Fear Itself

So a number of Republicans, from Rick Lazio to Sarah Palin to Newt Gingrich, have gotten themselves into a lather about the Cordoba Initiative’s plan to build a Muslim community center and mosque near Ground Zero (actually, I believe they’ve already got a mosque a few blocks away; they’d be moving to a bigger and somewhat closer site). If I’m to take them at their word, their argument is that freedom of religion should be suspended in a certain radius around Ground Zero out of respect for the dead. Or something like that.

There is a strain of thinking on the right that is absolutely terrified of giving Islam an inch lest it take the yard. Listen to Gingrich:

‘‘The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over,’‘ Gingrich wrote. ‘‘The proposed ‘Cordoba House’ overlooking the World Trade Center site — where a group of jihadists killed over 3,000 Americans and destroyed one of our most famous landmarks — is a test of the timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American elites.’‘

Muslims killed Americans here. So allowing Muslims to pray here is – submission? Is that what Mohammed Atta was killing for – the right to pray in New York? He already had that right. But we should take it away, or otherwise the terrorists will have won.

The fear, I guess, is that if we allow a mosque near Ground Zero, the next thing you know the imam will demand modest dress of women working in the Freedom Tower, pro-Israel demonstrations will be banned from the area, and all the frankfurter vendors will have to sell only halal dogs (word of warning: many of them already do!), all in order to cater to the sensibilities of those who pray there. So we must be illiberal – banning Islam from the vicinity – in order to preserve liberalism. Someone must submit to someone – either they must submit to us or we must submit to them, and better they submit than we do.

I suppose that’s an argument, though one that seems to credit Islam with a whole lot more persuasive power than American principles. But at least it is an argument. The other half of Gingrich’s point is just a non-sequitur: that we can’t have a mosque at Ground Zero so long as there are no churches in Saudi Arabia. I mean, if Gingrich wants to say that it’s appalling that Saudi Arabia doesn’t permit synagogues and churches on its territory – I agree! Does he want to sanction Saudi Arabia for that in some fashion – kick them out of the World Trade Organization? make their diplomats pay their parking tickets? refuse to send half a million troops to defend them the next time a local dictator looks interested in gobbling them up? – well, about that we might have an interesting argument, both about what our foreign policy principles should be and what is prudential behavior. Does he want to talk sternly to Muslims about religious oppression in the Muslim world? Sounds like a great topic to broach at the Cordoba Initiative! I’d love to hear their response! But punishing “them” by treating them the way they treat us, when we object to their treatment of us because it violates our principles, that just doesn’t make any sense.

But more to the point: some of “them” are “us.” There are American Muslims. There is an – there are various – American Islam(s). That’s just a fact. There are certainly Muslims (mostly non-American) who deny that fact – who want to argue that Muslims in America can have no true loyalty to America, but must be loyal to some imaginary global Islamic communal interest. And there are certainly non-Muslims who would deny that fact in similar terms. But a fact it is. The problem with this Republican line is not so much that it discourages moderate Islam – though obviously the message “no Muslims wanted” is a terrible one – but that it quite blatantly writes American Muslims out of the American people.

After Pearl Harbor, the United States massively violated the rights of whole communities of American citizens of Japanese descent, in the name of national security. We’ve done nothing comparable to infringe upon the rights of Muslim Americans. But back in the 1940s, we had the decency to say that what we were doing we did because we feared an invasion of the West Coast by a nation with a massive navy that had already conquered much of the western Pacific. Gingrich’s “rationale” for opposing the Cordoba Initiative’s mosque seems to be all about fear of ourselves – of our own weakness, our own inability to resist . . . something. Palin’s “rationale” is all about fear of ourselves as well – fear of painful memories and whether we can handle them in our fragile state.

Well, speaking as one New Yorker: we can handle them.

And as for the New York Republicans who oppose the mosque: the very idea of New York politicians, nine years later, with a gaping hole still scarring the heart of Manhattan, opposing any plausible construction plan at Ground Zero – well, I have no words. By now I’d be happy if they built a Wal-Mart right on the tower footprints and were done with it.