Urban planning votes do not usually garner widespread attention in the US. But this week, when New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission okayed the demolition of a 19th-century coat factory on Park Place, the story made front pages. The decision removed the last obstacle to building a 15-storey, $100m mosque-cum-community centre a stone’s throw from where the World Trade Center stood until it was destroyed by terrorists on September 11 2001. The mosque organisers say they want to build bridges between Islam and the west. More than half of New Yorkers, and more than half of Americans, oppose the project.
New York mayor Michael Bloomberg thinks they are wrong. Citing freedom of religion, he has defended the mosque project in speech after speech. He gave another this week, saying of the fire-fighters who died on the day of the attack, “We do not honour their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting.” This would be stirring if constitutional rights were the whole of the issue. But they are not.
Not even the tongue-tied former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who called on “peaceful Muslims” to “refudiate” [sic] the project – disputes the right of Muslims to build houses of worship where they wish. Few mosque opponents argue seriously that this one can be blocked. The argument of Ms Palin and others is instead that it is insensitive to build a mega-mosque next to the spot where 2,700 people were killed in Islam’s name. This distinction – between what is constitutional and what is appropriate – is an important one.
It is lost on Mr Bloomberg. In May, he said: “If somebody was going to try, on that piece of property, to build a church or a synagogue, nobody would be yelling and screaming.” That is right. But history matters, too. The attacks of 2001 were not a political-science abstraction. They were an expression of Islam. Not all of Islam, certainly – and Islam is neither the only religion that has such crimes to answer for nor the only one that has provoked such controversies. The building of a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz in the 1980s so wounded Jewish sensibilities that Pope John Paul II ordered it removed in 1993, even though the Holocaust was not carried out in the name of any faith.
It was perhaps with that episode in mind that the Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism and other forms of religious bigotry, produced an admirably balanced response to the controversy, one that respected both the constitutional and historical aspects of it. While defending Muslim religious freedom unreservedly, the ADL warned that building the mosque at Ground Zero “will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right”. In other words, if the consortium wants to build it, it can build it. But it would be a very bad idea. They should build it somewhere else in Manhattan.
Including Islam within the fold of traditional western religious tolerance is not business-as-usual. It is an experiment. Our Lockean ideas of religious tolerance had their origins in the 16th century (the peace of Augsburg) and the 17th (the peace of Westphalia). Those understandings regulated relations between Christian sects and were steadily liberalised. Judaism later proved assimilable into this system in the US, but not, to put it mildly, everywhere in the west.
Islam – which is, like Christianity but unlike contemporary Judaism, an evangelising and expansionist religion – is a bigger challenge. A radical school of it views the US as its main enemy. Because that school is amply funded by Arabian oil, there is a standing fear that radicals will capture any large international project involving Islam, no matter how good its original intentions.
Most newspaper accounts of Manhattan’s mosque project have lauded its leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Bloggers are quicker to note that he said after the 2001 attacks that US policies had been “an accessory to the crime”. The organisers have been unforthcoming about their sources of funding. They are proceeding with the mosque project, even as it produces the very opposite of the inter-religious harmony they claim to seek.
A married couple from Connecticut, whose son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter were killed on a flight that hit the World Trade Center, wrote to The New York Times to oppose the project on the grounds that it “has the trappings of a victory mosque”. That expression captures a lot. People around the world will differ over the meaning of September 11 2001, but there can be no doubting that it is one of America’s most consequential military defeats. It led to a stalemate in Afghanistan and a war in Iraq that undermined the US’s standing in the world. By providing another reason for low interest rates and easy credit, it helped spur the present economic crisis. Whether or not this was inevitable, it happened. Osama bin Laden’s strategic calculus – that the US lacked either the resolve, the cohesion or the cultural self-confidence to stand up to a mighty blow – has in many ways been vindicated.
Remedying the weakness that Mr bin Laden diagnosed and exploited is seen by a lot of Americans as a matter of national survival. “Building bridges” to other cultures is a distraction from that task. It will be years before we know whether such sentiments are counselled by the voice of fear or the voice of reason, but they must be taken seriously. Mr Bloomberg is not taking them seriously. Faced with a delicate and intellectually complex situation, he has taken refuge in cant. He may have squandered an opportunity to resolve this controversy at a relatively low cost.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard