A few hours before my father died coming on for three years ago I became a U.S. citizen, joining about 80 or so others in a hall in Baltimore’s federal building in a naturalization process that included Africans, Asians, Europeans, South Americans and, dare I say it, Arabs. The World’s religions were also represented that chilly day – there were Christians, Jews and Muslims.
Am I now to believe, if I take Newt Gingrich at face value about why Cordoba House, the proposed Ground Zero mosque, should not be built, that those Muslims are, at worst, my mortal foes and, at best, suspicious representatives of a Jihad-obsessed religion that is intent on killing non-Muslims? I took those Muslims in Baltimore to be fellow Americans and as such citizens of a Rainbow nation dedicated to some basic freedoms, one of which includes the liberty to express their religion and the right to worship their God.
After all that is very the bedrock of the United States – a nation founded by people who wanted to worship in their own way without being persecuted.
In the debate that has been ignited by the proposal to build an Islamic center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero the opponents have failed to recall the fundamental and historic founding principle of this country. And too many of the opponents have used the kind of language that President George W. Bush was careful to avoid when he launched his “war on terror” – the current American struggle is not against Islam but against those who bomb and shoot and fly commercial planes into skyscrapers, it is a struggle against violent nihilistic militants who distort a religion for their own vile purposes and care not whether they kill Christians, Jews or Muslims. What it ISN’T is a war between religions — however much Osama bin Laden would like to make it such.
And the Obama administration has been no different in the language it has used. The national security strategy published in the spring stresses “diversity is part of our strength—not a source of division or insecurity.”
Clearly Gingrich doesn’t believe this. His argument, as so many of those put forward by the Cordoba project’s foes, relies on conflating Al Qaeda and Islam – in short, rewarding Osama bin Laden by accepting his erroneous, arrogant claim that he represents Islam and acts and speaks for the true religion. Gingrich and others lean on the argument — sometimes overtly and other times covertly — that Muslims share responsibility for the 9/11 atrocity and that they are tainted by it.
Writing in the American Spectator magazine, Patrick O’Hannigan sneers at the notion that you can distinguish between the militants, the “fringe” adherents and other Muslims. He asks: “How do you figure out where the fringe is in a faith without a central authority?” I hadn’t noticed myself that there is a central authority for Christianity. Who is it? The Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Patriarch of Moscow or the patriarchs of the Ukraine, Greek or Serbian Orthodox churches or the leaders of the various Methodist or Baptist churches?
And as Christianity has no central authority, do I take it that we can’t therefore distinguish between Christians and that Christianity and all Christians share responsibility for the killings and rapes in Bosnia by Serbs and Croats in their last religious war?
Former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin maintains that allowing Cordoba House to be built would be to “stab” American hearts. But it is quite the reverse. To block Cordoba House would be a stab at the heart of America.
To block it, would undermine one of the fundamental founding principles of the U.S. It would be saying that there are different classes of Americans and that American Muslims are not real Americans. Cordoba House is the brainchild of an American cleric, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who a has strong track record of promoting interfaith understanding, the main purpose for building the Ground Zero mosque.
Maybe when it is built Gingrich and the former Alaskan governor – the one who thought Russia was visible from her house — could take some classes there so that they can appreciate the difference between Sufi and Wahhabi interpretations of the Koran – the Imam is a Sufi Muslim. The Rand Corporation recently advocated support for Sufism because of its “open, intellectual interpretation of Islam” and identified Sufism as a counter-weight to hardline Wahhabism, the Islamic stream the Taliban swim in. Writer and historian William Dalrymple sees the mass base of Sufi Islam in the subcontinent as perhaps the only bulwark against a creeping Talibanisation of Pakistan.
And, of course, the Taliban detest Sufism and have targeted Sufi adherents and their shrines, most recently as last month when twin suicide attacks were launched at the shrine of a Sufi saint in the Pakistani city of Lahore leaving 44 dead and 175 injured. So Gingrich and the Cordoba House critics are opposing our allies in the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. That’s smart.
As far as Gingrich is concerned Cordoba House should not be built “so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia”. But diversity and tolerance are our strengths and the lack of them is Saudi Arabia’s weakness. When did we think it was okay to be intolerant if others are? When did we think it okay to hold the rights of American Muslims hostage to the behavior of Saudi Arabia or any other Muslim country?
The Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish civil rights group, says Cordoba House should not be built because “this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right”. What is right is that the mosque goes ahead and that its mission of interfaith understanding and dialogue puts to shame those in the U.S. or overseas who want to sow division and conflict.
Jamie Dettmer a former political writer at the Times, the Sunday Telegraph, the Washington Times, and the New York Sun. He blogs at jamiedettmer.com.