Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Cordoba House: the national local story

Michael Bloomberg, mayor of the little town of New York, made the local news again tonight, in his support of the planned Cordoba House Muslim community center and mosque in lower Manhattan two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"If we say that a mosque and community center should not be built near the perimeter of the World Trade Center site, we would compromise our commitment to fighting terror with freedom," Bloomberg said at Gracie Mansion during an iftar, a ritual dinner observance that is part of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

"We would undercut the values and principles that so many heroes died protecting. We would feed the false impressions that some Americans have about Muslims," he said. "We would send a signal around the world that Muslim Americans may be equal in the eyes of the law, but separate in the eyes of their countrymen."

Other voices in the mediasphere have characterized the Cordoba House matter as a local concern that's been elevated (largely through talk radio, conservative media, comments in the Twitterverse and a presidential weigh-in on the matter) to a national level it wouldn't have otherwise achieved.

But despite its seemingly parochial context, the Cordoba House matter speaks volumes about the nation we've become since the horrific, epochal events of Sept. 11 — and the nation we say we want to become.

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In many ways, the Cordoba House venture was, almost from the start, a victim of phenomenally bad timing. The project, organized by an imam of a mosque in the financial district, his wife and a local real-estate investor, made its debut at a Community Board land-use meeting on May 5 — the day after Faisal Shahzad, an American-born Muslim, was arrested for planting a car bomb in the heart of Times Square.

It's also been the victim of bad press. As the issue achieved a critical mass of awareness, various media outlets began the customary phrasal shorthand, inaccurately distilling the matter with the words "W.T.C. Mosque" or "Ground Zero Mosque" — the kind of breathless tabloid compression that short-circuits debate and savagely embroiders the truth.

By accident or design, it was an extension of the same blurry identity snapshot that gave the birther movement license in its attempt to paint President Obama as an "other," born outside the United States in a Muslim nation.

We've known Cordoba House was bigger than just local news when the pollsters began checking in. A recent CNN/Opinion Research poll, for example, found that nearly 70 percent of Americans opposed the community center/mosque plan, while only 29 percent approved.

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Standing on principle, Obama gave the debate fresh oxygen when he spoke at the White House iftar on Aug. 13.

"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable."

"Our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect towards those who are different from us – and that way of life, that quintessentially American creed, stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us on that September morning, and who continue to plot against us today," he said.

“ ... [T]ime and again, the American people have demonstrated that we can work through these issues, and stay true to our core values and emerge stronger for it," he said. "So it must be and will be today."

Obama's statement — a moment of civic clarity and firm grasp of what it means to be an American — was clarion, it was pitch-perfect, it didn't need further elaboration.

Which made it strange when the next day President Obama felt the need to tweak that forthright stance, essentially cautioning that having the right to do something doesn't necessarily mean one should do it — a rhetorical adjustment whose rationale is elusive, to say the least.

If the Cordoba House issue itself wasn't big enough by that time, it gained new attention as much for Obama's statements as anything else.

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What undercuts the notion of the Cordoba House community-center case as local news is the wide range of people who have debated it, and their positions on the matter. Never mind the dialogue-by-placard going on in the streets of Manhattan; the rich, broad and often literate conversation on the issue on cable, in print and the public square of the Internet points again to how national this local story was from the beginning.

It goes without saying that many in the conservative community would be opposed to the center, on reflexively partisan lines. Via Twitter, 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee and political personality Sarah Palin called on “peace-seeking Muslims” to reject the center, labeling it an “unnecessary provocation.”

"President Obama is wrong," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. "While the Muslim community has the right to build the mosque, they are abusing that right by needlessly offending so many people who have suffered so much."

Redstate.com CEO Erick Erickson tweeted: “Paging the Church of Satan: Our founding principles demand Barack Obama support your rights to Human Sacrifice.”

