“It is rash to condemn where you are ignorant.”
Much has recently been said about the proposed Cordoba House facility in New York, dubbed the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”. As is now widely known, CNN anchor and Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria returned his award to the ADL and explained his rationale extremely well (he’s subsequently also summarised Sufism and the reasons for Al-Qaeda’s hatred of it); Alex Massie also recently discussed the issue and made a number of brilliant points. This article in the New York Times by the acclaimed historian William Dalrymple about the Cordoba Initiative’s Sufi connection is excellent too, as is this article by Richard Cohen of the Washington Post. This segment from MSNBC by Keith Olbermann forcefully argues against the escalating bigotry towards Muslims and also discusses the potential ramifications for America if these attitudes are allowed to continue. US President Barack Obama himself has now emphatically voiced his support for the right of the founders of Cordoba House to build the proposed centre (also see here). Even Christopher Hitchens has been demolishing the arguments of many of the people opposed to Cordoba House (including Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin) and has condemned their sectarian prejudice and often staggering level of ignorance. The quote at the top of this paragraph by the Roman philosopher Seneca clearly still has great resonance 2000 years later; coincidentally, the great man was born in Cordoba himself.
First of all, Cordoba House is not going to be located at Ground Zero; it is actually going be two blocks away from (and out of sight of) the location of the former World Trade Centre, on the site of a building which has already been used for Friday prayers by local Muslims for several months and caters for overspill from an actual mosque nearby. There is already a mosque four blocks from the Ground Zero site and it has been there for about 40 years. Secondly, Cordoba House is not actually going to be a mosque in the conventional sense at all but a multifunctional cultural centre, and will include a performing arts centre, art exhibitions, sports & fitness facilities, a restaurant, auditorium, theatre, and childcare facilities. In fact, the founders of Cordoba House don’t even refer to their proposed prayer facilities as a “mosque”, and insist that it is actually going to be an interfaith prayer area within the building, open to all and with the intention of being available to people from any religious background.
There’s a very simple concept which some people seem to be unable (or, possibly, unwilling) to grasp: Islam is not a monolithic, homogenous faith. Similarly, Muslims are not a monolithic, homogenous group. Thinking otherwise is not only the equivalent of non-Christians insisting that the most puritanical, ultraorthodox historical interpretation of European Catholicism is the only “true” version of Christianity, but it’s also the equivalent of stigmatising the world’s entire Christian population and even objecting to the presence of Christian churches worldwide because of the endemic sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests which has recently been uncovered here in the West.
In fact, there are interpretations of Islam — particularly amongst Sufis — which are directly opposed to the sectarian bigotry and extremism embodied by Al-Qaeda. This isn’t a recent development; for example, in terms of the Indian subcontinent, this has been the case for most of the past thousand years. And the proposed Cordoba House facility isn’t a “Wahhabi mosque” or even remotely related to that kind of fanatical religious fundamentalism; the founder of the facility, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, is actually a Sufi himself who has been heavily involved in promoting religious pluralism and interfaith understanding & friendship – the kind of Muslim whom Al-Qaeda and similar Islamist extremists vehemently hate. As Fareed Zakaria recently said on CNN, Rauf is actually Osama bin Laden’s nightmare.
It’s also extremely important to remember that dozens of ordinary innocent Muslims in New York were also killed on 9/11 as a result of the Al-Qaeda attack. Perhaps it’s necessary for other people to rethink their perspective and consider that Cordoba House is effectively aligned with the American Muslim victims of 9/11, not actually the perpetrators of the atrocity. Grasping that simple fact would of course require the people concerned to listen to what President Abraham Lincoln termed “the better angels of our nature”.
Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face
Some of the more hysterical opponents to Cordoba House have also claimed that it represents “a victory for radical Islam” and will advance the agenda of Islamist extremists. The reality is this: Islamists, especially Salafi-Jihadists like Al-Qaeda, actually hate Sufis. They view such people as heretics, and have not only been involved in persecuting & killing Sufis for hundreds of years but this has extended into the present day — whether it involves the Taliban demolishing Sufi shrines in Afghanistan or the escalating attacks on similar sites in Pakistan in recent years. There was a massacre in Lahore just a few months ago, as was heavily covered by the news media here in the West.
Hostility towards Sufi Muslims who are actually forcefully opposed to the Islamists and everything they stand for (and whom the Islamists themselves violently hate) is the epitome of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. If anything untoward does eventually arise in terms of Cordoba House specifically, either in terms of the financial backers of the building or the message being promoted within it, at that point it should be investigated by the relevant authorities; and if any American laws are being broken, the people involved should be prosecuted. Unless and until that happens, ascribing all kinds of alleged nefarious motivations to the centre and its founders purely because it involves Muslims is grossly prejudiced and completely inexcusable. Anyone who has an accurate knowledge of global history will know where that kind of paranoid witch-hunting can ultimately lead.
Even the name of the building is apparently offensive to some people (including Newt Gingrich), who have claimed that “Cordoba” doesn’t represent a period of dynamic open-minded intellectualism, peaceful coexistence, and (relatively) pluralistic multifaith tolerance in Spain during an era when such attitudes were comparatively rare in many parts of the world, including the rest of Europe, but represents “Islam’s greatest conquest in Europe”. If you’re going to take that particular blinkered line of thinking, you should also object to any buildings in America which have the name “Columbus” or indeed the names of numerous settlements across both North and South America which were named after Christian saints, considering the devastating impact which the arrival of European Christians had on the continent’s Native American population from 1492 onwards; leading modern historians such as David Reynolds, who has taught at Harvard and is currently Professor of International History at Cambridge University, have estimated that the total population of Native Americans in the whole of the Americas plummeted from 50 million to just 5 million during the period 1492-1650 alone. In any case, due to the controversy surrounding the issue, the name “Cordoba House” has now been dropped and the building will be called “Park51” after its street address instead, although for the purposes of this article I will refer to it by its former name in order to prevent any confusion.
But since people have started harking back to historical events, let me provide a few appropriate precedents from Indian history, specifically in relation to Sikhs. One of these examples in particular has striking parallels with 9/11 and is also directly connected to Afghanistan. These events, the reactions of the people impacted by them, the lessons for our modern-day situation, and the potentially dangerous consequences of the “conservative Right’s” ongoing actions will be discussed in Part 2 of this article, which will follow shortly.
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Filed in: Civil liberties,Current affairs,History,Muslim,Religion,Terrorism,United States