Fear and Loathing in Lower Manhattan

Against my better judgment (there seems to be quite a bit of that going around these days), I’ve decided to engage with a post at the Urban Times that comes out against the Cordoba House Project in Lower Manhattan. Or, excuse me, the GROUND ZERO TERROR MOSQUE. Replies Nicolas Samson to my earlier objection:

My argument stems from a practical, pragmatic standpoint. I wish to avoid steaming [sic] ideology whether it is religious or secular, Christian, Muslim, republican, or liberal. My objections to building that mosque right now are just that, objections to building that mosque there, now. Freedom of religion has nothing to do with it. Bigotry has nothing to do with it. It’s all about the greater picture.

Freedom of religion has everything to do with it. That’s the entire point. Would you be just as opposed to a church, a synagogue, or a local chapter of the Richard Dawkins fan club opening up shop in the exact same spot? And what is the greater picture? Your objections to building a community center that includes a mosque seems awfully limited in its scope. The greater picture is who we are as a society and whether or not we can handle the consequences of our own rights and protections.

I sit down and ask myself, what is the coveted result? My answer is: An open-society America. Not a liberal America, not a kick-ass America, but an open-society America.

Well, you lost me when you decided that you didn’t want a kick-ass America.

That entails policies that are applied judiciously and not wantonly.

For instance, the New York City Landmarks Commission deciding that the area in question is not, in fact, a historic landmark? I know, they totally made an exception to their standards by not allowing this defunct Burlington Coat Factory to be destroyed:

Because it would be such a shame to see the local Amish Market and Off-Track Betting establishment desecrated.

A right is not the same as a blank check. Just because I can doesn’t mean I have to, anytime, anyplace, anywhere. Discretion and common sense must rule the exercise of rights. Without it they become doctrines. And I am not in a hurry to replace the religious dogmas with libero-secular [sic] ones. Principles will do me fine, thank you very much, freedom of religion included. As long as I don’t see holy pyres [sic] in America I think things are pretty ok. Maybe not perfect, but ok. So no need to rape the point of freedom of religion home.

Well, that one is just a mess of contradictions. You’re right, just because you can doesn’t mean you have to. But then we get to the converse: you don’t have to, but you can. Because it’s the United States of America. Discretion and common sense are excellent benchmarks, to be sure, but there is no clause in the First Amendment that says “no law respecting an establishment of religion…unless people are being jerks.”

I don’t know where you get the idea that allowing the free exercise of religion is “libero-secular,” much less a dogma. I think things are pretty ok, too. And agreed, they’re not perfect. But this is why we strive as a nation to always do better. It’s what we were founded on – a constant optimism that we are better as a society, that we’re more just, more tolerant, more welcoming, more equal.

I’m also pretty sure I’m trying to defend freedom of religion from rape, to engage with your colorful metaphor. I just hope I don’t end up like that other guy who tried to stop a rape.

You talk about veiled bigotry. Granted. Much of the resistance to the mosque veils bigotry. Yet, that doesn’t mean that all resistance to the mosque is bigotry. Don’t throw away the baby with the water.

You’re right in that some resistance is veiled bigotry. The rest is overt bigotry. I submit to you Webster’s definition of bigotry: “obstinate and unreasoning attachment of one’s own belief and opinions, with narrow-minded intolerance of beliefs opposed to them.” Because again, why oppose this particular building project? If you can name for me a reason other than the fact that Cordoba House is an Islamic project, I’ll stop calling you and some other opponents of it bigots.

On the other hand, much of the support for the mosque veils liberal dogmatism. True. That doesn’t mean all support for the mosque is carried out by raging secularists. There’s good reason behind that argument too.

Yep. Some support comes from raging secularists, others from proud constitutionalists, and even more from the ACLU. Some also comes from Republicans, from Independents, from Christians and from Jews, from blacks and from gays. Isn’t America great?

The question is: What does Ground Zero need to transform itself from an ugly painful scar to a site of regeneration and hope? A mosque? Right now? No! The main thing this measure spells out is liberal dogma; or guilt; or tacky politics.

