Just the other day I was complaining that George W. Bush, Condi Rice, and Karen Hughes, having sent Feisal Abdul Rauf on “public diplomacy” missions to speak for the United States to the Islamic world, hadn’t spoken up about the Cordoba House flap.
Well, Hughes has now spoken up. Clearly, I should have specified my desires more specifically. Hughes thinks that while the Park 51 organization has the right to build Cordoba House on the sacrosanct Burlington Coat Factory site, the nice, polite thing for them to do would be to build it elsewhere.
Hughes reviews the decision she and her President made to try to define 9/11 as a bunch of fanatics betraying Islam rather than as part of a war between Islam and the West. That was obviously the right thing to say from a strategic viewpoint; equally obviously, the claim wasn’t either true or false, as there is no truth of the matter concerning the nature or essence of Islam. The meaning of Islamic tradition, like that of all traditions, is fundamentally contested, and choosing sides in that contest is a political act, not a theological one.
What Hughes doesn’t explain is why she’s shifting ground now. Building Cordoba House near Ground Zero is offensive only if al-Islam is somehow offensive: strange, threatening, and foreign. To argue about how far from Ground Zero an Islamic community center ought to be build is to concede from the go that Muslims have only a conditional claim on being fully American; no one would consider negotiating about where to build a church or a synagogue or a temple to Shiva.
Hughes also says not a word in defense of Mr. Rauf, except to notice that she’s asking him to act more respectfully toward others than they have acted toward him. If the charges that he’s a terrorist sympathizer are false, she ought to denounce them; if they’re true, then the argument against building a community center under his leadership is legitimate, and she ought to say so.
Perhaps the most original – if slightly bizarre – element of Hughes’s essay is her comparison of the Cordoba House controversy with the controversy over the publication of deliberately blasphemous cartoons of Mohammed by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. She says that, just as the newspaper had the right to publish the offensive cartoons, it should have refrained from exercising that right, and she charges the supporters of Cordoba House with inconsistency for not having spoken out on behalf of the newspaper.
I call this “bizarre” for two reasons:
– Actually, some liberals did speak out for press freedom in that case, while (to my knowledge) none of the loudmouth opponents of the “Ground Zero Mosque” had anything but praise for the cartoon stunt. (In my personal case, the history of that particular newspaper in publishing anti-Semitic articles and cartoons in the 1930s made me suspect that the purpose of the current publication was to stir up hatred, once again, against a minority population.)
– That aside, the two cases are parallel only if Cordoba House is intended as a deliberate affront, as the cartoons so obviously were. But Hughes seems unable to explain the nature of the affront, except to say that some unnamed terrorist somewhere might regard building Cordoba House on its proposed site as a victory for al-Islam against the West, using the West’s own weapons. Pretty thin beer, it seems to me.
In my brief CNN appearance with Reihan Salam this evening, Reihan pointed out that lots of Muslims in New York are dubious about the Cordoba House project. There seems to be good reason for that in terms of the organizers’ failure to consult other Muslims in New York. Moreover, I’m (barely) old enough to remember when older Jews reasoned the same way: “We’re a tolerated minority, and that tolerance isn’t perfectly secure. Let’s not do things, no matter how harmless or justified, that might annoy the goyim.” Jews are now, mostly, secure enough not to worry about that anymore; it’s understandable if some Muslims think the way most Jews used to think.
But of course there’s all the difference in the world between Reihan Salam telling fellow-Muslims not to press their luck – which might be good advice or bad advice, but is certainly legitimate advice – and non-Muslims telling their fellow Americans who worship as Muslims that they ought to act as if they were guests in someone else’s house. They’re not “our” guests, and they do not live here on “our” sufferance. Hughes’s failure, and the failure of most non-Muslim conservative leaders – with honorable exceptions such as Ted Olsen – to denounce anti-Muslim bigotry (as practiced, for example, by Franklin Graham) leaves a stain on the contemporary version of conservatism, as the whole affair leaves a stain on this country’s capacity to live by its principles.
Footnote In the short term, this is likely to “work” for the GOP, as immigrant-bashing did in the 1990s and gay-baiting did in 2004. But adding Muslims to the list of groups that the Republican right has treated as national enemies can’t really be a good move long-term, unless Osama bin Laden and Sarah Palin succeed in creating a true worldwide sectarian war.