Why the Cordoba Brouhaha is a Good Thing

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August 16, 2010

The center of the current brouhaha in New York City, the building of Cordoba House on 51 Park Place, has nothing at all to do with the center itself. If you have any doubts, go directly to the website of the Cordoba Initiative.

The leaders of the Cordoba Initiative are well-known members of the peace community. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf founded the American Society for Muslim Advancement which is committed to interfaith dialogue. Cordoba’s other leading executive is Sayyed Nadeem Kazmi, who has worked for the United States State Department and the British government and has written articles against radical Islam.

The description of the Cordoba House itself is likewise pretty tame: “The site will contain tremendous amounts of resources that otherwise would not exist in Lower Manhattan; a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, art exhibition spaces, bookstores, restaurants.” Take off the blinders of religious intolerance, and the Cordoba House reveals itself as… a Muslim JCC.

What matters about Cordoba House is not the building itself, but the discourse around it. New York media, from Fox News to the New York Times, calls the building the “Ground Zero Mosque,” despite the fact that the building’s main role is as a community center, not a mosque (google JCCs and sanctuary for an extensive list of buildings that contain both). Nor is it actually being built on Ground Zero, the site of the Twin Tower bombings. The building will be about two blocks away, next to an AT&T store and Marty’s Shoes. Hardly sacred ground.

What the term “Ground Zero Mosque” really means is that mainstream media and, what’s worse, the Anti-Defamation League which also came out against the Cordoba House, cannot distinguish between the terms “terrorism,” “Islamic militants,” and “Muslims.” The proposed Cordoba House apparently has taken New Yorkers back to the worst of post 9/11 reactions.

Immediately after the attacks, the world reached out and embraced Americans, and many of us met that compassion with generosity. Yet, others quickly turned to fear. Ann Coulter, for example, on September 13, already had associated all Arabs with the 9/11 terrorists: “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.”

Recall what America was like in the months following 9/11. Sikhs, whose religion has nothing to do with Islam, were attacked simply because of their turbans, which Americans thought signalled Arabic (and thus Muslim) ancestry. On September 15, a gunman killed a Pakistani Muslim store owner. In Gary, Indiana, a man wearing a mask shot a high-powered rifle at a Yemeni Muslim. That week, a molotov cocktail was thrown at an Arab-American community center in Chicago, and at two mosques near Toronto, Ontario.

In November, 2001, the U.S. government rounded up over 5,000 men of middle eastern descent on suspicion of terrorism. Another 1,200 were swept up December 5, 2001. The passage of the Patriot Act only encouraged many towards a McCarthyism against Arabs.

That anti-Arab, anti-Islam sentiment was not a passing reaction. Even as the Iraq and then the Afghanistan war fell into disfavor, anger directed towards Muslims increased. In October 207, 114 colleges held an “Islamo-fascism Awareness Week” which “which highlighted the threat from the Islamic jihad. In 2008, the anti-Islamic equation Islam=terrorism (as one popular bumper sticker proclaims) escalated during the election of Barack Hussein Obama, whose father was a Muslim.

In 2010, we don’t hear, very often, of attacks on Arab men in American cities. Yet, the generalized anger at those of Arab descent or practicing Islam remains. It is palpable at tea-party events, and on sites like resist.net, which highlight Hitler’s use of two Muslim units in order to make the connection between today’s Arabic anti-semitism and the ultimate touchstone of Jewish fear, the Holocaust [text corrected 8/8, ,for more info see http://bit.ly/akfkzR].

This set of attacks on Muslims are hard to parry, as they tend to be symbolic. The tea partiers are frantically afraid and angered by modern America, and have set up a series of scapegoats—Barack Obama, Democrats, Arabs, Nazis—which they tend to associate with each other in combinations that often appear completely random. The point for tea partiers isn’t really that Arabs are big-government-loving Nazis, but that someone has ruined America and needs to be found so that the true America can be restored. To cure what ails the tea partiers, they really will need a more welcoming America—not the Founders’ America of their dreams, but perhaps one without 12% inflation or a debt-based consumer economy.

Anti-Islamic sentiment is also prevalent in New York City, but stems from a different root. For those living outside of the wider New York metropolitan area, 9/11 is already a tragic piece of American history. For those in New York, however, 9/11 could have happened yesterday. The terror they experienced is still alive, as witnessed by the mass hysteria in April 2009 when a low-flying government plane came too close to Manhattan’s towers. In Manhattan, just the word “shariah,” which is simply the Arabic equivalent of “halakhah,” seems to be enough to send ordinary Americans looking for bomb shelters.

Manhattanites, in short, are suffering from post-traumatic stress. What they need is a recognition that the war on them is over, that they are no longer personally endangered. They need to have the opportunity to interact in a regular and structured way with the face of their fear.

Manhattan, in short, needs the Cordoba house. Until New Yorkers can experience what is sure to be a relatively mundane and (excuse me, Cordoba) boring yet high-profile Islamic center in their midst, they will have a hard time recovering from 9/11.

New Yorkers tend to be among the most liberal people in the United States, in part because they literally rub elbows with difference every day in the subway. As detractors suggest, the Cordoba House will provide that “elbow-rubbing” experience in a symbolic way, just close enough to Ground Zero to draw the kind of frazzled New York media attention that will soon become sophisticated ennui. In matters of race and religion, a little ennui can be a very good thing.

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