No, what Ground Zero needed to not be so damn ugly was for Larry  Silverstein and the Port Authority to get the hell over themselves and restart construction. Which they did. And even today, with a building barely rising out of the earth at Ground Zero, you simply cannot see the location where Park51 is being built. I don’t understand why supporting a constitutional right equals liberal dogma or guilt. It’s not like a bunch of lefties all got together (presumably on JournoList) one day and said “we really need to get some patsy Muslim to build a mosque that will be extremely divisive and bring out the worst in Americans. That will really soothe my conscience.”

I mean if freedom of religion is the issue, then why not build a multicultural center? Why not house all religions under one roof on that sacred site? See how that fares, if anyone can say no to that proposition with any credibility! It will be an unstoppable initiative. Because it’s a smarter argument, a truly inclusive measure, a freedom-defending move. A true freedom of religion move. A mosque alone? Just reeks of vested interest.

I’m all for a multicultural center too. But so far no developers who own valuable land in Lower Manhattan has decided to do so, for whatever reasons. And just like the New York Landmark Preservation Committee didn’t say no to Cordoba House, I’m sure they wouldn’t say no to a multicultural, interfaith community center at a similar location.

Let’s also get something straight: the proposed project is not “a mosque alone.” It is, according to the very same Cordoba Initiative that’s building it, “a multi-floor community center open to all New Yorkers, much like a YMCA or Jewish Community Center (JCC) with a designated prayer space (mosque) in one area.” So yes, a mosque is part of it. But it’s not the whole thing. And anyways, what the hell religion do you know that isn’t a vested interest?

Consider this: the Christian Church rushes to Iraq, after all the bombing, and says, “We are not all bad. We didn’t bomb your country. A few thugs in suits did. Our people opposed the war. Christians are not Muslim haters. Please believe us. Please accept this cathedral in this flattened neighborhood as token of majority Christian solidarity to your plight.”

I really hope that there are Christians doing something like this right now. Think of poor General Petraeus in Afghanistan, “slogging away in the Hindu Kush, desperately trying to be culturally sensitive, watching GIs get killed because Afghans believe the U.S. is waging a war on Islam, and back home, the super-patriots on Fox News have… declared war on Islam.” What is your point, anyways? That Iraqis would probably block construction of the church? So instead you suggest that we should stoop to that level of religious intolerance. Interesting line of thought.

Coz this is what is happening in Manhattan right now. The only difference is that the perpetrators of the bombings were not elected officials but outlaws, and the ones who seek redemption are doing so by forcing the issue home. It doesn’t work that way. Rapprochement doesn’t just happen, nor can it be pressured to work. It takes common sense, from both sides. It takes hard work. It takes smart moves, pragmatic rather than doctrinaire, effective rather than dogmatic. Sensible rather than righteous.

This is even more illogical. If elected officials from Country A start bombing the shit out of your country, it would make sense to despise the same people of Country A who elected them. But if a couple idiots from Countries B, D, and R murder a bunch of your fellow countrymen not because of their nationality but their religion – clearly at odds with the vast majority of their fellow citizens – you would therefore condemn the entire religion?

The 9/11 hijackers aren’t trying to build a mosque. Mohammed Atta is not attempting to construct some sort of Second Taj-ul-Masajid with a big statue of Osama bin Laden giving the finger directly towards Ground Zero. It is a center designed for the community that also has a small place for Muslims to worship. And what sounds like a pretty bitchin’ swimming pool.

Want to promote freedom of religion and tolerance and peace and prosperity on Ground Zero? Build a Multicultural Center. Build a Multi-Spiridome, a temple to house all religions under the same roof, the first of its kind, or one with adjacent rooms, or one with adjoining rooms. Build religious schools of worship of all sorts. Build a place where kids will come and play together and learn new languages and international sports and games, supervised by teachers of all cultures and colors and religions, learning what solidarity and respect really are, from the ground up. Build something that will make a difference, a venue that will be a symbol of success, not a symbol that wants to succeed in becoming a venue. Build something to truly bring individuals together. Build a house, not a room. Build a vision. Build a future.

