Why this building, there?
Leaving aside some melodrama – “insane,” “looming horror,” “surrender” – that question sums up the reaction to Cordoba House, a.k.a. “The Ground Zero Mosque,” a project of the the Cordoba Initiative (CI) that last week added the approval of Manhattan Community Board 1 to okays from New York City’s Mayor and Chief of Police. Left unstated is why it’s anybody else’s business, in the land of the free. Why not put up an Islamic cultural center with worship area among the many buildings within a two-block radius of hallowed ground? More important, what would denying permission for the project solely on emotional or ideological grounds say about us?
It would be a victory, in America, for the un-American doctrine of collective guilt.
Belief in collective guilt is not the same thing as bigotry, but they share assumptions and can lead to the same destination. (Contrary to some reports, I did not call anyone a bigot in my post of last Wednesday.) Consistently, and perhaps inescapably, calls to reject Cordoba House have rested on the assignment of responsibility to Muslims, in general, for the 9/11 attacks. You can call that Islamophobia, or you can call it a “natural” reaction – perhaps while also acknowledging that the naturalness of an emotional response may be an excuse for expressing it, but that it cannot be a justification for excluding anyone’s religion from the national community you believe yourself to be protecting.
The symbolic transference of responsibility, from those directly involved to a diverse world community, is often accomplished by sleight-of-hand, as facilitated by emotional distraction.
Alabama congressional candidate, Marine Corps veteran, and self-styled Tea Party activist Rick Barber begins the above statement (rough transcript here) with an indictment of “Islamic jihadists,” but immediately moves to the general level via the phrase “in the name of Islam.” This “in the name of” construction appears frequently in anti-Cordoba statements: It’s a conventional usage that anyone might employ non-controversially, but acknowledging the obvious – a connection or association between Islam and 9/11, even the implication of some mainstream Islamic teachings – is different from establishing the responsibility and accountability of (all) Muslims.
Every victim of the attacks and for that matter every citizen of the United States and several other nations was also connected to the events, and there is one group of people who attribute responsibility to them and in fact had already done so beforehand: The terrorists and their apologists. Before 9/11, Bin Laden’s 1998 total war declaration embraced the idea when it quoted Islamic scripture, in the manner of a fatwa, to support attacks on Western civilians (including especially the Muslims held to aid and abet the West): “[F]ight the pagans all together as they fight you all together.” It should be noted that Bin Laden’s interpretation contradicts popular Islamic teachings on warfare. We should also note the double presumption of collective responsibility – of all “pagans” for supposed injuries to Muslims, and of all Muslims, represented by Bin Laden et al, to attack: One presumption follows from and implies the other, under the same doctrine.
For Americans, by contrast, the denial of collective guilt is fundamental. It is basic to our policies in war, just as it is integral to the moral philosophy of American constitutionalism. Unlike Nazis, Imperial Way Japanese, Stalinists, Taliban, or Al Qaeda, Americans insist on unalienable and equal freedoms for all: No one can be pre-judged according to what he is suspected of thinking or believing, or because of where he comes from, or even because of what his government, co-religionists, or even fellow soldiers did “in the name” of some shared cause. We therefore justify military operations by strict tactical necessity, struggle to safeguard civilians, and demand that others do the same. The underlying philosophy also explains why we still argue among ourselves over actions undertaken “in our name” decades ago; why we continually review and refine our conduct; and why we can view our wars as wars of liberation, rather than as wars of conquest or punishment. This philosophy also happens to be what we’re asking our Muslim allies around the world to buy into.
It has been the radical Islamists, the far left, and other enemies of American values who have sought instead to frame the “War on Terror” as a “War on Islam.” Conservatives like Barber seem happy to adopt their view. In Barber’s video, following the initial statement on Islamic Jihad and a second invocation of the in-the-name-of construction, Barber says: “Now Muslims want to build a Mosque just two blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood.” Instantly, the “enemy” has become not radical Islamists, but “Muslims.” Barber then asks, “When is the grand opening of this Ground Zero Mosque?” His own answer:
September Eleventh, 2011. This is unacceptable.
Many listeners may inwardly respond, “Yes sir!” They and others may at the same time remain ignorant of the CI’s rationale. For the CI, opening on September 11th emphasizes their central message that Muslims, rather than being co-responsible for 9/11, can stand diametrically opposed to Bin Ladenism. The terrorists destroyed buildings, killed strangers, and preached the clash of civilizations. The CI is constructing a building, welcoming strangers, and preaching interfaith cooperation and exchange.
