Saturday, August 07, 2010

Christopher Caldwell girds for civilizational war near Ground Zero

Christopher Caldwell is a careful, precise writer, capable of building a powerful argument block by block. All the more pernicious, then, his attack on Park51, the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero.  His argument boils down to guilt by association and an acceptance of civilizational war.

Caldwell concedes that Park51's Constitutional and legal right to build the mosque are beyond dispute.  He argues that Mayor Bloomberg's defense of that right is beside the point:

Few mosque opponents argue seriously that this one can be blocked. The argument of Ms Palin and others is instead that it is insensitive to build a mega-mosque next to the spot where 2,700 people were killed in Islam’s name. This distinction – between what is constitutional and what is appropriate – is an important one.
The argument from insensitivity validates the assumption that the 9/11 attackers and al Qaeda did, in some sense, represent Islam at large. Because the attackers acted in Islam's name, no other proponents of Islam should presume to ensconce themselves anywhere in the vicinity. Caldwell states that premise explicitly, albeit with a caveat:
The attacks of 2001 were not a political-science abstraction. They were an expression of Islam. Not all of Islam, certainly – and Islam is neither the only religion that has such crimes to answer for nor the only one that has provoked such controversies. The building of a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz in the 1980s so wounded Jewish sensibilities that Pope John Paul II ordered it removed in 1993, even though the Holocaust was not carried out in the name of any faith.

The convent analogy, invoked by the Anti Defamation League in its call for Park51 to be built elsewhere, is a digression -- I want to say red herring, but that is not quite fair, as there are relevant aspects of similarity. But the differences are important. While "the Holocaust was not carried out in the name of any faith," the brunt of its fury was directed specifically at Jews -- it was conducted against a faith, by a virulently malignant outgrowth of Christian antisemitism. Moreover, the Carmelite convent was immediately outside the perimeter of Auschwitz, in a building that had been used to store Zyklon B, the instrument of mass murder.  The Park51 site is a two blocks away from the World Trade Center in a dense urban environment that houses and will house hundreds of businesses and organizations. It will be all but invisible from the World Trade Center site.  It is not in an isolated Polish village but in a city that encompasses more diversity of ethnicity and enterprise than any place on the planet. In any case, it is not clear to me that the Carmelites did not have a right to live and pray immediately adjacent to Auschwitz.

So back to Caldwell's central premise. It is to slap away the hand of Muslim groups that seek integration and dialogue with the West.  Caldwell rejects efforts to foster such rapprochement -- which, as Fareed Zakaria points out, were the policy of George W. Bush:
Ever since 9/11, liberals and conservatives have agreed that the lasting solution to the problem of Islamic terror is to prevail in the battle of ideas and to discredit radical Islam, the ideology that motivates young men to kill and be killed. Victory in the war on terror will be won when a moderate, mainstream version of Islam—one that is compatible with modernity—fully triumphs over the world view of Osama bin Laden.

As the conservative Middle Eastern expert Daniel Pipes put it, “The U.S. role [in this struggle] is less to offer its own views than to help those Muslims with compatible views, especially on such issues as relations with non-Muslims, modernization, and the rights of women and minorities.” To that end, early in its tenure the Bush administration began a serious effort to seek out and support moderate Islam. Since then, Washington has funded mosques, schools, institutes, and community centers that are trying to modernize Islam around the world. Except, apparently, in New York City.
In Caldwell's view, seeking to strengthen and work with moderate Islam is to be played for chumps by an implicitly monolithic and implacably hostile global adversary:
Including Islam within the fold of traditional western religious tolerance is not business-as-usual. It is an experiment. Our Lockean ideas of religious tolerance had their origins in the 16th century (the peace of Augsburg) and the 17th (the peace of Westphalia). Those understandings regulated relations between Christian sects and were steadily liberalised. Judaism later proved assimilable into this system in the US, but not, to put it mildly, everywhere in the west.

Islam – which is, like Christianity but unlike contemporary Judaism, an evangelising and expansionist religion – is a bigger challenge. A radical school of it views the US as its main enemy. Because that school is amply funded by Arabian oil, there is a standing fear that radicals will capture any large international project involving Islam, no matter how good its original intentions.

Most newspaper accounts of Manhattan’s mosque project have lauded its leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Bloggers are quicker to note that he said after the 2001 attacks that US policies had been “an accessory to the crime”. The organisers have been unforthcoming about their sources of funding. They are proceeding with the mosque project, even as it produces the very opposite of the inter-religious harmony they claim to seek.

Note the guilt by association. Purportedly ecumenical, humane Muslim leaders and organizations may be funded -- and therefore, presumably controlled -- by expansionist, implacably hostile extremists. Even more insidious is the implication that proceeding with the mosque project in the face of bigoted opposition is itself evidence of a secret radical agenda to which the Cordoba Initiative and other Park51 allies are devoted.

