Of fear and courage: Cordoba House and us
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Of fear and courage: Cordoba House and us

My initial response to the Cordoba cultural center was accompanied by fear and anger. But with caution at my side, I asked reason to inform me. Just as I am opposed to family members making statements at the sentencing of a criminal guilty of hurting or murdering their loved one, I object to bringing in sentiment to justify the creation of exceptions to a constitutional guarantee. The rule of law is supposed to insulate justice from prejudice of all kinds. Zoning issues aside or other laws compatible with this guarantee, there is no good reason I have heard that should scuttle the cultural center at its present site. Frankly, what better place to educate the uneducated at a location not far from where political Islamists destroyed thousands of lives, including the countless survivors and responders? Declaring one or many guilty by their association with Islam is not only unfair; it is a product of irrational fear. Am I to be judged because of the Baruch Goldsteins in the world? To require any Muslim to assume guilt for 9/11 is repugnant and xenophobic. Jeremiah’s counsel is relevant. Instead of the sins of the fathers visited on the heads of their children, Jeremiah prophesied that “every one shall die for his own sins: whosoever eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be blunted.”

Islam is undergoing its Americanization, a painful process of separating mosque from state, slowly undermining some Muslim theologies and myths of hegemony and primacy. We do not forget that we still live among triumphalist Christians who believe that this is a Christian nation – and if it isn’t, yet, then it should be. In the last few days, one southern pastor announced a Koran-burning – but is having trouble getting permission because it presents too much of a fire hazard. But is not the burning a civil hazard and an indefensible act of bigotry?

Thirteenth-century Paris and 16th-century Rome were witnesses to Talmud-burnings and restrictions on Jewish books. In 1806, Napoleon assembled the sanhedrin of Jewish notables to test their loyalty to France. Napoleon endeavored to achieve freedoms for Jews they had not enjoyed. The Jewish condition was improved, but not by acclamation. Still, non-Jews were suspicious of Jews. After Napoleon, many of the states returned to their anti-Jewish laws.

Where is the victory for Islam should the Cordoba House be built? Besides the center’s being two blocks away from the new construction of the financial buildings, it will pale in size to any structure there. If anything, the cultural center with a prayer space will be a statement that Islam is counting itself as an American religion also offering its facilities to the general community. Muslims have been praying in that neighborhood for a long time. Should we want to pick on the length of time they have been praying there? That would be irrelevant. Certainly, there will be others who will continue their suspicions of a Muslim cabal. Is it insensitive of the Cordoba House organizers to build in the neighborhood? Is it insensitive to not think that these Muslims want to do “teshuva” or better, that they want to make their institution so obvious to those who may visit the 9/11 area in the future so they may parade their American Islam, an Islam that eschews violence and wants no connection to the Islamists who represent a theological and political agenda that is not theirs? Is it insensitive of some of us not to believe that this is a community in earnest that wants to build bridges within the American community?

I have to wonder, because it has not been suggested, what would be the response if a Jewish or Christian organization were to construct a cultural/worship center on that very site?

We can suggest that the new Islamic cultural center include a prayer room for all faiths – as a house of prayer for all peoples. We may suggest and not mandate it because we live in a free country. But to judge from the current conversation I have to ask – is it? I hesitate to use the expression, but I detect fascistic tendencies in the outrage against the cultural center. If I am at all frightened, I am most concerned by the willingness of too many to withdraw the courage that our constitutional ancestors insisted on when they wrote the First Amendment.

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