Let us concede that it is not the business of the government to block the construction of Cordoba House, a 13-story Islamic Center and mosque, even if it happens to be two blocks away from Ground Zero. This passage from New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg's speech yesterday is largely correct:
The simple fact is, this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship, and the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right. And if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.
That being said, many supporters of the Cordoba House project, who insist that there can be no legitimate objection to a mosque being built in lower Manhattan -- that anyone who is uncomfortable with the project is by definition a bigot -- are telling themselves a fairytale in lieu of facing up to the realities of the global ideological struggle we're engaged in.
The fairytale goes like this: Not only do the principles our nation was founded on require us to respect religious freedom, but respecting the religious freedom of American Muslims automatically contributes to victory against Islamic radicalism. Jeffrey Goldberg sums up this view:
We must fight the terrorists with alacrity, but at the same time we must understand that what the terrorists seek is a clash of civilizations. We must do everything possible to avoid giving them propaganda victories in their attempt to create a cosmic war between Judeo-Christian civilization and Muslim civilization. The fight is not between the West and Islam; it is between modernists of all monotheist faiths, on the one hand, and the advocates of a specific strain of medievalist Islam, on the other. If we as a society punish Muslims of good faith, Muslims of good faith will join the other side.
Showing respect and tolerance for minorities is a bedrock value of Western liberalism. The problem that Goldberg and those who think like him are eliding is that the relevant constituency of young Muslim men who may be inclined toward radicalism do not necessarily share the values of Western liberalism. Remember Osama bin Laden's theory of the political impact of 9/11:
When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse... I heard someone on Islamic radio who owns a school in America say: "We don't have time to keep up with the demands of those who are asking about Islamic books to learn about Islam." This event made people think (about true Islam) which benefited Islam greatly.
The notion that the 9/11 attacks improved the standing of Islam in the minds of Americans is, of course, preposterous. But bin Laden's misunderstanding of American political culture mirrors a pervasive misunderstanding of Arab political culture. The "strong horse" concept really is an important factor in Arab politics, where political legitimacy is all too often won by demonstrating the ability to kill. Lee Smith has written a book on this topic, aptly titled The Strong Horse (you can read an excerpt here).
You cannot understand the ideological struggle that is the central challenge of American foreign policy without understanding Smith's central insight that Islamic radicalism is an expression of the strong horse politics that have held sway in the Middle East for centuries. It is essential to reform the political culture of the Middle East by strengthening the nascent forces of liberalism, which is why the Obama administration's reluctance to assert our values in the Middle East is so troubling.
But we should be working toward the goal of liberalization with our eyes open to the difficulty of the task. To people raised in a culture dominated by strong horse politics, a large Islamic Center and mosque near Ground Zero is likely to be interpreted just as bin Laden interpreted American interest in Islam: As a sign that the radicals have a point, and the interests of Islam are advanced when a lot of Americans die.
Some criticism of the Cordoba House project has indeed involved distasteful rhetoric -- lumping Muslims en masse into an undifferentiated "they" -- but a gut-level distaste for the project is more than understandable. Ironically, the cosmopolitan liberals who dismiss this instinctive distaste as mere bigotry actually have a weaker grasp on the perception of symbolism in the Muslim world than the allegedly benighted and parochial opponents they look down their noses at.
This doesn't mean that we shouldn't guard our liberty and resist the temptation to curtail religious freedom, but it does mean we shouldn't delude ourselves -- as we do all too often -- into thinking there are never trade-offs between liberty and security.