That sounds lovely. Why don’t you build it? Why don’t I build it? I suspect neither of us has the money, the land, the time, or the inclination. Why don’t we require this of churches or temples or yoga studios? Why is it just Islam that has to fit your idea of an acceptable religious environment? We have religious schools, be they Catholic school, or shul, or whatever else you can imagine. That’s because this whole country is your “Multi-Spirodome.”

Children and immigrants come to this country because here they can live alongside people from a hundred different nations, surrounded by diversity.  Because here they can worship freely in the manner of their choosing. Because here they can express themselves without fear of retaliation. Because here you can buy land and own property and it is yours; it cannot be taken from you. Kids come and play together at the YMCA (I’m even told they occasionally offer language lessons there) – right alongside a couple people praying to Jesus in the room next door. What’s wrong with the same thing happening, only Mohammed is in the picture?

This isn’t even about solidarity. But it is about respect. This is America, and your disagreement or possible offense taken doesn’t really matter here. I respect your right to find it a bad idea. I don’t think it’s the most sensitive plan in the world myself. But I absolutely and unconditionally respect a private organization’s right to develop something on the land that they own and for which they’ve received zoning approval from the City of New York.

More than that, I’ve come to realize that we need Cordoba House built, if not only to remind ourselves of the freedoms on which we founded this country. We are all Americans. And we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights. Or at least they used to be self-evident.

6 thoughts on “Fear and Loathing in Lower Manhattan

  1. “[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

    “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

  2. Graham says: “I don’t think it’s the most sensitive plan in the world myself. But I absolutely and unconditionally respect a private organization’s right to develop something on the land that they own and for which they’ve received zoning approval from the City of New York.”

    I respect their right too. I disagree with it, yet I respect it.

    You have nitpicked and gerrymandered the arguments from my post. It’s easy to make them sound different, to attach to them your inhibitions as such. But my resistance to the mosque (called as such because The Economist named its article “Build That Mosque,” from where my article begins) has everything to do with your admission: “It is not the most sensitive plan in the world.” Thank you for making my point and for showing how this Mosque/Islamic Center has become a bone of contention rather than a place to symbolize and promote tolerance. Islam has nothing to do with it. But the way it’s being used and exploited by certain groups and politics is turning this center into a divisive tool.

    I maintain. Build a Multi-religion center. If the government wants to drive home the point of tolerance, then it ought to champion an umbrella structure. Don’t let the smaller politics of each religion drive an ideological wedge into the country, even if it is unintentional or a side-effect (which is what this issue is doing as it stands). Deal with the pressure by leading the argument, not by being led by it. Let the government be smart, coz like Graham says, “what the hell religion do you know that isn’t a vested interest?” And it ain’t a smart move to let these vested interests manhandle the course of a country.

    • I’m sorry if you found my response to be ‘gerrymandering’ and ‘nitpicking’. I was trying to address your points one-by-one, and to me it didn’t seem like each one was already its own paragraph.

      But you’re ignoring that despite the fact it may be divisive, it has absolutely every right to exist where it’s planned to. And just because something that garners no attention or controversy in November suddenly leaps into the spotlight as the (inexplicably) defining issue of our time in July and August doesn’t mean it’s any less valid a project than it had been 8 months before.

      I acknowledge the fact that Cordoba House has become decisive. But I question the motives and assumptions by which it’s done so, and of those who would seek to invoke the federal government as a means to halting its construction.

      I maintain. Build a Multi-religion center. If the government wants to drive home the point of tolerance, then it ought to champion an umbrella structure. Let the government be smart, coz like Graham says, “what the hell religion do you know that isn’t a vested interest?” And it ain’t a smart move to let these vested interests manhandle the course of a country.

      Cordoba House is not a government project. The federal government isn’t championing anything; it’s adhering to its own guiding principles of the Constitution. And what wouldn’t be smart for it to do would be to let other ‘vested interests’ – like those opposed to the project – manhandle the course of justice and cause an unwarranted and illegal government intervention.

  3. I agree that this is not a government project. And that government cannot intercede in this private investment. But I find the government’s vocal interpretation of the issue misguided and overly — and overtly — politicized (as has been the opposition’s). Both sides have come around this issue to cross swords, forgetting the bigger picture. It’s like Arizona and 1070 — both sides are entangled in a conflict of attrition while the bigger picture is being overlooked and the issue sidetracked.

