the free exercise thereof

While I was busy writing about my new job as a stay-at-home dad, America did one of those things it periodically does, where it FREAKS THE FUCK OUT about something nobody will give a shit about in two years. This month, it was the planned Cordoba House in lower Manhattan, also known as “THE GROUND ZERO MOSQUE!!!” or “MUSLIMS SPIT IN OUR FACE!!!”

Now, many, many things had to have gone wrong for people to be so stirred up about the building of a Muslim center (including, yes, a house of worship) that they would, for example, attempt to declare an old Burlington Coat Factory to be a historical landmark in order to prevent new construction there. Some of those things went wrong in Newt Gingrich’s pea-sized brain, and will never be fixed. But for normal people interested in facts and stuff, I present the following Q&A, which I hope will be useful in separating reality from the orgy of paranoid phantasy.

Is it legal to ignore the First Amendment, which reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”?




But that only refers to “Congress.” What about if a state or city does it?

Still no. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment notes that “no state shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” which even under the Roberts court means that the states can’t do anything it would be unconstitutional for the federal government to do in terms of abridging First Amendment freedoms.

But can’t Michael Bloomberg do anything he wants to?

You are confusing Michael Bloomberg with Superman. Also, he doesn’t want to.

Okay, but leaving aside your elitist legalese, isn’t the Cordoba House a slap in the face to the victims of 9/11, their families, and/or all Americans who were shocked and terrified on that horrendous day?

Depends who you ask. Sarah Palin has said, among other things, that the building of a “mosque” so close to where the World Trade Center towers used to stand “stabs hearts,” by which I think she means, “makes people feel bad.” Of course, people didn’t know they were feeling bad all this time that a building on the same site was housing overflow from the nearby Masjid Al-Farah. But now that Palin and others have pointed out that some Muslims will be building something new there… stabbed hearts.

On the other hand, maybe Sarah Palin should take two steps back and reconsider her position. For one thing, dozens of the victims of 9/11 were Muslims. How do you suppose their families might feel about people cavalierly implying that all Muslims were collectively responsible for the crimes of Osama Bin Laden and his 19 acolytes? How, exactly, are we honoring their memories when we impugn their beliefs and their way of life, making them somehow complicit in the vicious attacks of that day?

For another thing, the “families of the victims” — even the trustworthy, non-Muslim ones — are hardly of a single voice on this. This group of goddamned hippies, for example — because there are always a few goddamned hippies, even in a group as sacred and free from error as the families of victims of 9/11, aren’t there? — these goddamned hippies have actually come out in support of the Cordoba Initiative.

As for everyone else in America… well, it’s a big country, and we’ve got lots of land. Maybe it would be better, out of respect for our collective suffering, if they built the Cordoba House somewhere else.


Of course, some people think Murfreesboro, Tennessee is too close to Ground Zero for Muslims to go around quietly practicing their religion on private property, all willy-nilly! Also Arlington, Texas.

But isn’t it true that the imam of the Cordoba Initiative is a secret radical who hates America and Israel and has a hard-on for Hamas?

No. Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf was appointed to work as an overseas envoy for the State Department under President Bush. He’s worked openly with the U.S. government for years to improve America’s image in the Muslim world, and, with sadly little effect, to improve the image of Islam in the U.S.

Also, Imam Abdul-Rauf is a Sufi Muslim.

Did you ever see the excellent Showtime series Sleeper Cell? In one episode, former 82nd Airborne badass and undercover FBI Special Agent Darwyn Al-Saeed is riding on a subway, brooding about his undercover infiltration of the titular terrorist cell, when several youths start harassing a middle-aged Sikh. Darwyn smacks all their heads many times. Then he lectures them: “The Sikhs and the Muslims hate each other! They’re like the Crips and the Bloods!”

Sunni extremists and Sufis are like that. Except it’s one-sided, because Sufis don’t really hate anyone. But, as The MahaBlog explains:

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is not connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. I can say this because there is no way the Muslim Brotherhood, or al Qaeda, or the Taliban, or any other organization dedicated to enforcing dogmatic Sunni Islam would have anything to do with a Sufi. In fact, Sufis in the Middle East have suffered terribly from attacks by Sunni terrorists.

Earlier this year, suicide bombers destroyed a major Sufi shrine in Pakistan, killing at least 50 Sufi worshipers and injuring about 200 others. The Taliban were blamed, although a Taliban spokesman denied the charge. But the Pakistan Taliban have been attacking Sunni Sufi shrines and mosques as vigorously as they’ve been demolishing the remnants of the ancient Buddhist civilization there….

Sufism is mystical Islam. Dogmatists don’t get mysticism.

