Not that we shouldn't have expected and even understood some opposition to the plan. After all, Ground Zero is practically -- and rightly -- sacred to so many in this country and around the world, and the crimes there were unabashedly carried out in the name of the Islam. Even to someone like me, who has no objection to the building of the the facility -- which will be known as Cordoba House and contain, alongside other secular facilities, a mosque -- I see why it makes some uncomfortable. Symbols are powerful. Our message to them cannot simply be "get over it."
From the little bit I've read about the Cordoba Initiative and its leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the builders of the Cordoba House are trying to create a catalyst of peace and reconciliation. The Cordoba Institute promises to "steer... the world back to the course of mutual recognition and respect and away from heightened tensions" and to "serve the Muslim and non-Muslim community." That may sound a bit earnest, but hardly threatening, and I'll take earnestness over cynicism any day.
But, aside from those who feel the symbolism is awkward, there are still others for whom opposition has more to do with a profound antipathy toward all things Muslim.
As Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times reported in an article this past Sunday, all over the U.S. there are fierce fights against a growing presence of Islamic houses of worship.
"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," Goodstein wrote. "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."
One photo accompanying the Times story shows a woman with a picket sign that reads: "Mosques are monuments to terrorism."
If there's any question that such highly vocal anti-Islamic acts are anomalous in the U.S., the Pew Research Center last year found that 52 percent of Americans say they are "very concerned about the possible rise of Islamic extremism in the United States," up 46 percent in 2007. Depending upon how you look at this finding, it could be a lot worse, but it could be a whole lot better, too.There are at least two notably and disconcerting assumptions embedded in Americans' fear of Muslims that deserve some scrutiny.
First, that the people involved in the erection of this mosque -- and, to many, just about all Muslims -- are "radical Islamists," as one other high-profile leader has branded them, or "terrorists," as the woman with the sign claims. According to these folks, Muslims are categorically guilty of being a threat until proven innocent.
Second, that Muslims are bent on the "imposition of sharia," or Islamic law, on American society. Never mind that our First Amendment case law has pretty strong safeguards against such an outcome, which is ironic because many of the conservatives who are warning of Islamic takeover of American society are probably the same ones who have fought vociferously for getting rid of those safeguards. Also, this charge has the ring of 19th and 20th century cries about the "Papists" who would be a Trojan Horse for the Vatican in its attempts to Catholicize the U.S., and of the Jews' alleged subversion of American culture with their alien theology. As Ecclesiastes said, there's nothing new under the sun.
Obviously there are some Muslims -- call them "radical" or "militant" or whatever you wish -- who truly intend to do harm to Americans and other "infidels." Their goal, no doubt, is to impose their religious laws on secularly governed societies -- as they have in a number of countries. No doubt the people who subscribe to this approach are a bad and dangerous lot. Ground Zero is Object Lesson No. 1 of this. These people give the vast majority of good Muslims a bad image and scare the hell out of non-Muslims.
But those increasingly vocal and angry Americans who paint all Muslims with the same brush of such "radicalism" are doing great damage not just to the objects of their rage but to America itself. We Americans fancy our society as "exceptional," particularly in the way we manage our pluralism. Aside from some notable and tragic examples, we've lived up that to that ideal a lot better than most nations.
It feels rather unremarkable to say this, but apparently it needs to be said: if we go out of our way to alienate an entire category of people -- in this case, a large and growing part of our nation -- based on some misguided assumptions, we will as a nation be much less well off and hardly exceptional.