The Ground Zero mosque debate shows America, like Britain, pursuing the chimera of attempting to reform Islam
What was your first reaction back in May when you heard of plans to build a mega-mosque near the site of the Twin Towers in New York? Did you assume it was a tasteless joke? Did your jaw drop? Or did you think: “What a good idea. No better place.”
My bet would be that most readers (including self-described liberal readers) had a touch more of the former reaction than the latter. Some people even said so at the time. A number of families of 9/11 victims spoke out against the building and for a few weeks the idea of a 13-storey mosque complex beside the World Trade Centre craters, due to cost £68 million yet with no known financial backer, seemed a dead duck.
So how was it that within a few months many of those same people, most notably the most loudly self-declared liberals, were not merely advocating the building of that same mosque but in many cases seemed eager to build it themselves, finally depicting its construction as the sine qua non of America’s survival? The distance between first and second instincts is always illuminating. But this one turns out to be more than usually so. Public debates in America tend to happen rougher, faster and more ferociously than they do in most of Europe. And so it was that a heated debate over one hot summer transformed a planning dispute into something far larger and more significant.
It was at the beginning of August that the Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg stood with the Statue of Liberty in the background to make a major announcement. The planning regulations surrounding the former Burlington Coat Factory on 45-51 Park Place, had already met opposition at the community board advisory level. National polls suggested that a majority of Americans were opposed to the building of what was then called Cordoba House, a couple of blocks from Ground Zero. But Bloomberg thought differently. Surrounded by the requisite collective of religiously-attired figures, Bloomberg declared that restrictive planning laws of New York would not be allowed to stand in the way of the planned mosque. The debate was not about a planning application any longer. It was about something more, he declared. It was about America.
In his often teary-eyed speech, Bloomberg exercised the now decade-long tendency to believe that al-Qaeda meant whatever you want them to have meant when they destroyed the Twin Towers. Bloomberg declared: “Three thousand people were killed because some murderous fanatics didn’t want us to enjoy the freedom to profess our own faiths, to speak our own minds, to follow our own dreams and to live our own lives.” The issue, he said, was “as important a test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime”. And it wasn’t a test he intended to fail. Expressing his support for the construction of the mosque, he said: “The community centre and mosque will add to the life and vitality of the neighbourhood and the entire city.”
President Barack Obama appeared to enter the debate on Bloomberg’s side when he raised the matter at a Muslim iftar (post-fast) dinner at the White House. “This is America,” he confirmed indignantly. The next day, he changed tack in the face of a popular uproar, and claimed that he had not in fact made the statement he appeared to have made, but had instead carefully avoided making any statements about the wisdom of building anything anywhere.
Despite Obama’s phantom U-turn, by the end of the summer the liberal consensus appeared to be with Bloomberg. After further negative opinion polls, Bloomberg declared that those opposed to the mosque “ought to be ashamed of themselves”, adding: “To cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists.” Al-Qaeda had attacked the World Trade Centre and as a result it was now vital that America reply by building a mosque.
Other politicians were not as distrustful as Bloomberg was of popular sentiment. In mid-August, Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, said on air: “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington…We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbour.” Gingrich’s intervention allowed mainstream politicians respectfully to oppose the construction. But by then another element of the debate had emerged. It was one which points to perhaps the largest difference between the European and American debate on this issue.
If a mosque were to be built alongside a scene of an Islamist atrocity in Britain or mainland Europe, there would certainly be opposition to it. But in many countries, including Britain, it would lack a politically respectable figurehead. And with or without one, it would be inevitable that those most opposed to such a construction would be a very particular type of person. No political or civic leader would suggest or endorse a popular demonstration for a single reason: the only people certain to turn up would be skinheads. These would put other people off and so the opposition would be isolated and disgraced.
