Arguments Good and Bad: The GMZ, Zoning Law, and the Bush Doctrine
Read this excellent piece by Michael Weiss. As regular readers will know, I agree with this sentiment:
For my own part, I have no problem with a mosque being built near Ground Zero and if that’s all that was at stake, I could rest comfortably in my opposition to Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Abe Foxman. But I do have a few unresolved questions about this particular mosque; more pointedly, about the man behind it.
Weiss points to Feisal's "tone-deaf" statements about American culpability for 9/11 and his inability forthrightly to declare Hamas a terrorist organization, then adds:
More troubling to me are two episodes in Rauf’s career that suggest, if not a practical alliance with Islamism, then at least a strong eagerness to earn the trust of Islamists, whether out of financial or face-saving motive.
The first is Rauf’s participation in the Perdana Global Peace Organisation, which bills itself as a pacifist lobby group seeking to “criminalize war” but is really the brainchild of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a man whose greatest compliment to the Jewish people was to credit them with a methodology for world domination that he thought instructive for the forthcoming Islamic attempt at same. To get a sense of Perdana’s commitment to ending militarism, consider that it was responsible for convening a portion of the ‘Free Gaza’ flotilla, whose declared purpose was not to deliver humanitarian aid to Palestinians but rather to break the Israeli naval blockade of the Hamas-controlled territory -- itself an act of war.
The second troubling spot on Rauf’s c.v. is his certification of Iran’s theocracy. Here he cannot excuse himself with an air of scholarly neutrality since in his own writing he takes the precepts of Khomeinism at face value and describes the clerical oligarchy of Iran as a legitimate form of government.
Right on both points, and I would add a third--again, as you know. Those smiling photos of the good Imam at a Hizb ut-Tahrir conference at the very least suggest that the man is naive to the point of lunacy about what that organization represents and the likelihood of spreading moderation among its members through any form of outreach short of a Hellfire missile.
I also agree that the debate has had unfortunate consequences:
Much like Switzerland’s silly and point-missing ban on minarets, the proposed Cordoba House mosque has turned the specific cultural urgency of combating Islamism into a general cultural complaint about Islam.
This has led to two unintended consequences. The first is to bolster one of the paranoid claims made by Islamists, which is that the United States is tirelessly working to demonize and undermine Islam rather than fight a war against its most barbaric exponents. The second is to automatically improve the profile of Cordoba House’s chief cleric, Feisal Abdul Rauf, who, judging by his dubious statements and deeds over the past decade, deserves no such courtesy. By couching the present debate in terms of “sensitivity,” “symbolism” and “offensiveness,” certain elements on the right have taken up the uncharacteristic mantle of political correctness and, in effect, given a free hand to a subject worthy of more discriminating scrutiny. All I want to do, Rauf has been able to say, with high backing, is build a house of worship in the one country that takes confessional pluralism for granted. What could be more American than that?
Most interesting in this article, however, is a comment left beneath it by Irfan Khawaja. His overall argument does not meet with my approval--he's missing quite a few very key points--but he brings up something important:
The mosque controversy doesn't represent something new; it's just the most recent example of an old problem. Religious Land Use litigation has been going on now since 2000 on these matters, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act (RLUIPA) was passed in 2000 to rectify wrongs that had been happening for decades prior to its passage, not just to Muslims but to others deemed "undesirable" in this or that neighborhood. The Mt Laurel decisions in NJ in the 1970s showed that zoning laws could be used for exclusionary purposes, and while Mt Laurel was principally about race/class, I know from first-hand experience that the same laws can and were used to exclude development of a 'problematic' religious variety. Religious architecture doesn't "now" lead to talk of property rights; it's done so for a long time.
In my view, the debate about the "Ground Zero Mosque" is vitiated by its opponents’ refusal to acknowledge this background context—the politics of zoning law. There has always been an undercurrent of bigotry in zoning decisions about mosques, and the pressure exerted on the zoning officials in the Cordoba House case is of a piece with the usual stuff. I should emphasize that the bigotry is not just directed at Muslims. Take a look at the RLUIPA case load, past or pending, and you'll see that zoning boards are equal opportunity offenders. Any attempt to discuss the "mosque controversy" while omitting this background is naive at best.
Having said all that, I don’t doubt Weiss’s contention that Imam Rauf has been disingenuous about his connections with Islamism, and has stronger sympathies for Islamism than the mainstream media would lead us to believe. And I agree that the criticisms that Weiss makes of him should be pressed, and pressed hard. But where does that leave us with respect to Cordoba House? It certainly gives no legal predicate to deny the owners of the property their rights to develop it.
Again, I agree. The only sound legal argument I can imagine for opposing this mosque would be one based on the financial connections between the project and declared terrorist groups; and so far, none have been firmly established. I don't think an argument based on zoning-law precedent would stand up. This is, as many here have noted, nothing like saying there is no moral argument against the mosque--but legal and moral arguments are not the same thing, nor should they be.
One final point. I am all for pointing out good reasons to be offended by Imam Feisal's political opinions, but one argument that keeps coming up is actually not compelling at all. Feisal has been roundly criticized for saying the the September 11 attacks were a "reaction against the U.S. government politically, where we [the U.S.] espouse principles of democracy and human rights, and [yet] where we ally ourselves with oppressive regimes in many of these countries.” Feisal has said many stupid things, but these words can hardly be numbered among them by any enthusiast of the Bush Doctrine, given that they're indistinguishable from the standard neoconservative critique of American foreign policy prior to September 11. This point is explained approvingly by none other than William Kristol:
Bush decided that, for reasons both good and bad, we had made too many accommodations with dictators; we had turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s export of Wahabbi Islam; we had made deals with dictators who seemed to be pro-American for various reasons and who seemed to be keeping the peace with Israel in some cases, and for various reasons. The price we were paying was too great; too many of these dictators were in bed with terrorists; too many of these dictators were exporting terror and extremism as a way of keeping themselves safe at home. The reaction to these dictators was, in many cases, leading to greater anti-Americanism, greater extremism and greater terrorism. Bush decided fundamentally that this cycle had to be broken. As he said recently, this was a break from 60 years ago – six decades of US policy in the Middle East.
Now, whether Imam Feisal intended with these words to express full-throated support for the Bush Doctrine, I do not know and rather doubt, but let's not pretend that we are strangers to the idea he expressed; we are not.