Almost everything about the proposed Ground Zero mosque was cynically brilliant.
Start with the notion of a “Cordoba Initiative.” In the elite modern Western mind, Cordoba has been transmogrified into a mythical Lala Land of interfaith tolerance. To invoke the city is to prove one’s ecumenical credentials. Just ask our president, who, in his June 2009 Cairo speech, fantastically claimed that the Muslim city taught us tolerance while Christians were launching the Inquisition (1478) — quite a feat two and a half centuries after most of the Muslims of Cordoba had fled, converted, or been cleansed during the city’s fall (1236) to the Christian forces of the Reconquista. But no matter, we got the president’s drift about who was supposedly tolerant and who was not.
In truth, apart from a brief cultural renaissance, Cordoba, during its five centuries of Islamic rule, was not especially tolerant of nonbelievers. And, like most medieval cities, it was plagued by coups, assassinations, and right-wing clerical intolerance; it was a place where books were both burned and written. But that is not the point of citing Cordoba. Surely Feisal Abdul Rauf knows all that and more: Cordoba is as much a mythical construct of a long-ago multicultural paradise so dear to elite liberals as it is a fantasy rallying cry to Islamists to reclaim the lost Al-Andalus.
So Cordoba is a two-birds-with-one-stone evocation: in the liberal West proof of one’s ecumenical bona fides; in the Middle East proof of one’s Islamist bona fides. It would be easy to find a city emblematic of interfaith outreach other than the Andalusian Cordoba — from Jerusalem to Ann Arbor — but then the irony would be lost.
Then we come to Imam Rauf himself. To his liberal defenders, he is a sort of respectable Deepak Chopra who at respectable places like Aspen mouths pop platitudes of interfaith tolerance — so much so that our own State Department has employed him, apparently for quite some time, for goodwill gallivanting abroad.
But to those in the Middle East, he is known equally well for doing what he can, as a Western liberal, to contextualize terrorism, bin Laden, and Islamic extremism within the tired Western postmodern tropes of cultural relativism: “The United States’ policies were an accessory to the crime that happened” on 9/11; “In fact, in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the U.S.A.”; “The U.S. and the West must acknowledge the harm they have done to Muslims before terrorism can end”; “The issue of terrorism is a very complex question”; “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” — blah, blah, blah, like all the thinkery that one hears in the faculty lounge.
If the now mysteriously absent Mr. Rauf were not cynical, he simply could do the Oprah/Katie Couric circuit and convince the public that all of the above is taken out of context and that the implications are belied by his longstanding efforts at interfaith outreach. But then he tried that once, on 60 Minutes, with disastrous consequences; and, anyway, the irony of speaking obliquely to two audiences would surely be imperiled.
Now we are fighting over how far the perimeter of Ground Zero extends, and where “hallowed” or “sacred” ground begins and ends. But again, the entire notion of a “Ground Zero mosque” was the brainchild of Imam Rauf himself. He grasped at once the brilliant cynicism involved: Here at home well-meaning liberals would applaud the audacity of hope in positioning a mosque near the 9/11 site in order to “commemorate” the “tragedy,” as a token of tolerance where all could come together and thus avoid another misunderstanding of the sort that sent two airliners crashing into two skyscrapers.
Abroad, the message would, of course, be interpreted quite differently: To the radical Islamists, a mosque rising near Ground Zero well before a new World Trade Center is constructed is a message of Islamic triumphalism — in the long tradition of minarets on the conquered Santa Sophia in Istanbul, the eighth-century Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem rising on the site of the destroyed Jewish Second Temple, and the great mosque at Cordoba retrofitted from the gutted Christian Church of St. Vincent. Again, there are thousands of sites in New York where another mosque could be built; but without the Ground Zero resonance, the irony would be lost.
Then we come to the funding of the supposed $100 million, 13-story Islamic center (“mosque” has become a right-wing defamation for a complex devoted to contemplation and meditation). Mr. Rauf is not engaged in a nationwide fundraising drive of the sort Americans are used to for preserving iconic ships or refurbishing the Statue of Liberty. Instead, he is apparently counting on petrodollars from the Middle East. Given the authoritarian, and religiously intolerant, regimes in most of the Gulf sheikdoms, one can assume that donations will not be predicated on Imam Rauf’s supposed efforts at an Islamic Reformation. Otherwise, what better place to start than Saudi Arabia?
But all that might be unfair second-guessing and right-wing demagoguing. After all, Mr. Rauf can simply embrace transparency, and galvanize Americans to donate to his interfaith center. (Governor Paterson has already offered the help of the New York taxpayer.) Do that, and Gulf money becomes redundant.
Then there is the image of America. Note that the world is not talking about banning the burqa in France, or shutting down a mosque in Germany. Much less are we familiar with the Russians leveling Muslim Grozny or the Chinese rounding up and jailing or shooting Muslims. And, of course, few care that the Saudis, whether the public or the government, would jail a Christian who built a church in Riyadh, or kill a nonbeliever who tried to enter Mecca.
No, Imam Rauf wanted to show the world that the most religiously tolerant country in the world was, in fact, hypocritically intolerant. It is hard to do that in an anything-goes America, where Piss Christ art and shoot-Bush Knopf novels are considered hip creative expressions. But build a mosque a stone’s throw away from Ground Zero? Now that was a brilliant move, one that would draw a reaction from everyone from Glenn Beck to the New York labor unions. All Imam Rauf had to do was propose the mosque site, scram out of the country for a month, and let the liberal elite and the media lecture the world on how nativist, xenophobic, and intolerant the most tolerant nation in the world really was — sort of like lighting a firecracker, tossing it into a crowd from a moving car, speeding away, and watching the ensuing human fireworks in the rear-view mirror.
Finally, we come to the greatest irony of all, the politically suicidal entry of President Obama into the fray. After himself invoking Cordoba for just the sort of therapeutic mythmaking that Imam Rauf is far better at, how could the president now stay out? Rauf knew that he had a legal right to build the mosque, that the cultural elite would rally to his defense, that the right wing would go ballistic, and that his “outreach” would be deeply offensive to the vast majority of Americans of all faiths.
In other words, Rauf is just the sort of Venus’s flytrap that would lure in the unthinking multicultural, multi-everything president, eager to score political points with his omnipresent tolerance, and apparently having learned nothing from his disastrous beer summit and his declaration that clinging Arizonans would arrest Mom and Pop and the kids as they went out for ice cream. Obama could not resist weighing in, and once more he ended up looking the law-professor fool, who in sonorous tones reminds Americans, on the one hand, of the banal (it is perfectly legal to build a mosque near Ground Zero), while, on the other, he plays the Chicago legislator who voted present whenever he could (to a Muslim audience, he kinda, sorta wanted it built; to an American audience the next day, he kinda, sorta really didn’t).
Imam Rauf is a rascal, but he is at least a brilliantly cynical one.
– NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.