Cordoba House Controversy A Proxy Fight Over American Pluralism

Ross Douthat has a thoughtful take on the controversy over the Cordoba House Islamic cultural center — or at least more thoughtful than the vast majority of conservative commentary on the subject so far — in which he places the controversy within the ongoing American debate over immigration.

There’s an America where it doesn’t matter what language you speak,” writes Douthat, “what god you worship, or how deep your New World roots run. An America where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides. An America where the newest arrival to our shores is no less American than the ever-so-great granddaughter of the Pilgrims.”

But there’s another America as well, one that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions. This America speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism originally, and then a Judeo-Christian consensus that accommodated Jews and Catholics as well. It draws its social norms from the mores of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora — and it expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly.

These two understandings of America, one constitutional and one cultural, have been in tension throughout our history. And they’re in tension again this summer, in the controversy over the Islamic mosque and cultural center scheduled to go up two blocks from ground zero.

While I would agree with the general proposition that managing the tension between the Americas that Douthat describes has been among the key projects of the United States — along with managing the tension between liberty and security, and between federalism and states’ rights — I reject the moral equivalence that Douthat seems to be asserting here between pluralism and xenophobia:

The steady pressure to conform to American norms, exerted through fair means and foul, eventually persuaded the Mormons to abandon polygamy, smoothing their assimilation into the American mainstream. Nativist concerns about Catholicism’s illiberal tendencies inspired American Catholics to prod their church toward a recognition of the virtues of democracy, making it possible for generations of immigrants to feel unambiguously Catholic and American.

Whatever positive function nativism and bigotry, institutionalized and otherwise, may have performed in encouraging greater, faster assimilation is far outweighed by the harassment and discrimination endured by new immigrants as a result. This attempt at even-handedness also leads Douthat to underappreciate the extent to which, just as newly arriving Catholic, Jewish, Italian, German, and Chinese immigrants became more American upon arriving here, America itself became more Catholic, Jewish, Italian, German, and Chinese as a result of their arrival.

This, also, is part of what I think makes America unique: “Assimilation” has never been a one-way street. New arrivals to America have adopted American ways as their own, but they’ve also changed the way that we define and understand what it is to be American. Resistance to this is, I think, a big part of what underlies much of the opposition to the Cordoba House: Many Americans are uncomfortable with the fact — and it is a fact — that America will become, is becoming, more Islamic.


So it is today with Islam. The first America is correct to insist on Muslims’ absolute right to build and worship where they wish. But the second America is right to press for something more from Muslim Americans — particularly from figures like Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the mosque — than simple protestations of good faith. […]

By global standards, Rauf may be the model of a “moderate Muslim.” But global standards and American standards are different. For Muslim Americans to integrate fully into our national life, they’ll need leaders who don’t describe America as “an accessory to the crime” of 9/11 (as Rauf did shortly after the 2001 attacks), or duck questions about whether groups like Hamas count as terrorist organizations (as Rauf did in a radio interview in June).

As I wrote last week, Rauf’s comments about the role that U.S. policies played in fomenting extremism in the Middle East are actually, in fact, little different from those of John McCain’s, who acknowledged on the 2008 campaign that the past U.S. “strategy of relying on autocrats to provide order and stability” had helped “produce a perfect storm of intolerance and hatred” that resulted in the September 11 attacks.

And while it’s certainly not too much to ask Rauf to explain his past comments, neither do I think it’s too much to ask his good faith critics to attempt to regard those comments in the broader context of his work. Those who do will find that, while Rauf’s ideas about the causes of 9/11 may still not be agreeable to them, they are simply not the “apologia for terrorism” that some have claimed.

Here, for example, is Rauf, writing in his book “What’s Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims in the West“:

The truth is that killing innocent people is always wrong — and no argument or excuse, no matter how deeply believed, can ever make it right. […]

Islamic law is clearly against terrorism, against any kind of killing of civilians or similar “collateral damage.” the roots of terrorism lie not in theology but in human psychology, and in the hatred born of violent conflicts over politics, or power, and economic assets such as land. (pg. 155)

As for the idea that the simplistic categorization of Hamas as a terrorist group is a prerequisite for entry into polite discussion, Robert Wright took that apart a few weeks ago. I will say, however, that a more nuanced view of what drives groups like Hamas, as well as the ability to compete with Hamas and other extremists for followers among the Muslim faithful, is an enormously important asset that moderate leaders like Rauf bring to the American table. Broadening the American debate in this respect is a good thing, though I understand that it also represents a threat to those who have a vested interest in keeping America’s debates dumb.

Finally, Douthat disappointingly repeats the tautology that the very fact that Rauf wants to build a new community center in the same neighborhood that his mosque has served for over two decades is proof of his immoderation:

[American Muslims] need leaders whose antennas are sensitive enough to recognize that the quest for inter-religious dialogue is ill served by throwing up a high-profile mosque two blocks from the site of a mass murder committed in the name of Islam.”

This goes quite beyond “pressing for something more from Muslim Americans.” It asks Muslim Americans to acknowledge the validity of the idea that the presence of a mosque at that location is an affront to those murdered — including the Muslims murdered — on 9/11. And while it’s important to understand the deep emotions involved, the idea that Muslims bear collective guilt for 9/11 is simply not valid, no matter how “thoughtfully” phrased.

And with that I think I’ll go have some felafel for lunch. Or maybe sushi. Or maybe some foreign food.