The uproar over the proposed Islamic Center—that notorious mosque-incorporating Islamic Center—in lower Manhattan (“at Ground Zero,” in the vernacular) will likely last till the November election and then some: the meat’s too red for the hard Right to give up, and judging from the Stop-the-Mosque appeals zooming into my inbox, the fundraising potential must be considerable. Whoever was of the opinion that such culture wars would phase out after the 2008 election must surely have reconsidered by now.
Let’s be plain: the atmosphere has been overheated by one, and one only, source of cultural climate change. The inflammatory polluters are Manichaeans who have found in Islam the (im)moral equivalent of Communism, and who, like McCarthyites of yore, are not into fine distinctions. (Here’s Doug Chandler’s profile of the one of the prime tub thumpers, Pamela Geller.)
In an atmosphere conducive to holy war, it’s refreshing when someone tries to lower the temperature. So I was glad to see a piece by Yossi Klein Halevi in the New Republic in the form of an open letter to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Cordoba House’s prime mover, whom he calls “my friend.” Halevi sees Rauf as an interreligious diplomat. He cites Judea Pearl, the father of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was beheaded by Pakistani terrorists, to this effect: “Muslims can provide legitimacy for the Jewish people in the East and Jews can provide legitimacy for Islam in the West.” Halevi continues, addressing Rauf: “I know that same sentiment inspires your longtime outreach to the American Jewish community.”
Indeed, it’s something of a professional requirement for diplomats that they pick their occasions and at times talk out of both, or several, sides of their mouths. So it makes sense to me when Halevi addresses Rauf thus:
Sometimes it seems that you want to be all things to all people—a liberal to non-Muslim Americans, upholder of Muslim grievances to traditionalists—and that you simply deny the resulting dissonance, as if every contradiction can be healed by your goodwill. Some of your statements about America and the Muslim world—partly blaming U.S. foreign policy for September 11, or saying that America has killed more Muslims than Al Qaeda has killed innocent non-Muslims, as if the terrorists and their targets were morally equivalent—pander to the most simplistic sentiments within your community. But where some see hypocrisy, or even a hidden agenda, I prefer to see the struggles of a good man who wants to help his community enter the American mainstream, while reassuring the faithful of his loyalty.
Now, the gotcha game is easily played with occasional quotes. There’s no one of any prominence who hasn’t, one time or another, said something stupid, ignorant, ill-considered, or otherwise indefensible in public. Susan Sontag, to take but one prominent example, was at her haughtiest in her notorious, tossed-off New Yorker remark after September 11. Still, that was hardly her first or last word, and gotcha is a child’s game. Is it hopelessly civil to hope for some sense of proportion? It’s fair to task a religious writer, like any other, for sloppy thinking, but oughtn’t a serious critic assess Rauf’s thought primarily from his books, which represent vastly more effort than occasional quotes or pieces?
And here comes the real scandal: It shouldn’t amaze, but it does, that (disclosure: self-promotion alert) no writer besides myself, at TNR.com (here and here), seems to have read or quoted from the hundreds of pages of Rauf’s three books. He does not commit tangled-up academic prose. He writes well. But anti-intellectualism and slovenliness reign supreme, and the news media have taken the easy way out. They’ve barely made anything of the fact that Rauf is a Sufi—not a Wahhabi, not a Khomeinian. Sufism is an intricate mysticism. Its relations with Islam over the centuries have been vexed. It doesn’t go over so well in some majority-Muslim countries. If you were to judge Rauf from the crazier blogging around, it’s as if a Quaker were being paired with Pat Robertson—Christian under the skin, after all.
That said—and putting First Amendment considerations aside for the moment—my curiosity about Rauf’s beliefs, politics among them, is considerable. And on the doctrinal front, the most troubling Rauf quotation I’ve seen flying around the blogosphere comes from his open letter to President Obama after Iran’s stolen election of 2009, which includes these words:
After the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took the Shiite concept of the Rightly Guided Imam and created the idea of Vilayet-i-faqih, which means the rule of the jurisprudent. This institutionalizes the Islamic rule of law….[Obama] should say his administration respects many of the guiding principles of the 1979 revolution–to establish a government that expresses the will of the people; a just government, based on the idea of Vilayet-i-faqih, that establishes the rule of law.
Now, this remark is straight-out apologetics for the Islamic Republic. I have it on the authority of Emmanuel Sivan, professor emeritus at the Hebrew University and author of many works on radical Islam, that Vilayet-i-faqih refers to “a new kind of regime…representing the sovereignty of God, and incarnated in the sole and supreme authority of a ‘Virtuous Jurist,’ an individual whom all branches of government must obey.” Sivan adds that “in a later twist (1988) he [Khomeini] awarded this Faqih (a job he filled since 1979) the right to abrogate any past Islamic law or ruling.” Moreover, the Islamic constitution of 1979 grants “a commission appointed by the Faqih the right to vet all parliamentary candidates before they present themselves.” (Sivan adds drolly, “The constitution says nothing about fixing election results.”) If the legitimacy of Rauf’s Islamic Center project rested on his grasp of the Iranian horror, he would have a lot of explaining to do. But it doesn’t.
Finally, Halevi resorts to the Auschwitz analogy in urging Rauf to revise his proposal and establish an interfaith center instead. Auschwitz analogies are always treacherous, however rhetorically—and emotionally—tempting. Halevi accurately notes that, in 1993, Pope John Paul II ordered a group of Carmelite nuns to move their convent off the Auschwitz grounds, respecting the sensitivity of Jews who thought it transgressed the overwhelming purpose of Auschwitz, which was to slaughter Jews, not Christians. But the Polish analogy breaks down because Imam Rauf proposes to build Cordoba House in a nation that affirms freedom of religion, not in a nation operating under a Stalinist constitution (as Poland did when the Catholic Church initially agreed to remove the convent in 1987), or at the sufferance of a religious order headquartered in the Vatican or anywhere else.
In the end, for Americans, there’s a constitutional faith at stake. The American Constitution does not sanction a Vilayet-i-faqih for religious buildings, and establishes no tribunal for vetting their leaders.
Todd Gitlin‘s new book (with Liel Leibovitz), The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election is being published this month by Simon & Schuster.
Homepage Image: World Economic Forum, Wikimedia Commons, 2009