So associating Abdul-Rauf with Osama Bin-Laden is a little bit like blaming the Albigensians for the crimes of the Catholic Church on the grounds that they both go by the name “Christian.” (Not that it would be right to paint all Catholics with those crimes either, if you see where I’m going with this….)

As for Hamas: Abdul-Rauf was asked during a radio interview in June whether he agreed with the State Department’s designation of Hamas as a “terrorist” organization. His answer: “I’m not a politician. I try to avoid the issues. The issue of terrorism is a very complex question… I am a peace builder. I will not allow anybody to put me in a position where I am seen by any party in the world as an adversary or as an enemy.”

Now, you can deride that as overly diplomatic or chickenshit or far too new-agey. But “I am peace builder” doesn’t exactly sound like fire-breathing anti-Israelism, and he’s not exactly alone in his desire to rise above often-useless terms like “terrorist organization” (is Sinn Féin a “terrorist organization”? how about Monsanto? and let’s not get into the Contras…) in order to deal with the complicated reality of non-state and semi-state actors.

So then what are Abdul-Rauf’s objectives in lower Manhattan?

Well, according to his website:

  • Uphold respect for the diversity of expression and ideas between all people
  • Cultivate and embrace neighborly relations between all New Yorkers, fostering a spirit of civic participation and an awareness of common needs and opportunities
  • Encourage open discussion and dialogue on issues of relevance to New Yorkers, Americans and the international reality of our interconnected planet
  • Revive the historic Muslim tradition of education, engagement and service, becoming a resource for empowerment and advancement
  • Connect New York’s communities to global ideas and trends
  • Commit to social justice, dignified human development and spiritual growth for all
  • Pursue the development of American Muslim identities, engaging New York’s many and diverse Muslim communities and promoting empowerment and compassion for all
  • Build partnerships and relationships with key actors and institutions who share our values, to address shared needs and solve common problems
  • Establish a state-of-the-art green facility that will serve as a model and inspiration for sustainable space, helping to advance sustainable living in urban contexts
  • Empower our communities with the skills and knowledge they need to advance in their various life stages
  • Provide financial assistance for those in need, offering subsidies for our programming and scholarships to reach new audiences and further our vision

Now much of that, to be honest, puts me straight to sleep. But it’s not exactly the stuff of Taliban recruiting leaflets.

But why here, specifically?

Well, Abdul-Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan are already part of a mosque in that area. They’ve been trying to build a new center, “a kind of Muslim Y,” in the area since 1999, according to a New York Times profile. Why do they need the additional space? Strollers. As Rabbi Joy Levitt recalls:

“Strollers,” said Ms. Levitt, whom Ms. Khan had approached for advice on how to build an institution like the Jewish center — with a swimming pool, art classes and joint projects with other religious groups. Ms. Levitt, a rabbi, urged Ms. Khan to focus on practical matters like a decent wedding hall and stroller parking.

“You can use all these big words like diversity and pluralism,” Ms. Levitt recalled telling Ms. Khan, noting that with the population of toddlers booming in Manhattan, “I’m down in the lobby dealing with the 500 strollers.”

But if all that is true, why did he name his project after the city of Cordoba, Spain? Newt Gingrich told me that “every Islamist in the world recognizes Cordoba as a symbol of Islamic conquest.”

Even avowed Islam-hater and Iraq war champion Christopher Hitchens couldn’t swallow this one:

I notice that even the choice of the name Cordoba has offended some Christian opponents of the scheme. This wonderful city in Andalusia, after the Muslim conquest of southern Spain, was indeed one of the centers of the lost Islamic caliphate that today’s jihadists have sworn in blood to restore. And after the Catholic reconquista, it was also one of the places purged of all Arab and Jewish influence by the founders of the Inquisition. But in the interval between these two imperialisms it was also the site of an astonishing cultural synthesis, best associated with the names of Averroes ibn-Rushd and Moses Maimonides…. Here was a flourishing of philosophy and medicine and architecture that saw, among other things, the recovery of the works of Aristotle.”

Bonus question: Why can’t Muslims ever at least condemn 9/11, or terrorism in general?

They do. All the fucking time. Even Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — essentially the supreme leader of the theocratic Iranian government — condemned the 9/11 attacks. I’m not saying it’s unreasonable that you might have missed that at the time. It was reported on the BBC, and you probably had other things to think about. I’m just saying — there’s been Google for a number of years. This stuff is not hard to find.

Extra bonus question: So is President Obama a secret Muslim sleeper agent, or what?

Oh, for Pete’s sake.

NOTE: I’m indebted to Chris Martinez at Inside-Out The Beltway for some of the links here.

One response to “the free exercise thereof

  1. Nice analysis on the day I heard some idiots in FL (remember where Grandpa used to live) are planning a Qur’an burning.

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