    Bottom line is that the Ground Zero issue is delicate. Above and beyond the need to assert and reiterate freedom of religion, there is a more immediate, more pressing issue to address, a bigger issue, one in which freedom of religion will try and grow roots. And that is the application of common sense and sensitivity to the local population — and I mean Americans, for this issue transgresses Manhattan, like it or not. Their idiosyncrasies have to be addressed. Just as Islam expects and demands its own religious and cultural idiosyncrasies be taken into account when criticism comes its way toward issues such as women’s rights etc, American cultural and other idiosyncrasies ought to be taken into account too when changes of magnitude are proposed to take place in their country, state, or community. This is a two-way argument. The local cultural complexities of the US as a whole cannot be taken for granted just because the place is a democracy. That would be dangerous. Because democracy is not a blank slate where every culture can just do whatever it does just because it can. Democracy — and the places it flourishes in, including America — ought to be respected, its mood and capacities taken into account, utilized with care, caution, prudence. If not they run the risk of overloading.

    Timing is crucial. The place that hosts democracy and its free principles cannot be operated like a perpetual motion toy, lest it one day starts faltering. So let the advocates and proponents of freedom and democracy be wise as to when and how to exercise their rights-options, so that they may last longer. Win an argument now runs the risk of tainting the ground the whole system stands on. It’s like running to the bank during a crisis. If there is a rush to withdraw everything one is entitled too after some very bad results, pretty soon there’s a rush, maybe a panic, and the whole system shakes in its foundations.

    Restraint. And discretion. The better part of valor. To avoid a rights-rush. To show we are confident enough in the system to not milk it dry at this stage of the game. Now’s not the time This batter-rammed cow is barely getting back on its feet. Let it stand and eat and get its bearings before we start milking it again.

  4. The entire colloquy about this proposed building is, in and of itself, offensive. If one were to substitute the words “black,” “Jew,” or “gay” for “Muslim” in any of this insane debate, the discussion would be politically incorrect and verboten. Yet now, because of the acts of a handful of radicals nine years ago, people in this country have decided it’s fine to say the most bigoted things they can think of against Muslims. It is an American tradition to tell those people the white majority despises to exercise “restraint,” “discretion,” and to wait . . . . indefinitely . . . . for their rights. I call bullsh*t.

    Islam is a religion of 1 BILLION people. Do people not stop and think that it’s likely to have as many strands and sects as say . . . Christianity? (Pentecostal, Anglican, Church of Christ, just to name a few). It is also worth noting that Muslims have been worshiping in the former Burlington Coat Factory building for the past TWO YEARS, without a single terrorist attack emanating from there. It was only when Fox News and Sarah Palin (all non-New Yorkers, as far as I can tell) got their teeth into this “issue” that people even gave a sh*t about who worshiped where.

    As for the charge that Muslims are building a mosque to mark the site of their victory . . . Let’s assume – just for the sake of the argument – that this statement has merit. Let us now contemplate the churches and monuments of Europe. Has anyone heard of the Crusades? What were those churches/monuments marking other than the Christian conquest (bloody and murderous as it was) of other peoples? And, what about the Christian and Catholic “missions” all over Africa, South America and Asia? Are those not “monuments” to Christians’ attempt to seize a victory over the religious beliefs of the indigenous populations?

    This is New York. We all take the subway cheek-to-jowl, we walk down the street brushing up against one another, we live in tiny apartments stacked on top of each other. We’re used to living, commuting, working and, yes, worshiping, right next to all sorts of people.

    As the religious Jewish man in my office (which is across the street from the proposed Cordoba House) put it, “The only thing that bothers me about this project is that there are going to be a ton of people on the street on Friday at 5:00 when I’m trying to go home! I’d rather they built it right on the site! That way, at least, people wouldn’t get in my way while I’m trying to go home!”