Perhaps funders of Park51 and the Cordoba Initiative include Saudi Wahhabists or groups that sympathize in varying degrees with Gazans or even Hamas.  And perhaps various Jewish congregations in New York are funded by groups that support illegal West Bank settlements. Perhaps various Evangelical congregations are funded by radical Christianists who deny the secular basis of American society -- or support violence against abortion providers. Certainly the Catholic churches are supported by an institution that empowers and protects pedophiles.None of those misdeeds (all misdeeds in the eyes of some only) void adherents' right to congregate or build at sites of their choosing in New York, if they own or control them. Unless Park51 is funded by organizations banned by the Treasury for providing material support to terrorist organizations, donors' beliefs are as irrelevant as they are multifarious (the Cordoba Initiative lists among its supporters the American Jewish Committee and the UJA Federation of New York

Caldwell ends with a truly paranoid suggestion that the mosque, if built, would constitute a victory for al Qaeda:
A married couple from Connecticut, whose son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter were killed on a flight that hit the World Trade Center, wrote to The New York Times to oppose the project on the grounds that it “has the trappings of a victory mosque”. That expression captures a lot. People around the world will differ over the meaning of September 11 2001, but there can be no doubting that it is one of America’s most consequential military defeats. It led to a stalemate in Afghanistan and a war in Iraq that undermined the US’s standing in the world. By providing another reason for low interest rates and easy credit, it helped spur the present economic crisis. Whether or not this was inevitable, it happened. Osama bin Laden’s strategic calculus – that the US lacked either the resolve, the cohesion or the cultural self-confidence to stand up to a mighty blow – has in many ways been vindicated.

Remedying the weakness that Mr bin Laden diagnosed and exploited is seen by a lot of Americans as a matter of national survival. “Building bridges” to other cultures is a distraction from that task. It will be years before we know whether such sentiments are counselled by the voice of fear or the voice of reason, but they must be taken seriously. Mr Bloomberg is not taking them seriously. Faced with a delicate and intellectually complex situation, he has taken refuge in cant. He may have squandered an opportunity to resolve this controversy at a relatively low cost.
Caldwell neglects Bin Laden's greatest victory: shaking Americans' confidence enough to lead us to betray our values and weaken our freedoms -- to torture those in our custody, to start aggressive wars of choice (okay, he does acknowledge that one on prudential grounds), to threaten with malicious scrutiny and ostracism those who build a religious edifice on private property with private funds in full compliance with local regulations because it offends some people's sensibilities. He rejects as cant the Mayor's plain-spoken and eloquent defense of those freedoms -- and his crucial  warning: "this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetimes, as important a test. And it is critically important that we get it right." 

Instead, Caldwell sees a determination to be governed by the rule of law in this case as a capitulation to some imagined Bin Laden-inspired master plan for world conquest.    That is so incommensurate with my view of what makes this nation strong, and what threatens it, that I have no more to say.

UPDATE 8/8: Now comes Martin Peretz, with a loud hear, hear for Caldwell, arguing that since Muslims have had religious freedom in the U.S., they don't need as much as everyone else:
But there really are at least 100 mosques in New York City, perhaps more. None of them has been torched, which you cannot say for synagogues. How many other mosques are there in the country, I don't know. Still, no Muslim anywhere in America has problems finding a welcoming place of prayer or for eating hallal (the Muslim kosher) or for using his Blackberry to arrange an Islamic study group.
Peretz also suggests that those who oppose mosques elsewhere are a nonproblematic subset of the ever-present  "cranks" who try to keep various houses of worship out of their back yards:
Sometimes they disguise their argument by saying that their streets can't bear the traffic. On a few occasions they may be correct. On most, the courts rule against them. We do not have a "freedom of religion" problem in the United States.

Peretz was a day too soon to catch today's front-page Times story, "Around Country, Mosque Projects Meets Opposition":
At one time, neighbors who did not want mosques in their backyards said their concerns were over traffic, parking and noise — the same reasons they might object to a church or a synagogue. But now the gloves are off.

In all of the recent conflicts, opponents have said their problem is Islam itself. They quote passages from the Koran and argue that even the most Americanized Muslim secretly wants to replace the Constitution with Islamic Shariah law.
 A sampling:

In late June, in Temecula, Calif., members of a local Tea Party group took dogs and picket signs to Friday prayers at a mosque that is seeking to build a new worship center on a vacant lot nearby.
Whether they admit it or not, Caldwell and Peretz are allying themselves with these people.

1 comment:

  1. Hear, hear!!

    What got to me most (and what I posted on my own blog) was the idea that 9/11 was some kind of defeat for the US. While it lead to to some of us questioning our fundamental values and unfortunately finding them insufficient and unworkable, this time, at no time has the US been defeated by this or any terrorist attack, and if this reactionary nut doesn't realize that, he ought to go back and read our founding documents and long history of being a pluralist and in all ways diverse society. While we've never been perfect, and while some situations to cause us to stumble, for a time, we are a society who can handle differing religions, political philosophies, dissent, and even a bit of unintentional insensitivity...

    You bring out a bunch of great points (that honestly, I wish I had, in my own piece... 8>)