Conor Friedersdorf’s shallow defense of the Ground Zero mosque
posted at 2:23 pm on July 28, 2010 by Karl
Although I have recently spent far too much time reading and examining the work of Conor Friedersdorf, his Forbes defense of the planned mosque at Ground Zero is so shallow — and so emblematic of his approach — that it warrants further effort on my part.
Friedersdorf starts with a stunningly inapt analogy:
You’ve probably heard about “The Ground Zero Mosque,” an Islamic community center planned in Lower Manhattan. But I bet you haven’t heard of The Ground Zero Strip Club.
There are actually a couple of adult entertainment venues that show up on Google Maps if you search around the former site of the World Trade Center. Internet reviewers seem to like New York Dolls best, due to its sexy, disproportionately Russian staff, mirrored stage and purportedly high-quality lap dances.
As yet, I haven’t heard anyone wonder why our political class is silent as the sex industry operates on sacred ground. It would be a bizarre complaint: It’s Manhattan, where you can find anything mere blocks from a given location. The closest strip club to Ground Zero happens to be two blocks away, a fact that has nothing to do with our reverence for the place where so many Americans were killed by terrorists. As you’ve probably noticed, it doesn’t even make sense to call it The Ground Zero Strip Club.
But it makes no less sense than naming an Islamic community center “The Ground Zero Mosque”–as much of the media have done–because it’s going to be located a couple blocks away.
Cordoba House isn’t called the Ground Zero Mosque because it’s close to Ground Zero. It’s called the Ground Zero Mosque — I think — because it’s as close to Ground Zero as the Cordoba Initiative could possibly get, and because the Cordoba Initiative is building it as close to Ground Zero as it can get explicitly to advocate “for Islam” in a specifically “post-9/11 environment.” The idea is simple, if controversial: there ought to be a very large building, very near to Ground Zero, full of people dedicated to helping Americans understand that they should think well of Islam and of Muslims, precisely because Ground Zero is currently such a painful and potent source and symbol of American ill will toward Muslims who, as a matter of religious doctrine, wish harm on America and death on Americans.
Indeed, the Cordoba Initiative specifically chose the property it did because a piece of the wreckage fell there.
In his response to Poulos (in comments), Friedersdorf responds that the subject of his column is the anti-“Ground Zero Mosque” ad produced by the National Republican Trust PAC, which unfairly lumps the Cordoba Initiative with supporters of al Qaeda. That charge is unfair, based on the current evidence. However, it is also unfair and hypocritical that Friedersdorf, by the end of his column, refers generically to all opponents of the planned mosque as “judging people they’ve never met on the basis of their religion, treating all Muslims as enemies of America, and allowing emotional prejudice to dictate their opinion.” In fact, many opponents of the planned mosque seem to know a lot more about the project and its sponsors than Friedersdorf does.
Friedersdorf vouches for the project and its sponsors from authority:
Jeffrey Goldberg, as staunch an opponent of radical Islamists as you’ll find, posted recently on the controversy over this cultural center, having interacted with the folks who are attempting to build it, and reported that they are peace-loving people intent on marginalizing extremists inside their religion.
Friedersdorf has objected to this form of argument by reputation in the past. But if we’re playing that game, I can point to leading moderate Muslims who think the mosque is a bad idea. On the merits, Goldberg bases his opinion on his particpation in a panel co-sponsored by Cordoba last year. The issue, then, is whether what the Cordoba crowd says on panels with Goldberg should be taken at face value.
Imam Feisal Rauf, the central figure behind the mosque project, has a public image as a devotee of the “contemplative” Sufi school of Islam, but his writings directed at Muslims are full of praise for Wahhabi fundamentalism. He has refused to “repudiate the threat from authoritative sharia to the religious freedom and safety of former Muslims,” a pledge issued nine months ago by ex-Muslims under threat for their “apostasy.” He refused to describe Hamas as a terrorist organization, and will not talk about the Muslim Brotherhood. He is an open proponent of integrating sharia into the law of Western countries. When speaking to Arabic audiences, he discounts the idea of religious dialogue. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Rauf said, “The Islamic method of waging war is not to kill innocent civilians. But it was Christians in World War II who bombed civilians in Dresden and Hiroshima, neither of which were military targets.” Many people convincingly argue that Dresden and Hiroshima were military targets, but more important in this context is that neither was ordered on the basis of Christian theology. Regarding 9/11 specifically, Rauf told 60 Minutes in September 2001 that “United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.”
Rauf is a permanent trustee of NYC’s Islamic Cultural Center. The ICC employed Imam Sheik Muhammad Gemeaha, who claimed that ”only the Jews” were capable of destroying the World Trade Center and added that ”if it became known to the American people, they would have done to Jews what Hitler did.” That was bad publicity, so he was replaced by Imam Omar Saleem Abu-Namous, who opined that “we don’t have conclusive evidence that the World Trade Center attack was waged by Muslim elements.” He further stated that ”nobody would support Osama bin Laden” in the Muslim world, which gives one an idea of the sincerity of the people installed by Rauf.
In fairness, I note that so far, there is no suggestion that Rauf follows the teachings of someone like Sayyid Qutb (faint but significant praise, that). Moreover, the FBI tapped Rauf to provide post-9/11 sensitivity training for the bureau. However, one hopes that the feds entered the relationship with more open eyes than Friedersdorf has in his column.
