There is a building near the corner of Broadway and Park Place in New York City, occupying a spot either two or three blocks north of the edge of the World Trade Center reconstruction site depending on how you count it (it’s on the north side of the street two streets away from the northern edge of Ground Zero). It has recently been the home of Burlington Coat Factory, which four or five stories tall, it is dwarfed by taller building surrounding it. The building is owned by Soho Properties (possibly Inc. or possibly LLC; the use of multiple business entities for a single enterprise is a common and legal strategy for high-capital ventures such as buying and selling real estate in Manhattan.) Soho Properties, in turn, is controlled by a man named Sharif El-Gamal, one of its principal owners and its CEO. El-Gamal is also affiliated with a group called the Cordoba Initiative. Cordoba Initiative describes its mission as follows:
Cordoba Initiative aims to achieve a tipping point in Muslim-West relations within the next decade, bringing back the atmosphere of interfaith tolerance and respect that we have longed for since Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in harmony and prosperity eight hundred years ago.
Solving some of the most intractable conflicts in the world today requires innovative strategies for cross-cultural engagement. Cordoba Initiative tackles this mandate with forethought, expertise and the ability to leverage contacts in influential positions within the Muslim World and the West. Thinking outside the box about international and intercultural conflict resolution also means thinking introspectively about each side’s place within its own historical narrative with a view to devising internally oriented solutions.
Cordoba Initiative would like to build a thirteen-story building at Park Place and Broadway. The proposed project, “Cordoba House,” as a thirteen-story tall community center which will include a worship space for Muslims. The first link in this paragraph is a CNN article describes it as a 15-story project, but later reporting says it would be 13 stories. It hardly matters for our purposes because this is not an architecture blog, I’m interested here in the political, social, cultural, legal, and economic issues raised by the project. Whether it’s a 13 or 15 story building is something that architects, engineers, financiers, and zoning commissioners can tackle later, if the project ever goes forward.
The principals of the Cordoba Initiative, which presumably includes Mr. El-Gamal, are Sufi Muslims. Sufism is a sect of Islam which has a highly spiritual, mystical component and is separate from the better-known Muslim sects of Shi’a and Sunni; it is the same sect that gave rise to the famous whirling dervishes (more formally called the Mevlevi) and avows that its doctrines are of infinite tolerance; there are some people who claim to be Sufis but deny being Muslim, which is a matter of some theological controversy among religious scholars and others who care about such things. Point is, people are pissed.
The proposal to build Cordoba House is, unsurprisingly, controversial. Those who find the proposal offensive and in bad taste – including on the one hand a conservative or GOP-related group I’d never heard of before called “the Republican Trust PAC,” which unsuccessfully tried to run advertisements on TV to use the issue for fundraising, and on the other hand angry atheist (really anti-theist) “comedian” Pat Condell (who tries to be preachy and is therefore not funny in his video blasting the idea) – dwell on the fact that the terrorists who hijacked the planes and flew them into the World Trade center nearly nine years ago were not only Muslims, but motivated by a fanatical belief in Islam.
So it is not surprising that there is an effort underway to, regardless of the merits of such a proposal, slap “landmark” status on the existing building so as to prevent its being torn down and rebuilt as Cordoba House. There is even a proposal to build something called “The 9/11 Christian Center At Ground Zero,” which strikes me as just a little bit tacky (especially considering that there is already a rather famous Christian Church, Trinity Church in Manhattan, which is already literally across the street from Ground Zero and boasts of George Washington having worshipped within its historically-significant walls. Rick Lazio (amusingly described to me as “a punk” during my visit to New York City ten years ago by a self-identified Republican back when then-Congressman Lazio was running for Senate against Hillary Clinton) is making the source of its funding a campaign issue; which is good for him because Lazio’s campaign appears to be pretty much out of dough.
In response, the Cordoba Initiative has decided to rename their project “51 Park Place.” As if that matters at all to anyone at this point. It seems pretty clear that no matter what they call it, if there is a Muslim house of worship there, a certain group of people are going to whine about it.
I say “whine” rather than “object,” because the building of this community center, mosque, house of worship, or whatever else you want to call it, does not appear to violate any laws of the United States of America, or those of the State, County, and City of New York. The appropriate local governmental board and the Mayor have given their blessing to the project. So it’s a legal use of the property and that is what the owner wants to do with it. If it’s not illegal, people should be able to do what they want with their own property. Respecting the freedom of others means tolerating it when they make decisions you would not have made. You might not choose to be a Muslim, but you’ve got no choice in the matter of your neighbor deciding to become one.
Are the whiners bigots? Well, if I – an atheist who thinks that Christianity and Islam are simply two different kinds of the same nonsense – can distinguish between fanatic Sunnis who hijacked the airplanes and the quasi-hippies of the modern-day Sufi movement, then surely others can do the same. (Stipulated that historically, Sufis have been as violent as pretty much any other religious sect you care to name.) These aren’t the same Muslims. Both of the whiners I cited — Pat Condell the atheist “comedian” and the Republican political group I’ve not heard of before — present a monolithic view of Muslims, which is that all Muslims are the same as the ones who flew the planes into the buildings or who odiously celebrated that attack after it happened. But such a monolithic view of Muslims is erroneous; Muslims are no more monolithic in even their religious views of the world than are Christians and imputing similar politics to them based on their purportedly similar views of the divine is as much a mistake as saying that all atheists are politically liberal. It’s just not so. Condell in particular warps history by condemning even the name of the Cordoba initiative as one which celebrates the Muslim conquest of Spain; I would challenge him to find an alternative example of a place and time in which “Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in harmony and prosperity” other than the Umayyad Caliphate.*
By either deliberately or ignorantly failing to see these people for what they really are, they are portraying the sponsors of the building as evil when they are not. Ignorance, or worse, deliberate misrepresentation, are hallmarks of bigotry. A sometimes blogger of whom I am a big fan would likely go further and call the attempts to stop the mosque from being built “dog-whistle racism;” I’ll say that many of the opponents of the mosque may not think of themselves as bigots, but if so, they ought to take a step back and try to look at their actions and statements from a more objective perspective.