For Islamophobes, such arguments are not merely unmentionable, they are in effect incomprehensible. They cannot even be heard, it seems. Even the name “Cordoba” feeds their suspicions: To Muslims, medieval Cordoba is generally a symbol of pride, considered a cosmopolitan high point of early Islamic civilization. To the Islamophobes, it’s a symbol of conquest, the attempted subjugation of the West. Thus, a failure to stand against Cordoba House, for Barber, means one thing above all:
There is a difference between tolerance and surrender. The word Islam literally means surrender and if we don’t start electing leaders that are able to recognize the enemy, call them by name and stand up against them, then surrendering is exactly what we are doing.
Ironically enough, even while Barber promises to name “the enemy,” he encourages, or perhaps relies on, confusion about his intended meaning. He started with Islamic Jihad, but ends with the strong suggestion that “Islam” or “Muslims,” and surrender even worse because it’s Islamic, are the problems, and that any gesture beyond vague “tolerance” is “unacceptable.”
Barber’s blogger allies are much more direct. Responding to the “super-mosque” “outrage,” Ace of Ace o’ Spades dances around the edge of declaring holy war, but finally loses control:
Someone truly interested in peace and moderation would not build a temple to the religion that killed 2,996, allowing jihdis [sic] to literally — literally — dance on the unmarked, uncollected remains of their victims.
HotAir Greenroom blogger MadisonConservative gets to collective responsibility more quickly – that is, immediately: His anti-Cordoba piece refers in its title to “Islam” giving a “tremendous middle finger to America.” While the “religion” that Ace refers to only kills, MadCon’s “Islam” is capable of both destroying buildings and of constructing them.
Though more polite than Ace, MadCon, and Barber, Rod Dreher works in much the same way:
Of course it is wrong to blame all Muslims for 9/11. But why on earth rub salt in the wounds of the 9/11 dead by allowing a mosque to go in just two blocks from where jihadists incinerated or crushed over 2,700 innocent victims, in service of their faith?
The rambling syntax and nonsensical metaphor (salt in the wounds of the dead) may be symptomatic: In plain English, Dreher, said to have been a direct witness to the WTC collapse, is still angry with Muslims. Since, however, expressing negative opinions about an entire religious group remains socially unacceptable, Dreher has to hedge. He makes a concession on “all” Muslims, but in a way that leaves “most,” “practicing,” “authentic,” etc., in play. After that odd bit about the dead and their wounds (time to let them rest?), and after obvious but undeveloped analogies to Pearl Harbor and Auschwitz, Dreher the “Beliefnet” blogger ends up close to Ace the South Park conservative by way of the phrase “in service of their faith.” “Faith” stands as an odd word for a fanatic’s belief system – unless you’re asserting an essential commonality between the “jihadists” and the average believer; unless, contrary to your promise, you are indicting the whole religion.
If we had applied Dreher’s logic fully to World War II, as in his analogies, we would have had to extinguish the collective presence of Germany and Japan from all of the far flung scenes of their crimes – up to several 9/11’s a day, day after day, for years. That would have required the effective extinction of Germany and Japan, an option that was considered, once upon a time, but rejected for numerous reasons – chiefly: It’s not the way we do things. Instead, we liberated Germany from the Nazis. We liberated Japan from the Imperial Way. We liberated the captive nations from Soviet Communism.
To survive with our values intact, and without having to go through a world war, our response to the radical Islamist challenge – to naive yet powerful Koranic fundamentalism propagated to vast numbers of Muslims – will also have to be a program of liberation. A gaggle of amateur anti-imams gathered in the virtual house of anti-Islam, flaunting their adherence to the extremists’ interpretations of the same passages from the same sacred texts, are not an opposition to extreme Islamism: They offer its mirror image, its complement, potentially its facilitation and its completion. Such an approach might qualify as “rightwing” – in the narrow sense of culturally defensive – but it cannot qualify as conservative regarding this nation’s unique founding principles and mission.
It’s only when confronted with someone else’s statements or actions “in our name” that our silence or inaction turns into approval. The Cordoba Initiative people have met their test of explicitly condemning the 9/11 hijackers, their sponsors, and their beliefs, and to stand in favor of pluralism and tolerance. In America, the burden is on their opponents to prove, not just imply through guilt by association, the CI’s bad faith – and to pass a parallel test of their own.