Brief Note Re: the Cordoba House Controversy

At some point, I, Reihan Salam, intend to weigh in with my thoughts on the controversies surrounding Cordoba House and various mosques across the United States. For now, I’ll just point out that Josh Barro is the author of the last and only post on the subject we’ve run in this space, and I think he raises a number of valuable points. 

A number of readers have shared their thoughts on Cordoba House, and one recurring theme is the notion that Islam is not a religion but rather a kind of martial ideology. I am not an expert on Islam or religion more broadly. My understanding of these issues is limited, and you’re welcome to take my observations with a grain of salt. As far as I can tell, Islam, like Christianity, is a broad term that captures a number of distinctive traditions, practices, and ideas that manifest themselves in a large, and indeed increasingly large, number of sects or denominations. And of course there have been military-political organizations that see themselves as an authentic expression of the one true belief system.

Just as Pentecostalism has experienced explosive growth over the course of the last hundred years or so, there are certain tendencies within Sunni Islam that have grown rapidly in recent decades due to a combination of factors: the oil-driven wealth boom in the Gulf states, globalization that has undermined second-tier lingua francas, the rise of anti-colonialist nationalism, and the rise of market-driven liberal individualism that has undermined traditional patterns of patriarchal authority, the multi-generational household, and settled cultural communities. These “ultra-Orthodox” tendencies in Sunni Islam are very different from conservative Christian practices in the North America, Europe, and Latin America and their cultural offshoots, though there are some parallels to how Christianity and Islam are practiced and deployed in sub-Saharan Africa. The big differences relate, I suspect, to levels of cultural and intellectual and economic development, all of which, of course, are intertwined.

As a historical matter, ultra-Orthodox Sunni Islam, with its origins in the Wahhabi and Deobandi schools, has proven ferociously hostile to traditional Islamic pluralism. Because Islam spread far beyond its Arabic-speaking heartland, it evolved as it encountered new cultural circumstances. In much of South Asia, for example, it was common for practicing Muslims to honor the indigenous religious practices — we now call these diverse religious practices “Hinduism,” as the native religions of India have been increasingly “Abrahamized” in light of the competitive pressures posed by Islam and to a lesser extent Christianity — of their regions and communities, while Hindus would celebrate various Sufi saints. Suffice it to say, this was anathema to the ultra-Orthodox.

I’m simplifying matters here to say the very least, but I think it’s important for people to understand that there really are conflicts within what we call Islam. It is not a single thing. Rather, it is a lot of different things. Some of these things — militaristic, xenophobic, misogynistic Islamism, to name but one example — are by any objective standard noxious forces, and the driver of lethal attacks on Americans and also Israelis, Bengalis, Malays, and many other people. We can all agree on that. 

Islamism, however, is not identical to Islam. Within Islam, there are many other traditions and tendencies, some of which are more compatible with modernity than others.

I’m not sure exactly what’s going on with this new set of controversies over Islam and the role of American Muslims in our public life. I wouldn’t say I’m a very religiously observant person, but the observant Muslims I know best are my parents. Both of my parents have lived in New York city for over thirty years. Both of them worked in the World Trade Center in the 1980s, when I was a kid. Some of my fondest memories of growing up involve visiting them at work, and watching the 4th of July fireworks display from my dad’s office window. They were born in a country (Bangladesh) where Islamist terrorists have killed a large number of people in bomb attacks and acid attacks, and they lived through a savage and mostly forgotten war in which over 1 million Bengali Muslims were tortured and killed in part because they were accused of being “polytheists,” etc. That is, armed cadres of proto-Islamists were killing Muslims who had a different way of seeing the world and practicing their religion.

So that’s part of where I’m coming from: the idea that Islam is one thing or that all Muslims are the same strikes me as highly unlikely. This is part of why I think it is perfectly legitimate for people like Stephen Schwartz to raise questions about what the actual people involved in Cordoba House have said about Hezbollah and U.S. foreign policy. I don’t necessarily agree with Stephen’s conclusions — I don’t know enough to say, but I know the editors of the Weekly Standard well enough to know that they aren’t irrational bigots (as some people suggest) — but I think it is totally fair game to learn about what is motivating the players. 

I do worry, however, that there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding going on in this controversy. Part of the problem is that this kind of debate lends itself to shouting: one side calls the other side bigots, the other side believes that it is being lied to, etc. I have conflicting impulses in such a debate: on the one hand, I resent it when people I know and trust are called bigots when they are raising objections founded in sincere beliefs that have nothing to do with animosity towards a group. And I also remember when the fight against the supposed threat posed by DP Ports World and CNOOC saw a different group of political entrepreneurs profit from what was essentially a cultural controversy. On the other hand, I find myself confused and disappointed when elected officials argue that Islam — again, a big, unwieldy, diverse category — is best described as a series of cults. 

Ross Douthat has written a wonderful column on Cordoba House that captures my feelings almost perfectly. I’ve talked to Ross and other friends about the controversy, and it’s sharpened my sense that my beliefs reflect the particular circumstances in which I was raised. This is why, in my view, empathy is so important when we engage in this kind of a conversation.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Affairs, a member of the ...