentators are calling this the Ground Zero mosque. Still, what if it was three blocks away? Would that be ok? I suspect that the only way to pacify this would be to build Cordoba House in Saudi Arabia or Iran. The only problem is that it would be of no use to Muslims in NYC. A corollary of this is as follows: by denying Muslims their rights to practice religion, politicians would be fueling that sense of alienation that Muslims in America already feel. It would push Muslim youth into that very alienation which terrorist cells can exploit to recruit American jihadis. An easily accessible space where Muslims can come to debate their religion and discuss questions of identity and solidarity, something this center would encourage, is probably the most damning message America can send to pseudo-Muslim terrorists around the world: we, in America, have a Muslim community that is out and engaged in the civic process; it enjoys civil liberties that people in your countries can scarcely imagine.

There is no reason to oppose this center, and every reason to support it. It is indeed comforting to note that the President and the Mayor of NYC thinks so too. I look forward to the day when a Hindu center would open in America: a center which would encompass a place of worship as well as a place of debate, and which would allow community engagement at the level of the YMCAs. Until then I am content in knowing the people of America continue to embrace the people of the rest of the world, like their founding fathers had intended.