A Reality Check in the Ground Zero Mosque Debate

The war of words has become short on facts


As the "Ground Zero mosque" debate spins further and further into madness, the facts of the story have gotten lost in two competing and mutually exclusive narratives, with claims and counterclaims about events that, in some cases, go back nearly a thousand years. So, in the interest of clarity, here a few reality checks for both sides in the war of words.

Was the Cordoba Center, a.k.a. Park 51, intended as an Islamic "victory monument" on the site of the World Trade Center destruction?

While no one can see into the heads of the project's leaders, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan, the background of the project offers overwhelming evidence to the contrary. According to media reports, a building that would combine a mosque with a cultural and community center similar to the YMCA is an idea that Rauf has been pitching for more than a decade. In 2003, according to Stephen Schwartz (a reformist Muslim critical of the project), he was exploring the possibility of creating such a center on 96th Street in Manhattan, over 100 blocks away from Ground Zero. The New York Times reports that as early as 1999, the imam tried to buy a property for such a project at 23rd Street, but the sale fell through due to financing difficulties.

In December 2009, after the first media reports about the plans for the Cordoba Center, Khan said in an interview on Fox News that "the closeness of the center to Ground Zero is a real blow to the extremists," since it would promote a version of Islam that teaches tolerance and love as a counterweight to radical ideology. Is it possible that the center's founders are knowingly sending a very different coded message to radical Islamists worldwide? In the absence of mind-reading or smoking-gun secret memos, this charge can be neither proved nor disproved. However, based on Rauf's and Khan's history (with all its questionable moments, of which more anon), it seems highly unlikely.

Will radical Islamists worldwide interpret the center's construction as a symbol of their glorious victory even if it is not intended as such?

Even if they did, one might ask whether political decisions in the United States should be driven by how they are perceived by fanatics abroad. Furthermore, considering that the center will house both a mosque and facilities open to non-Muslims and host interfaith programs—and that its co-founder, Khan, is a woman who does not wear head covering—it is more likely than radical Islamists would see the project as an abomination.

Ironically, this week the Pajamas Media site ran a piece reporting that Egyptian Islamic scholar and self-proclaimed jihadist Abd al-Muti Bayum has condemned the "Ground Zero mosque" as a devious "Zionist conspiracy" to discredit Islam by linking it to the September 11 attacks. This was cited as an argument against the Cordoba Center. This is strange logic: the center shouldn't be built because radical Islamists will like it … or because they will hate it.

Was the construction of a mosque and Islamic center so close to Ground Zero an "in-your-face" gesture guaranteed to spark a furious reaction?

Surprisingly, the answer is, "not necessarily." Salon.com's Justin Elliott points out that reports about the plans for Cordoba Center, which first appeared last December, elicited no reaction for several months. After the project received approval from a community-board committee, the New York Post ran a tiny and positive item about it on May 6. The controversy began after Pamela Geller, a far-right blogger who peddles "birther" conspiracies about Obama, announced a protest against the "911 mosque" and was given a platform by Post columnist Andrea Peyser and Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity. (Geller's group, Stop Islamization of America, opposes mosques in places very far removed from Ground Zero, and its Facebook page features discussions on whether Islam can be legally banned.)

While Salon.com has a strong left-wing bias, Elliott's report seems reliable and has not been challenged. Perhaps his most remarkable find is that, in Daisy Khan's aforementioned December interview on Fox News, conservative pundit Laura Ingraham, guest-hosting for Bill O'Reilly, sounded quite sympathetic to the project despite questioning some of Imam Rauf's political statements. Noting that no one seemed to have a problem with the planned mosque, Ingraham told Khan, "I like what you're doing," and invited her to appear on her radio show.

Whether a furor over the center was inevitable is a virtually unanswerable "what if" question. Yet Victor Davis Hanson actually accuses the project's organizers of a secret plan to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash and make America look bigoted. Of course, one might reply that it would have been smarter not to take the bait.

Does Imam Rauf represent precisely the kind of moderate, tolerant Islam that opponents of jihadism should encourage? Or is he a closet radical Islamist out to replace the U.S. Constitution with Koran-based sharia law?

The answer to the latter is a pretty straightforward "no," and the claim is almost entirely based on innuendo and distortion. A particularly egregious Pajamas Media article by anti-mosque activist Madeline Brooks charged that Rauf had attended a conference of the radical Islamist organization Hizb-ut Tahrir in 2007. Yet, as documented by R.E.A.L. (Responsible for Equality and Liberty), a Washington, D.C.-based group that opposes extremism and bigotry of every stripe, the article Brooks links actually describes Rauf's exchange with several Hizb-ut Tahrir members at an event promoting his book; on its own website, Hizb-ut Tahrir's condemns Rauf as an American "propagandist."

However, claims by Cordoba Center supporters that Rauf is the very model of a modern Muslim moderate are overly optimistic. Much of Rauf's work is admirable. In his writings on sharia, he has consistently argued that Islam should preserve what he believes is the true spirit of Koranic law—justice, equality and tolerance—while discarding tenets that promote the subjugation of women or hostility to non-Muslims. In his 2004 book What's Right With Islam, he suggests that the U.S. system of government may be "the form of governance that best expresses Islam's original values and principles." Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow, a program run by the American Society for Muslim Advancement co-founded by Rauf and Khan, has included such dissident voices as Irshad Manji, a lesbian feminist strongly critical of traditional Islam.

However, some of Rauf's comments over the years are legitimate cause for concern. He has made statements that seem to minimize radical Islamist terror—by pointing to the Christian West's killing of civilians in Hiroshima and Dresden, or asserting that the West must apologize for its wrongs toward Muslims before terrorism can end. (Rauf may be rightly critical of Western support for repressive regimes in the Muslim world, but any call for an end to terror should be unconditional.) He has refused to describe Hamas as a terrorist organization—which is not an encouraging approach to promoting moderation, even if his motive is a misguided inclusiveness rather than sympathy.

Indeed, one of the strongest critiques of Rauf and Khan comes from R.E.A.L.'s Jeffrey Imm, who also defends their right to build the Cordoba Center. Imm argues that true Islamic reformation is impossible without "self-criticism of Muslim views and defiance to religious supremacists," which Rauf and Khan have not shown often enough. He also criticizes Rauf's tendency to downplay the fact that in the real world, sharia-based regimes generally do not espouse anything like his own benign interpretation of sharia. Finally, Imm notes that given Saudi Arabia's history of "funding mosques that quietly spread extremism," concerns about the center's sources of financing are understandable.

Are "moderate Muslim" initiatives sometimes not as moderate as they profess to be?

Sadly, yes. Just last December, a convention held by Muslim American Society and the Islamic Center of North America in Chicago, which proclaimed a commitment to combating extremism and radicalization in the Muslim community, featured several speakers who voiced frankly anti-Semitic views. The MAS and the ICNA have asserted that the organizers were not aware of these expressions of hate speech and that the guilty parties will not be invited again; but, even if this defense is entirely sincere, this incident shows that extremism is a pervasive presence in the Muslim community. Three other mainstream Muslim organizations have been named as unindicted co-conspirators in the Holy Land Foundation case that involved funneling charity money to Hamas.

There can be no real discussion of Islam in America without an honest admission that Islamic extremism is not limited to a few fringe groups of crazies, and a willingness to confront this extremism. But at the moment, there is an equally urgent need to confront a pervasive extremism in the anti-jihadist movement that seeks to demonize Islam itself and tar virtually all Muslims with the terrorist brush.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.com.