|Rick A. Lazio, a Republican running for governor, opposes a planned mosque near ground zero. (New York Times)|
Just to show you how naive I am: When I first heard about the plan to build a mosque and community center two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks, I didn't envision any real opposition to it.
Sure, I can understand how some people traumatized by 9/11 - firefighters who survived it, or people whose loved ones didn't - might not like the idea. But I'd have thought that opinion leaders of all ideological stripes could reach consensus by applying a basic rule of thumb: Just ask, "What would Osama bin Laden want?" and then do the opposite.
Bin Laden would love to be able to say that in America you can build a church or synagogue anywhere you want, but not a mosque. That fits perfectly with his recruiting pitch - that America has declared war on Islam. And bin Laden would thrill to the claim that a mosque near ground zero dishonors the victims of 9/11, because the unspoken premise is that the attacks really were, as he claims, a valid expression of Islam.
Apparently I was wrong. Two New York politicians - Representative Peter King and Rick Lazio, a candidate for governor - are ginning up opposition to the project, as is the Weekly Standard.
Their strategy is to ask dark questions about the motivations behind the project (known as Park51 because of its address on Park Place). Those motivations reside in an imam named Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the Cordoba Initiative and the American Society for Muslim Advancement, the project's co-sponsors. So far as I can tell, Rauf is a good person who genuinely wants to build a more peaceful world. (I met him briefly last year at a venue where we had both been asked to give talks about compassion - his from an Islamic perspective, mine from a secular perspective. Here's the talk he gave.)
But if you think Rauf's good intentions are going to keep him safe from the Weekly Standard, you underestimate that magazine's creative powers. Its latest issue features an article about Park51 chock full of angles that never would have occurred to me if some magazine had asked me to write an assessment of the project's ideological underpinnings. For example: Rauf's wife, who often speaks in support of the project and during one talk reflected proudly on her Islamic heritage, "failed to mention another feature of her background: She is the niece of Dr. Farooq Khan, formerly a leader of the Westbury Mosque on Long Island, which is a center for Islamic radicals and links on its Web site to the paramilitary Islamic Circle of North America (I.C.N.A.), the front on American soil for the Pakistani jihadist Jamaat e-Islami."
Got that? Rauf's wife has an uncle who used to be "a leader" of a mosque that now has a Web site that links to the Web site of an allegedly radical organization. (I'll get back to the claim that the Westbury Mosque is itself a "center for Islamic radicals.")
The odd thing is that the author of this piece, Stephen Schwartz, is a self-described neoconservative whose parents were, by his own account, communists. You'd think he might harbor doubts about how confidently we can infer people's ideologies from the ideologies of their older relatives. You'd also think he might disdain McCarthyite guilt-by-association tactics.
You'd be wrong. Schwartz's piece goes on and on, weaving webs of association so engrossing that you have to keep reminding yourself that they have nothing to do with Rauf. At one point Schwartz spends several paragraphs damning someone whose connection to Park51 seems to consist of having spoken favorably about it.
As for the views of Rauf himself: In Schwartz's universe, Rauf's expressions of opposition to terrorism are themselves grounds for suspicion. Rauf, says Schwartz, has "cloaked the Cordoba effort in the rhetoric of reconciliation, describing himself and his colleagues as 'the anti-terrorists.'"
Rauf has been the imam at a Manhattan mosque for a quarter of a century, so you'd think that, if he actually had radical views, there would be some evidence of that by now. Just to give you some idea of what solid evidence of radicalism looks like: Representative King, who shares the Weekly Standard's grave suspicions about Rauf, supported the Irish Republican Army back when it was killing lots of innocent civilians. He raised money for the I.R.A. and said it was "the legitimate voice of occupied Ireland" and praised the "brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry" and in various other ways backed this terrorist group. If Rauf's past looked like King's past, there would indeed be cause for concern.
A big question when reading any Weekly Standard piece about nefarious Muslims is: What is the operative definition of "radical"? This question is worth spending some time on, because if the Standard is defining the term loosely, then the six-degrees-of-separation chains it uses to link people to radicalism are even less relevant than they seem.
