The controversy over the proposed "Cordoba House" mosque to be built in Manhattan less than two blocks from Ground Zero is almost enough to make me want to collar author Dan Brown so as to ask if Robert Langdon, his fictional Harvard "symbologist," has time for a good cause.
What Cordoba House supporters play down is symbolism. Any objections to their plans founded on the perceptions of Islamic victory likely to be reinforced by constructing a building of that size for that faith on that particular ground are addressed condescendingly or not at all.
New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and his allies keep saying that one mission of the Cordoba House will be to advance interfaith understanding, which makes me wonder if any other mosque has a similar charter. You could (and should) make the argument that this mosque is special by virtue of its location, although saying so shreds the "nothing to see here" argument advanced by people like Julie Clawson, who chirped in the pages of a blog associated with Sojourners magazine that "Basically it's the neighborhood YMCA with that weird contemporary 'church plant' meeting in the yoga room on Saturday nights."
Riiiight. Clawson went on to write about fear of the mysterious Other, but it was a pop-psych caricature of the way some Christians treat Muslims, not a mea culpa about her own attitude toward evangelical co-religionists who suffer from what she considers freakish zeal for church planting.
Amid the tsk-tsking about how un-Christian it is to judge any faith by the actions of its "fringe" adherents, there is at least one big question that more people should be asking: how do you figure out where the fringe is in a faith without a central authority?
Is there nothing to do but hope that Cordoba House investors who think this mosque will "amplify the voices of the moderate Muslims" are right? If I may pose another question of the kind that the ever-rumpled Detective Columbo used to ask on his way out the door, as suspects were beginning to breathe more easily: would those investors being right violate the laws of probability?
Some mosque supporters are cheered by the fact that the project leader adheres to Sufi rather than Wahhabi interpretations of the Koran, as though dabbling in the user-friendly end of Islamic theology absolves them of the need to call for an independent audit of the financing on a complex that will include a swimming pool and a 500-seat auditorium in addition to art space and the mosque. Former New York Governor George Pataki is one of the people calling for more transparency in Cordoba House financing, and he can't be dismissed as a bigoted bogey-man of the Right. Ditto for Rudy Giuliani, who famously rejected a ten-million-dollar donation from the government of Saudi Arabia in October of 2001 because it showed up with a "you had it coming" lecture on the shortcomings of American foreign policy.
Even the name "Cordoba House" ought to give pause. Given the longstanding acrimony between Sunni and Shia Muslim sects, the complex could not be named for Baghdad or Tehran. Any reference to Riyadh would also pose problems, thanks to the well-known Saudi penchant for funding "extremism" elsewhere as a sop to powerful clerics who could otherwise cause political trouble.
In other words, even in cosmopolitan Manhattan, majority-Muslim city names apparently presented daunting image problems for the partners in this development. As a result, project leaders had little in the cupboard to draw from. Nostalgic allusion was perhaps the only option left to them, and there's the rub: Even if you think that Newt Gingrich is a no-account politico flogging his history degree for the sake of a rhetorical point, the name Cordoba House harks back to an age that ended before Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World, and so we must peer behind the mask of time. Does anyone else see the "Where's Waldo?" problem in that scenario?
By modern standards, Cordoba was not all that tolerant even at its harmonious zenith, as Dr. Andrew Bostom's impeccably-researched compendium, The Legacy of Jihad, makes clear. Ibn Abdun (d. 1134) called Jews and Christians "confederates of Satan's party," while Ibn Hazm of Cordoba (d. 1064) wrote that Allah has established the infidels' ownership of their property "merely to provide booty for Muslims." In other words -- and this may come as hard news for certain "symbologists" -- there is more evidence for Muslim intolerance than there is for murder by associates of Opus Dei. Dan Brown says "albino assassin," I say "reconquista."
Fortunately for all concerned, Christians and Jews don't have to look back eight hundred years to find examples of peaceful coexistence. Relations between those two faiths have been improving since the pontificate of Pope Pius XII and the lesser-known but inspiring example of brotherhood from the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish chaplains who sacrificed their lives together when the troop transport Dorchester was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1943.
History seems lost on Mayor Bloomberg and his allies, who have nothing to say about Catholic pharmacists forced to dispense abortificiants, but don't hesitate to smear mosque opponents as bigots opposed to freedom of religion. Some pundits also accuse the critics of Cordoba House of "renouncing pluralism" or trying to confine religions to ghettos. These shameless exercises in motive-finding lack corroborating evidence.
But Mayor Bloomberg doesn't have to win the argument; he just has to buy time for the banks and the backhoes. He can frame Cordoba House construction in terms of tolerance, or religious freedom, or jobs for New Yorkers, or private property rights, and almost everything he says on the subject counts as misdirection, the political equivalent of breaking into "Oh look! A squirrel!" or (better yet) "Hey soul sister, Ain't that Mister Mister on the radio?"
I said this was a fight over symbols. In that respect, it's not unlike the controversy over the curiously crescent-shaped memorial proposed for the field in Pennsylvania where heroic airline passengers foiled another set of hijackers on September 11, 2001. What's needed now is not another mindless swipe at "bigotry" or an essay about the notably un-Islamic virtues of separating of church and state, but attention to the niceties of neighborly behavior: "Sense and Sensibility," you might say. And while "Professor Robert Langdon" and his academic discipline are fictional, any number of advice columnists, marketing executives, liturgists, and drill sergeants know about symbols, also. Perhaps they -- we -- can help Cordoba House backers extricate themselves from the mother of all faux pas.
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