But Alberto Gonzales, attorney general in the Bush administration; Ted Olson, Bush White House solicitor general; and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, libertarian maverick and darling of the tea party movement, have come out strongly in favor of the center's construction — Paul late last week in an online statement of thundering defense.

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Life for non-Christians in New York City has historically been a matter of enduring somebody's bad behavior. As a Manhattanite in the mid-90's, I lived on East 11th Street, across the street from Webster Hall, then and now one of the city's more popular entertainment venues, a place frequently visited by the bridge & tunnel crowd and bright young things from everywhere.

The taxi traffic orbiting the rowdy club on those light-sleeper weekends was so heavy that the bouncers and security people, one in particular, had a standing traffic-control mantra: "Move the CAB, Mohammed! LessGO! Move the CAB, Mohammed!"

This random form of address, of course, was no respecter of true identity or place of origin; a cab driver's real name and background didn't much matter. It was a rude, reflexive, lumpen strategy that made it easy to identify one's adversaries back then.

For some, apparently, that kind of ethnic objectification makes it easy to pick one's enemies today.

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But it's difficult, or it should be, to make enemies of the people who shared the same fate as your friends. Borrowing from an Islam Web site, HuffPost Pundit elfish made that clear in a recent comment that the 18 hijackers who wreaked havoc on the United States almost nine years ago were equal opportunity destroyers:

60 Muslim-American Citizens died during the 9/11 attacks

They were Police Officers, Fire Fighters, Stock Brokers, Security Officers, Nurses, CEOs, Lawyers, Bankers, City Workers, Airline Personnel, Children, Unborn Children and IT Workers.

So these people are so devalued that their religious symbols should not be allowed even two blocks away?

(1) Samad Afridi, (2) Ashraf Ahmad, (3) Shabbir Ahmad
(4) Umar Ahmad, (5) Azam Ahsan, (6) Ahmed Ali
(7) Tariq Amanullah, (8) Touri Bolourchi
(9) Salauddin Ahmad Chaudhury, (10) Abdul K. Chowdhury
(11) Mohammad S. Chowdhury, (12) Jamal Legesse Desantis
(13) Ramzi Attallah Douani, (14) Saleem Ullah Farooqi
(15) Syed Fatha, (16) Osman Gani, (17) Mohammad Hamdani
(18) Salman Hamdani, (19) Aisha Harris, (20) Shakila Hoque
(21) Nabid Hossain, (22) Shahzad Hussain, (23) Talat Hussain
(24) Mohammad Shah Jahan, (25) Yasmeen Jamal
(26) Mohammed Jawarta, (27) Arslan Khan Khakwani
(28) Asim Khan, (29) Ataullah Khan, (30) Ayub Khan
(31) Qasim Ali Khan, (32) Sarah Khan, (33) Taimour Khan
(34) Yasmeen Khan, (35) Zahida Khan, (36) Badruddin Lakhani
(37) Omar Malick, (38) Nurul Hoque Miah
(39) Mubarak Mohammad, (40) Boyie Mohammed
(41) Raza Mujtaba, (42) Omar Namoos, (43) Mujeb Qazi
(44) Tarranum Rahim, (45) Ehtesham U. Raja
(46) Ameenia Rasool, (47) Naveed Rehman, (48) Yusuf Saad
(49) Rahma Salie, (50) unborn child, (51) Shoman Samad
(52) Asad Samir, (53) Khalid Shahid, (54) Mohammed Shajahan
(55) Naseema Simjee, (56) Jamil Swaati, (57) Sanober Syed
(58) Robert Elias Talhami, (59) Michael Theodoridis (60) W. Wahid

The Cordoba House issue is no more a local land-use dispute than the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were a matter of the misuse of local airspace. From the date of the first Community Board meeting in May, the fate of Cordoba House has been a national story for what it says to this country about this country. From the beginning, it's been an American concern by what it says to the world about this nation. What we are and what we presume to stand for. The resolution of the matter will say even more.

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