Then there is the naming issue. Friedersdorf does not like the name “Ground Zero Mosque,” so let’s consider that the planned mosque’s original name was Cordoba House (and that it remains a project of the Cordoba Initiative). Raymond Ibrahim provides some background:
The very name of the initiative itself, “Cordoba,” offers different connotations to different people: In the West, the Andalusian city of Cordoba is regularly touted as the model of medieval Muslim progressiveness and tolerance for Christians and Jews. To many Americans, then, the choice to name the mosque “Cordoba” is suggestive of rapprochement and interfaith dialogue; atop the rubble of 9/11, it implies “healing” — a new beginning between Muslims and Americans. The Cordoba Initiative’s mission statement certainly suggests as much:
Cordoba Initiative aims to achieve a tipping point in Muslim-West relations within the next decade, bringing back the atmosphere of interfaith tolerance and respect that we have longed for since Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in harmony and prosperity eight hundred years ago.
Oddly enough, the so-called “tolerant” era of Cordoba supposedly occurred during the caliphate of ‘Abd al-Rahman III (912-961) — well over a thousand years ago. “Eight hundred years ago,” i.e., around 1200, the fanatical Almohids — ideological predecessors of al-Qaeda — were ravaging Cordoba, where “Christians and Jews were given the choice of conversion, exile, or death.” A Freudian slip on the part of the Cordoba Initiative?
In fact, the true history of Cordoba, not to mention the whole of Andalusia, is far less inspiring than what Western academics portray: the Christian city was conquered by Muslims around 711, its inhabitants slaughtered or enslaved. The original mosque of Cordoba — the namesake of the Ground Zero mosque — was built atop, and partly from the materials of, a Christian church. Modern day Muslims are well aware of all this. Such is the true — and ominous — legacy of Cordoba.
Ibrahim adds that “though many Christian regions were conquered by Islam prior to Cordoba, its conquest signified the first time a truly ‘Western’ region was conquered by the sword of Islam.”
In sum, there is a rather substantial body of evidence suggesting that Rauf and Cordoba are not nearly so peace-loving or intent on marginalizing extremists inside their religion as Friedersdorf claims. Moreover, a few minutes with a search engine would reveal that many of the mosque’s opponents outside the National Republican Trust PAC are well aware of this evidence, even if Friedersdorf was not.
Furthermore, when confronted with some of this material in the comments to the Poulos posting, Friedersdorf’s response was to regurgitate some of the Imam’s friendly statements meant for Western consumption (when Rauf’s sincerity and possible taqiyya is at issue, based on the evidence just presented) and to persist in accusing opponents of tarring all Muslims (when their concerns are directed specifically at Rauf and Cordoba).
Perhaps the saddest aspect of Friedersdorf’s misrepresentation of the parties involved is that it was so unnecessary. There is a principled, small-government case to be made on behalf of the mosque project, based on the protection of property rights and the free exercise of religion. However, that argument is not self-evident. Friedersdorf — at Forbes and in the comments to the Poulos posting — merely assumes that the Constitution forbids anyone from stopping the mosque. If the Constitution was so clear cut, there would have been no point to the passage of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (based on the spending clause, not the first and fourteenth amendments) and similar state laws (the interpretation of which is still being litigated in a number of courts). NYC is not all that friendly to property rights, and opponents of the mosque have every right to petition the government to have the building at issue designated a landmark as part of the 9/11 debris field. Furthermore, even if opponents fail to stop the mosque, they have every right to inform the public that the agenda behind the Cordoba Initiative may well be more ugly and intolerant than Friedersdorf imagines.
Friedersdorf’s apparent inability to process the evidence that challenges his opinion is not surprising. Friedersdorf admitted upfront to Poulos that, in his view, the real subject of his column was the National Republican Trust PAC ad. Friedersdorf could not help but focus on the sideshow, even if he wound up suggesting that all of the opponents of the project lump all Muslims into a monolithic bloc of al Qaeda supporters, ignoring the disturbing background of the project and its main proponent, and assuming away the thorny legal issues at stake. His modus operandi here is entirely consistent with his defense of Dave Weigel’s distorted coverage of the Right.
Contrary to many on the Internet, I accept that writers like Friedersdorf and Weigel intend their continuing attacks on elements of the Right as part of an effort to reform and improve it (as opposed to simply taking the center-left’s money for trying to divide the Right). Where they go wrong is in pursuing that sort of political agenda with so little application of the basics of politics and persuasion. Sure, William F. Buckley, Jr. did the Right a favor by helping marginalize groups like the John Birch Society — but he had been one of America’s most prominent conservative thinkers for over a decade when he did it. Today’s Friedersdorfs and Weigels do not have a fraction of that credibility or stature within the movement, which — fairly or unfairly — causes many conservatives to tune them out. Their options, then, are to either complain about “epistemic closure” or to earn the sort of respect that allows someone like Charles Krauthammer to freely criticize Republicans and conservatives without being dismissed. I am told by people I respect that Friedersdorf and Weigel come across much better in person than in text, so perhaps they will eventually grasp the degree to which their overall approach ends up alienating the very people they purportedly hope to persuade.