And then there’s the issue of a mosque going right there. “Why can’t it be built somewhere else?” is the question. Having it close to Ground Zero may well be the point – locating a center dedicated to portraying Islam as having a peaceful, tolerant side near the site of a great atrocity committed in the name of Islam may well be the focus of the idea behind the center in the first place. Perhaps you disagree with the notion that Islam can be a religion of peace (and indeed, there is ample evidence that people use Islam to justify horrific acts of violence and war). But you can’t stop someone from saying something just because you disagree with what they have to say.
So, how far out from the “sacred ground” of Ground Zero do we have to go, anyway, before a mosque’s presence would be tolerated? Presumably, those folks who say that it is an insult to the memories of the more than 3,000 people who died on 9/11 and argue that a mosque “right there” is inappropriate must concede that such an argument implies that it would be appropriate to build a mosque somewhere else. So two blocks away is too close. How about Chambers & Church, five blocks away? Still too close? Maybe not in Manhattan at all, so how about Brooklyn? (Too bad, because there’s already a mosque in the East Village, about one and one quarter miles from Ground Zero.) My suspicion is that the sort of person who objects to a mosque being built in Manhattan is going to disapprove of a mosque being built pretty much anywhere, at least anywhere in the U.S.A., but that result is also unacceptable in a country whose ideological roots are as permeated as ours in the idea of freedom of religion.
Another objection is that this somehow symbolizes a triumph of Islam over America. But I don’t see that in the presence of a mosque at all. I see the presence of a mosque near a place so important to our national memory as a triumph of American values – values of tolerance, of liberty, of property rights, of people of different backgrounds coming together to form a new culture – dare I use the word “diversity,” charged as it is with the weight of political correctness? Yes, I dare. Diversity is better than its opposite, and the idea of America as a “melting pot” of global cultures inherently involves diversity. The “melting pot” idea also involves assimilation into the larger culture here, but the avowed ideals of the Cordoba Initiative fit very well into both halves of that dynamic.
My personal preference might be that there be no houses of worship at all in downtown Manhattan at all. But even so, I’d concede along the way that some of the churches there are historically significant, some are beautiful buildings, and they provide outlets for the residents of those neighborhoods to engage in the religious activities of their choice. My personal preference can’t be what’s happening because my preference infringes on the freedom of others. Your personal preference might be that there be no mosque there, but Christian or Jewish houses of worship are okay. But such a preference also infringes on the freedom of those who want there to be a mosque, and moreover that preference favors one religion over another. It is our own rule, our own ideal, that the government may not favor one religion over another. And, whatever rule is made should be one that maximizes freedom to the extent that is reasonably possible.
Therefore the result must be, let Cordoba House, I mean, 51 Park Place, be built. Not to appease the Muslims or permit them a “victory,” but rather in fulfillment of our own national ideals of freedom. When we fulfill our own ideals of the rule of law, especially in so poignant a place as this, that will be our victory, a victory more profound than a military conquest. It will be a victory for liberty.
* Cordoba itself is ambiguous from the standpoint tolerant diversity, peace, and prosperity. If you lived in Cordoba in, say, the year 1000, you would much rather have been a Muslim than a Christian or a Jew. The dhimmi paid higher taxes and faced restrictions on their ability to own property or pursue a career in the government or the military. Nevertheless, they were not enslaved, free to practice other professions, able to access education, buy and sell property, pursue justice in the courts, and were allowed to worship as they chose and maintain their own houses of worship. The Umayyads conquered Iberia from 711 to 718, and Christian leaders, initially based in what are today regions of Aquitaine and Languedoc began the reconquista in 722, which was not completed until nearly eight hundred years later. So it’s not like the Christians of the era were universally happy with being ruled by the Muslims — but since King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella implemented the Inquisition so soon after expelling the Moors from Granada, the completed Christian reconquista can hardly be seen a step towards greater tolerance. What’s more, even the Muslims of the era cannot be seen as monolithic; while the Umayyads practiced a relaxed form of Islam, one which permitted interfaith marriages, the drinking of wine, and did not enforce daily prayers, they were eventually displaced by the Almoravids and the Almohads, who were more culturally similar to the stricter observances pervading in the Arabic and Iranian areas of Muslim dominance and who also fragmented the political unity of Iberia that the Umayyads had achieved. So there were intolerant Muslims who came to rule the Caliphate of Cordoba after a time, too. I can and do accuse the sponsors of the Cordoba initiative of idealizing the Caliphate of Cordoba, but the point here is that despite the ambiguity and flaws that came out of the nearly eight hundred years the Muslims ran the show south of the Pyrenees, there was for a substantial period of historical time a degree of interfaith tolerance actually practiced, combined with a degree of economic prosperity and cultural achievement, that had not been known anywhere on Earth since the fall of the Roman empire. And yes, I’m including China, India, and Byzantium in making that claim.