But since America is not as blackmailed by history as Europe, popular sentiment is still trusted. And so ordinary non-racist, family-friendly Americans started to turn out to express opposition to the mosque. Over the summer, this movement became organised. Most who rallied in opposition to the mosque, like their opponents, were decent Americans who resented the construction of a mosque so close to Ground Zero. But they reminded the American Left of their newest and dearest enemies: the Tea Party. The New York Times, among other organs of liberal opinion, repeatedly depicted the imam of the mosque and his wife in an entirely uncritical, glowingly interfaith, light. But the opponents of the mosque were not granted that liberty. They were written off as deeply un-nuanced, knuckle-dragging types — opposed to Islam, opposed to Muslims and as a result, it was repeatedly claimed, distinctly un-American. Opposition to the mosque, the liberal press insisted, was not patriotic but was instead actually anti-American.
On the anniversary of 9/11, a mass rally was held not far from the site of the proposed centre. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders was among those who addressed the crowd. The liberal media either ignored the event or demonised it.
In October, the debate reached one of its nastiest points with an over-booked and badly-chaired studio discussion-cum-slanging-match on ABC. Daisy Khan, the wife of the imam of the proposed mosque, Feisal Abdul Rauf, was one of those who appeared on Christiane Amanpour’s panel. The anti-building side were repeatedly defamed. Robert Spencer of the Jihad Watch blog was accused by one of the other guests of being in league with neo-Nazis and was not allowed to respond. On both sides, people who had lost family-members on 9/11 slugged it out. The effect was bitter. At one point, Daisy Khan claimed that her opponents were throwing her “into the arms of al-Qaeda”. The author and former Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali came on via video-link. “What are you complaining about?” she asked. “You are sitting here at ABC TV. You’ve got a great job. You have freedom. Nobody is throwing you anywhere. Your rights are protected. I think that it’s your perception of being a victim.” Khan glared at her: “I am not a victim, Ayaan, stop calling me that. You’re the one running around with a bodyguard.” The studio audience greeted Khan’s taunt with laughter, applause and cheers. They almost drowned out a single man in the front row shouting at Khan: “And why do you think that is?”
But Khan was savvy. She turned it around. It was she and her husband who were under threat. It was they who had received death threats. Rather than Hirsi Ali being at risk from the same Muslim fundamentalists who had murdered her film-making partner Theo van Gogh in 2004, it was Daisy Khan and Imam Rauf who were at risk from the dreaded American public.
She was playing into a ready new media narrative. Just weeks earlier, Time magazine had run a cover, asking: “Is America Islamophobic? Does America have a Muslim problem?” So it came as no surprise that Khan was able to conclude her performance, and the whole programme, by positioning herself at the centre of the political spectrum as well as the storm. Asked whether she and her husband, having seen the strength of peoples’ opinions, would consider moving what was now called the Park 51 Community Centre, she was clear: “No. I think that American values have to prevail. I think I’m now fighting for American values.” Much of the studio audience applauded.
In the space of a very few weeks, the herd of inquiring minds had moved from amazement that Khan and her husband could have such a tasteless idea as to construct a Muslim mega-centre near Ground Zero to full-on backing of the idea. And thanks to popular outrage and civil protests, it was now no longer Islam but America that was under the spotlight. Soon, it was not Islam but America that was at fault and needed to be investigated. By the end of the year, the New York Times had run a grand total of 15 uncritical puff-pieces extolling Khan and her husband. None questioned Imam Rauf’s questionable connections with extremist ideologies and regimes, nor his refusal to condemn the terrorist group Hamas.
This mattered because America had, in a remarkably brief period of time, fallen for the twin European errors of our time. First, it had fallen into Europe’s relativistic error of confusing victim and aggressor. The provocative act of placing an Islamic mega-centre near Ground Zero had been turned around. It was not the aggressor but the offended who were showing intolerance and bigotry. Offender had become offended.
Those who fell for this did so because they had also fallen for the second great European lie. Which is that for free and democratic societies the answer to radical Islam is another form of Islam. It makes 9/11 probably the single most successful act of Islamic proselytism since the death of Muhammad. It ensures that, whatever the problem, the answer is Islam. If people fly planes into towers, then that is bad Islam. The response must be to build Islamic structures to counter bad Islam. The response to “bad” Islam must be the pushing, promotion and support of “good” Islam.