    That’s all we care about. So as long as the Cordoba House has adequate space for all the Friday evening worshipers so they won’t block the sidewalk, let ’em build. We will show the true character of New York. NYC has always been different from the rest of the USA – that’s why most of us live here and are proud to live here. We never wanted to be adopted as “America’s City; most of us really don’t want to have anything at all to do with the rest of the country!

    Our mayor is Mike Bloomberg – not (mercifully) Rudy Giuliani – and he best expressed why this building should go forward: New York City’s tradition of religious pluralism and tolerance, and individual property rights.

    Let the bigots shut up and go home, and let NYC go back to being itself . . . including watching Cordoba House be built.

  5. NYer for life says “Let the bigots shut up and go home.”

    I know of a sheriff in Arizona, by the name of Joe Arpaio, who says the same thing. Only instead of ‘bigots’ he uses the words, “whoever doesn’t like my ways of handling the county… get the hell out!” And he’s the kind of guy that hates foreigners. Shame his tone is so similar to the one in your comment.

    It was a good argument up to the last line (even though I believe that political correctness has turned from a tool of monitoring racism into a weapon for gagging dissent). But anyway… it was a good argument, up until the last sentence. Then you turned it into what you so damnably criticize, a harangue. And you yourself turned into the kind of person who wants everyone who doesn’t get it to get the hell out. A politically-correct, multicultural, NY-based ‘bigot.’ Using language that the likes of Arpaio and Palin use. And you did it in an article where you yourself had just made the point of WORDS being SUBSTITUTED to veil bigotry). For as you clearly stated, it’s not the noun that counts — Muslim, Christian, black white etc — but the tone. So when you say ‘let the bigots shut up and go home,’ you are employing the same tone you are so eloquently damning. And please don’t say that it’s alright to use this tone with ‘bigots’, for who’s to decide who’s a bigot and who’s not, who’s undesirable or not etc?

    A good argument it was, your argument. Gone to waste. (if it hadn’t gone to waste I would have of course displayed how oppressive political correctness is when taken to the extreme, where one can’t dissent when talking about minorities or other cultures, where fear of racism has turned into paranoia regarding criticism… where the PC police have become so full of themselves they terrorize even rational debates… and why one PC advocate only just now, in the name of tolerance, just said that he wished that all those who disagreed with him — surely bigots! — should get out of NYC and go home!

    Hm, there’s something wrong in that tone!

    Actually, when you said that thing about substituting words to veil attitudes that are dangerous, you may have a point there. So let’s see… let’s try your point out.

    Let’s look at your text and tone. See what we may uncover there.

    So, your text (I will CAPITALIZE what sets you tone, with a caption [in brackets]): THAT’S ALL WE CARE ABOUT [strange way for tolerant person to express him/herself – I’ll call you a ‘he’ from now on, you sound like an angry guy]. So as long as the Cordoba House has adequate space for all the Friday evening worshipers so they won’t block the sidewalk, let ‘em build. We will show the true character of New York. NYC HAS ALWAYS BEEN DIFFERENT FROM THE REST OF THE USA [a fascist favorite phrase, “we are different from the rest in such a way that we take pride in doing whatever we do to defend our values yada yada… sound familiar?] – THAT’S WHY MOST OF US LIVE HERE AND ARE PROUD TO LIVE HER[ (Sounds like Palin to me, with NY accent]. WE NEVER WANTED TO BE ADOPTED AS “AMERICA’S CITY [ah, exclusionarism… or is it, “we are the real deal etc etc” Palin and Co again]; MOST OF US REALLY DON’T WANT TO HAVE ANYTHING AT ALL TO DO WITH THE REST OF THE COUNTRY! [sounds like a jolly good fellow bunch you are describing, and very easy-going too… just a mirror image of Palin’s right]

    Well, the good thing is I won’t actually gather up and sweep all NYorkers inside that argument of yours coz I’m sure they don’t all fit in with it, nor do they share this ‘agree or get the hell out attitude.’ I’m sure it’s just you and a bunch of misguided PC policepeople, trying to lay claim to NYC’s tolerance by driving those you brand as bigots out)

    I thought PC advocates were savvy by now not to use anger in their arguments coz it just makes them into what they supposedly oppose.

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