Cordoba House: Too Far Away

When an open and shut case stays open, there's something wrong with the investigation--not just with arguments for and against, but the terms of debate themselves. Does anybody really know how to talk about "religions" these days?

Like most who might otherwise have ventured an opinion, I've not commented on the appropriateness of building an Islamic cultural center, provisionally called Cordoba House, two blocks from Ground Zero, because I kept thinking the arguments against it were so weak, if not offensive, that statements from Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama (and, most recently, the Republican former Solicitor General Ted Olson, who was widowed on 9/11), would seal the case; that objections would be mysteriously withdrawn, like a Sarah Palin Tweet.

But, if anything, the furor seems only to be growing. And the center's opponents--even thoughtful people like Aaron David Miller--are buying into something like the following framing, which defenders do not quite know how to deal with:

Islamic radicals, so the argument goes, attacked the towers and thousands of Americans died. Therefore people who practice Islam, even Muslim Americans, should not do so close to where other Americans, the victims, may be grieving. Muslims may have a right to. (Some Muslims may have died, too.) But it would be tactless of Muslims to put the center so close. Exercising a right does not mean ignoring what people feel.

For Miller, say, suggesting that Cordoba House be built near Ground Zero would be like suggesting that Arafat visit the Holocaust memorial--something he once suggested, and now humbly regrets. For others, Cordoba House would be like nuns putting up a cross at Auschwitz, or the Japanese government putting up a Japanese cultural center at Pearl Harbor--you get the idea: too close, too soon.

MANY HAVE MADE the case, Jon Stewart most agreeably, that it is crazy to pin the most fanatic crimes committed by members of a religion on all of its members or exponents. And, moreover, the sensitivities of people with grievances cannot be a standard for exercising rights. Put the two together and you get farce ("It is too soon to put a Catholic Church next to a school-yard!") Of course, Arafat had once actually killed Jews at random; the Carmelite nuns, as my friend Jim Carroll explained, represented that conservative strain in the Church that had never come to grips with the way many in Poland's Catholic hierarchy had fomented antisemitism. But never mind.

What talk of rights, and "Daily Show" farce, do not really refute is the premise that religions have, or inspire, a kind of core sensibility. That a Muslim, Christian and Jew have each been subjected to a kind of distinct socialization--that each has ingested a distinct radioactivity, now lodged in emotional and intellectual bones--so that the only real question to ask is how "moderate" they are in expressing this sensibility--how manageable or toxic is the dose. We hear all kinds of strange questions, like how close is too close, as if the matter can be settled by Geiger counter.

There seems to be a widely shared assumption that every Muslim, say, would be a member of Al-Quaeda if he or she simply believed in Islam more strongly, or had greater courage of conviction. By this logic, I suppose, every brave Jew is incipiently a member of Gush Emunim, every Catholic ultra-Montaine, every Protestant an evangelical fundamentalist, and so forth.

"WHO IS TO say," Charles Krauthammer writes, "that the mosque won't one day hire an Anwar al-Aulaqi--spiritual mentor to the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas Day bomber"? Michael Kinsley answered, adorably, "Who is to say that the Fifth Avenue Synagogue won't hire Bernie Madoff as its next cantor?" But this doesn't really get at Krauthammer's stupidity.

The question is not whether, as Kinsley says, the freedom of religion "can't be contingent on such what-ifs." The question is whether Krauthammer is right to assume that the difference between Feisal Abdul Rauf (and the people he inspires) and Anwar al-Aulaqi (and the people he inspires) is just a difference of degree. If Krauthammer is right, then one would be justified in asking, "what if." Given time and heat, presumably, the most toxic form of the thing may precipitate out.

The point is, of course, that Krauthammer is implying a caricature. Any religion, Islam included, is not a single revelation-cum-praxis, with people "believing" with greater or lesser intensity--all waiting, with corresponding levels of eagerness, to outlast Christopher Hitchens. Religions, rather, are encompassing traditions, systems of law (and ways of reforming law), rituals, philosophical claims, aesthetics, moral agendas, languages, musical riffs, literatures--I could go on--with competing movements and ordinary disputes all along the way, and in every sphere. People divide within religions in the same way they divide over whatever bears the marks of human perception and interpretation.

Members of a religion may all agree that a book is divine, but completely disagree about what divine means, which makes all the difference. Jesus was "a Jew" after all. Mohammed considered the Torah a revelation. (Where is Monty Python when you need them: "The gourd, follow the gourd!" "No the shoe, follow the shoe!")

Which brings us back to America. Jim Carroll is a Catholic. I am a Jew. But the way we each define our affiliation means we have more in common with each other than he has with Pope Benedict and I have with Ovadia Yosef. Much more. The 92nd. Street Y is a Jewish institution. But it was founded in 1874 by German Jewish immigrants in part as as form of kulturkampf against the rabbinic orthodoxies of the Eastern shtetl. (It would have a big job to do in the subsequent century, as Eastern Jews massed in Manhattan.) On the face of it, it will have far more in common with Cordoba House than with Kiryat Arba.To ask, today, what will prevent the proposed Islamic cultural center from hiring Anwar al-Aulaqi, is like asking what will prevent the 92nd. Street Y from hiring Rabbi Levinger. The very ethos of the sustaining community--the very purpose of the institution--will prevent it.

THAT WORD KULTURKAMPF is critical here. For every religion has in its precincts leaders who are trying, generation after generation, to work for the solid principles of emancipation and (what we used to call) the Enlightenment. As it happens, Jim Carroll knows Feisal Abdul Rauf very well, and will write about his book in tomorrow's Daily Beast. "Cut through the Mosque-near-Ground Zero blather," Jim writes, "by reading the book written by one of its chief backers - What's Right With Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West," by Feisal Abdul Rauf. Carroll continues:

Imam Rauf offers a lucid and loving portrait of Muslim faith, an essential statement of the "moderate" Islamic position that so many claim is nowhere to be seen. But it is here, plain and eloquent. Rauf's touchstone is Cordoba, the Iberian city that was home, under Islamic sponsorship, to the centuries' long and amicable co-existence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Hence the proposed building's name - Cordoba House. Making Rauf's position crystal clear is his book's appendix: a Fatwa, or Islamic religious ruling, that permits U.S. Muslim Military Personnel to participate in the Afghanistan war effort.

So the problem, you see, is not that Cordoba House is too close to Ground Zero. It is too far away. What could be a more poignant, fitting response to the attackers than a center of this kind right at the site of the attack itself; a living monument to a tolerant, liberal, American strain of Islam that gives the lie to the terrorists and their pathetic narrow-mindedness--their creepy desire for purity? The arguments against the center do not just insult Muslims around the world, as Kinsley complains. They insult anyone for whom religious imagination--what William James calls religious experience--is something more than a childish play for certainty.