It is this belief that has been the guiding force for governments in Britain and across the continent for the last decade. And there are obvious reasons why it has political appeal. It differentiates between the moderates and a minority of active extremists. And it suggests an immediate and practical solution. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent in Britain pursuing it. And it has only one major flaw: it is built on a lie. The answer to radical Islam in Western democracies cannot be to start extolling or transforming an only very recently imported religion whose history sadly suggests the severe difficulties of reform. Rather, the task of Western democracies must be to shore up our own societal defences — our own culture, our own values.
Instead, European governments are searching for a moderate Islam. The result is akin to the error of the man at closing time in the pub who sees two people quarrelling, inserts himself into the middle of their argument and finds himself the victim of their quarrel. It took Britain some time to throw itself between the combatants of Islam, but America managed it over the course of a summer. It had inserted itself in between the quarrelling parties and staked its own credibility, its own legitimacy and its own future on a “good” Islam being swiftly invented and just as swiftly triumphant.
As the issue of Manhattan mosque-building reached its most fevered heights, I found myself debating the subject in the heart of liberal New York — at New York University. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and I were in the city to debate the motion “Islam is a religion of peace”. Against us, on the proposition side were two exemplars of the moderate Muslim government game. First, an attractive and pleasant young American Muslim called Zeba Khan. And second, a former Islamist who is now paid by the British government to be a self-styled “reformer”, Maajid Nawaz.
More interesting than their appearance was who would not show. Not a single cleric. Not an imam. Not a mufti in sight. And not for want of invitations, but rather because not one Muslim religious leader would take up the invitation to debate against Hirsi Ali and myself. And among that host of absent imams, one in particular stood out. In the months and weeks before the event, the organisers, Intelligence Squared, had a standing invitation for the man who had been at the epicentre of the recent controversy. But since the issue of his mosque had gone national, Imam Rauf had gone to ground. And though he kept the organisers on hold until the last hours before the debate, in the end Imam Rauf was a no-show. Offered a platform to explain his views in New York (to be relayed nationwide on television and National Public Radio), he turned it down. His foundation nevertheless continued to encourage its followers to attend.
And so it was left to two members of the Muslim laity to defend the motion. And they tried. They argued that the violence of Muhammad and the Koran was not there. Then they argued that the violent commands cited were being mistranslated. Then they claimed that they were there but had been taken out of context. Finally, they claimed that whatever the facts it was rude and unhelpful to say so anyway.
The argument that our side made was nuanced. We argued that Islam itself had a problem. That its core texts and its founder were violent. That the leaders of the religion over the last 1,400 years have been no liberals. But that there was a hope, which lay in the fact that most Muslims in the world today, thank goodness, do not follow the strictures of their religion. In this lacuna — this crucial gap between page and action, between precedent and reality — lies our hope. But, we argued, there is no point in pretending away Islam’s problems. The worst way to get to mutual understanding and peace was to engage in a lie.
Surprisingly, the audience ended up swinging behind us and voted against their initial idea that Islam is a religion of peace. The turning-point perhaps came when, in response to Hirsi Ali’s mention of her own security fears, Nawaz attempted to rebut her point by claiming that he too was under death threat from his co-religionists of peace. It was put by our side, as politely as possible, that rather than countering our argument, this somewhat proved our point.
In any case, as so often the really interesting bit came not at the debate itself but afterwards. As is the way with these things in America, at the dinner afterwards, when barely a mouthful of food had been consumed, our host pinged his glass with his knife and began the debate again.
The taxpayer-paid “reformer” Nawaz immediately seized the opportunity to set out his UK government sales-pitch to the Americans. He would be going to Pakistan again the next day, we were told again, and votes like the evening’s made his job much more difficult. By voting against the motion, this pesky New York audience had refused to take part in the official UK government-approved narrative.
Fortunately, some quick-witted people had joined us. “Is it not the case,” one posited, “that though radical Islam might not be the best interpretation of Islam or even the most popular, it nevertheless is at least a plausible interpretation of the texts before us?” Not at all — the line, and the lie, must be upheld. There were things about Islam that should not be denied, as well as things that must not be said and which when they were said made everyone’s job harder.