Apparently one Weekly Standard criterion for radicalism is support for Hamas. Thus, Schwartz notes that the real estate developer for the project has a business partner who has an uncle (you still with us?) who dramatically affirmed his support for Hamas after the recent blockade-running flotilla incident.
Now, there are a lot of Arabs and Muslims, including Americans, who don't consider Hamas evil incarnate. You might divide Hamas "supporters" into two camps:
"Hard" supporters say that Palestinians were wrongly dispossessed of their land six decades ago and that brutal tactics are therefore warranted. So what I call a terrorist they consider a freedom fighter.
"Soft" supporters may not approve of all Hamas tactics, but they note the following: In 2006, Hamas, with American and Israeli approval, participated in a Palestinian election and won - and, right after this victory, there were signs that Hamas might be willing to abandon terrorism, at least provisionally. But Israel and the United States decided that, while it was fine for Hamas to participate in elections, winning was unacceptable, and Hamas wouldn't be allowed to govern. So Hamas seized control of Gaza, and Israel then subjected the people of Gaza to a crippling economic blockade (which, even after the post-flotilla "loosening," doesn't let Gaza export anything to speak of). Forced to choose between Israel and Hamas in this standoff, these "soft" supporters side with Hamas.
I can see how Israelis would have a different view of Hamas, which not so long ago pursued a concerted strategy of killing Israeli civilians, and could revive that strategy any day and still hasn't accepted Israel's right to exist. It's understandable that Israelis hate Hamas, and Americans, including the people at the Weekly Standard, have every right to share this hatred.
Still, the point is that, whether the Weekly Standard likes it or not, there are a number of Arabs and Muslims, including Americans, who in one sense or another support Hamas and who aren't dangerously radical from an American perspective; they didn't support the 9/11 attacks or the Fort Hood shooting or the would-be underwear bombing. So if we are going to stigmatize everyone who in any sense supports Hamas - or even associates with someone whose uncle supports Hamas - we are going to be tarring with a pretty broad brush, excluding from a crucial American dialogue too many people for the dialogue to be productive. (Thomas Friedman recently made a similar argument in criticizing CNN's reflexive firing of an editor who tweeted something favorable about a leader of Hezbollah after he died.)
So when Schwartz asserts that a Long Island mosque is a "center for Islamic radicals," I personally have to suspend judgment until I hear from someone who has researched the matter and has a more useful definition of radicalism than Schwartz does. Meanwhile, I'll just remind myself that this mosque has nothing to do with Rauf anyway.
One thing Peter King and Rick Lazio demand is that Rauf unequivocally denounce Hamas. In other words, they want him to go beyond just not being a professed supporter of Hamas and, in effect, criticize everyone who supports Hamas in even the "soft" sense.
No doubt Osama bin Laden, if apprised of the situation, would hope that Rauf will cave in to these demands and ritually denounce Hamas. Because the Muslims who are most vulnerable to bin Laden's recruiting pitch are, it's safe to say, at least somewhat sympathetic to Hamas. And if moderate Muslims like Rauf can be pressured into adopting Israel's position, and thus be depicted by truly radical Muslims as Zionist tools, that will make them less effective in their tug of war with bin Laden for the hearts and minds of the vulnerable.
Pathetically, Rick Lazio seems to have made his demand for an "investigation" into Park51 the centerpiece-du-jour of his gubernatorial campaign. Happily, Mayor Bloomberg has shown true moral leadership and opposed Lazio's demands in clear language. "Government should never - never - be in the business of telling people how they should pray, or where they can pray," Bloomberg said last week. "We want to make sure that everybody from around the world feels comfortable coming here, living here and praying the way they want to pray." Amen.
Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, writes every Wednesday about culture, politics and world affairs. He is editor-in-chief of Bloggingheads.tv and The Progressive Realist. He is the author of The Moral Animal, Nonzero, and, most recently, The New York Times best-seller The Evolution of God. He has written for The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Time, Slate, and many other magazines and has taught philosophy at Princeton and religion at the University of Pennsylvania.
Source: The New York Times' Blog
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