A Specious Compromise on Cordoba

You are not terrorists. Your religion is not evil. Your project is not a monument to murder. But since some believe otherwise, I propose a compromise:

Get out.

That is the message adopted by some liberals and their allies in the wake of smoldering conservative rage over the Cordoba House proposal.

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, New York Gov. David Patterson, former DNC chair Howard Dean, and New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan all echo the same theme: Muslims have the right to build a Muslim facility two blocks from Ground Zero – but they would be wrong to do so.

If the argument sounds familiar, that’s because it is. “No one is disputing that America stands for – and should stand for – religious tolerance,” Sarah Palin averred before assailing the proposal through her Facebook megaphone a month ago.

Of course, the official conservative position – “we are tolerant, just not here” – was always a transparent lie.

Palin’s legion of Facebook fans laud her for attacking “the monkey-god people” and preventing “Islamification by our enemies.” (She has not “refudiated” them.) Her political allies compare Muslims to Nazis and ache to imprint a few Ground Zeroes of their own in even more Muslim countries. Her admirers now inveigh against mosques everywhere, from California to Tennessee to Connecticut, where conservative Christians recently bellowed “Jesus hates Islam” through bullhorns and shoved around Muslim children to prove the point.

The correct course for Democrats was clear: reverse the soft prejudice against Muslims by highlighting the repellent hatred of the Right’s jihadists. Instead, liberal leaders crawled atop the Trojan horse and welcomed the “just not here” ruse as if it were an honest argument rather than convenient cover.

The president didn’t hop into the wooden saddle himself, but he did extend the ladder. After breaking a Ramadan fast with Muslims in the White House and lending words of support, he “clarified” his remarks for the cameras the next day and said that he “will not comment on the wisdom to put a mosque there.” As Palin pointedly observed, it is precisely the “wisdom” of the proposal that is being debated in the public mind. Some in Democratic circles took Obama’s non-comment as a green light and swiftly sided with Palin and Gingrich.

Reid tersely stated that the facility “should be built someplace else.” Patterson reiterated a dubious “offer” to relocate it “at a distance” on state land. Dean resurfaced after a period of irrelevance just to offer this insight: “Another site would be a better idea” because failing to accommodate prejudice (which is apparently not prejudice when it is popular) is a “missed opportunity” for “dialogue.”

Even New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan joined the chorus, praising Patterson’s idea and questioning the “wisdom” of placing the center near “such a wounded site.” Dolan’s own wisdom is informed by the finest people: he just nixed a mosque plan in Staten Island to appease a mob led by “Muhammad was a con man” Israeli loyalist Robert Spencer.

None of these men have offered an honest explanation for their stance. They resort to variations on tired phrases that have dissolved into gibberish, like a newspaper column left in the rain.

“Hallowed ground.” Where? The proposed location for the center is an abandoned coat factory two blocks away from the site of the attacks. Porn shops, strip clubs, dirty pubs, and cheap food stands all litter the periphery of Ground Zero.

“The pain of 9/11 families.” Whose pain entitles whom more? There is no consensus among 9/11 families. Among families of the Twin Tower attacks, there are supporters and detractors. Among families of the Pentagon attack victims, none has protested the Muslim prayers that have been held inside the heart of America’s military nerve center for eight years. There are also Muslim families whose relatives were killed by the terrorists: what about their pain at being smeared as accomplices of their relatives’ killers?

Looking beyond the vapid rhetoric, one truth emerges into focus: these men are more reliant on the lens of 9/11 for their Muslim-gazing than they let on.

First there is Dolan’s repetition of Abe Foxman’s outlandish Auschwitz analogy. The New York Times reported that he has “invoked the example of Pope John Paul II, who in 1993 ordered Catholic nuns to move from their convent at the former Auschwitz death camp after protests from Jewish leaders.”

For Dolan to lean on this analogy is telling. Millions of German Catholics may have helped turn the gears of the Nazi machine, and the Catholic Church (as the official representative of the faith) may have made dubious compromises with Nazism – but how is this analogous to 19 hijackers participating in a secret suicide mission? How many Muslims does Dolan think are culpable for the terrorist attacks?

Then there is Dean’s defense of his position, offered at Glenn Greenwald’s invitation. Dean noted that “the vast majority” of people who oppose the site are “not right-wing hate mongers.”

So far, so good: the extremist fringe should not be confused with soft supporters who can be convinced to part with extremists.

But that is not Dean’s point. He argues that we should cede the soft middle to the extremists because of the “strong emotions” of the opposition. Dean then offers this tortuous construction: “This center may be intended as a bridge or a healing gesture, but it will not be perceived that way unless a dialogue with a real attempt to understand each other happens.”

A center of dialogue should not be built at a location where it symbolizes dialogue, Dean says, because it angers people who don’t want dialogue and dislike Muslims.

The argument is striking for its moral and intellectual poverty.

Imagine a middle-class black couple trying to move into a mostly white apartment building. The co-op board demands the couple denounce some “fellow blacks” who were convicted of some robberies there. The bewildered pair agrees. Some white residents remain unsatisfied and rail against inclusion; many back racial profiling and police raids in black neighborhoods. In a gesture of “compromise,” the board’s leading lights draft a letter advising the couple that they should exercise their civil rights – just not here: “Your presence may be intended as a bridge or gesture at integration, but it will not be perceived that way unless a real dialogue happens. As part of that dialogue, please move to the other side of town.”

Why has the compromise crowd embraced this perverse take on dialogue? They likely do not share conservatives’ hatred for Islam – but they may share their fondness for denial. Insisting that America’s Muslims apologize for something they did not do preempts an honest look at what America has done and continues to do.

True, most liberals listen when former intelligence officials and scholars like Chalmers Johnson and Robert Pape explain that America fostered and still inflames Islamic extremism by killing or humiliating innocent Muslims. But an in-house discussion is not the same as dialogue. When a Muslim makes the same point, it seems to agitate a chauvinist reflex – witness Christopher Hitchens’s bloated indignation over the Cordoba imam’s “sinister” (not really) view that American policies helped precipitate 9/11.

In any event, the “compromise” floated by some Democrats and their allies is ill-conceived. To argue that America’s Muslims are complicit in terror two blocks from Ground Zero but innocent “at a distance” is to endorse a noose of prejudice that has already expanded nationwide. Using the coded language of “wisdom,” “wounded sites,” and “strong emotions” only lends the lynch mob a ready supply of rope.

Honest Americans ought to deliver a straight answer to the question being put to them by the Right about their fellow Muslim citizens: “Are we with them, or are we against them?”

Author: M. Junaid Levesque-Alam

M. Junaid Levesque-Alam writes about Islam and America at his Web site, Crossing the Crescent. A regular Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, he has also been published in AltMuslim.com, CounterPunch, and TheNation.com. He lives in New York.