Another guest tried again. “If you tried to put a toaster together from scratch and, following the instruction manual, ended up with a rocket-launcher, would you not at least question the manual you’d used?” Things reached a pitch. “Are you saying I’m lying?” the “reformer” demanded. “Are you saying I’m lying?”
Taking the question head-on, the American questioner uttered the facts starkly. “No. But you’re asking us to allow you to go out and tell what we believe to be lies and we just have to sit here and hope that it works.”
The problem for the evening, for the debate and indeed for the city we were in had been summed up in a nutshell. We are not Islamic societies yet, but we had been led into having the debate on Islamic terms — terms that forbade us from stating our own truths.
The problem that America and Europe today face was summed up by that exchange. Islam is not our belief system yet people in that religion have successfully persuaded our governments and legislatures that our future and theirs is predicated on successful reform of that religion. A reform which has so far proved impossible but which, we are told, might be achieved this time. The attractions are obvious. But it means that Western societies end up promoting something we do not believe in. It means we must pay to proselytise something we do not support. It means that we must hope that something we consider untrue can be accepted by others as true.
As we come to the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we can begin to discern certain patterns in our recent behaviour. For the last decade, we have fought the war against Islamic extremism on exactly the wrong terms. And though Britain has led the charge in the wrong direction, the US is now following.
Defeating the Soviets during the Cold War required a large box of tools. They ranged from the doughtiest Washington-based Cold Warriors to Polish socialists who disagreed with tenets of Russian communism. In the same way, the war against Islamic extremism will only be won by a large toolbox approach. That will include Muslim reformers who will work for many years to try to wrench their religion away from its magnetic literalism. But it will also include those like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others, who believe that we must be allowed to say what we see when we look at this religion and retain the right to shine a light on it.
The tragedy is that for many of the so-called reformers, such as those with whom we debated that evening, their task can, they believe, only be fulfilled by attacking those who speak the truth about Islam. They attempt to retain what little credibility they have by denying what are to very many of us self-evident and demonstrable truths about Islam. It has become the default position of European — and now American — governments to ground their resistance to Islamic extremism in the bolstering of people who are going out and telling what to our societies must be seen to be untruths. It is as though we had fought the Cold War while disallowing any criticism of communism.
America had its debate fast and furiously. Over the course of weeks, not years, facing the choice of remaining American in their outlook, or following us down the European route, America took the European road. It may not now be too late to change this, but some day it will be.
The New York mosque debate has died down. But when that debate arises next time it must be on American not Islamic terms. Foremost among them might be this: that there are rights which people have which are nevertheless not pursued because they will cause grievous offence and upset to others. I have the legal right to burn a Koran outside a mosque but do not exercise the right because the act of burning books is never a good one and because numerous Muslims would find such an act provocative and upsetting. Many Muslims say that even knowing a single Danish newspaper has published a likeness of a historical figure they revere is unimaginably offensive to them. We have feelings too. And though to build a vast Islamic complex alongside Ground Zero may be a legal right, it is one which causes evident and significant hurt and upset to a great many of us.
We have heard a great deal in recent years from the Muslim world about its sensitivities. There could be no better moment to stress that this is not a one-way street — that, once again, we have feelings too. And that one of the feelings which is instinctively felt by a great majority of the American and other publics is that a genuinely peaceful Muslim would not plan to build Park 51 or, having planned this but realised the hurt caused, would agree to move the site.
Imam Rauf and his wife have revealed a lot about themselves in recent months. But America has revealed more. The particular debate may blow over but its consequences will not. At its heart are some of the great questions of our time. Do Western liberal democracies have the right to say the truth as we see it or must we be truth-neutral? Must we pretend we have no past but rather simply a clean slate on which whoever is loudest can write most surely? Are our societies to be forced to have every debate not on our own terms but rather in an increasingly Islamic key? Are we always to be the aggressor or are there times when we can justifiably claim to be the victims?
How America responds to these questions will have implications for us all. It may also decide whether — if the era of American power is to end — it does so with a whimper before the bang.