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What about the name Cordoba House? As noted above, the project is being co-sponsored by Rauf’s Cordoba Initiative, and a number of sources report that the project was originally called Cordoba House, but was subsequently changed (perhaps in response to controversy) to the neutral, non-descriptive “Park51,” after the street address. However, it seems project sponsors are using both names—but not interchangeably.
The Park51 website calls the project “the community center at Park51,” but also speaks of a “center for multifaith dialogue and engagement” within the community center called Cordoba House. Perhaps the name Cordoba House has been somewhat deemphasized, but it hasn’t been dropped.
The reference is to Córdoba, Spain, which was was held by Muslims for over half a millennium from the eighth century to the thirteenth. The Cordoba Initiative website celebrates this period in Córdoba’s history—not without historical warrant—as a site of peaceful and fruitful economic and cultural coexistence of Muslims, Christians and Jews. The Catholic Encyclopedia offers support for this view:
Both Christians and Arabs co-operated at this time to make Cordova a flourishing city, the elegant refinement of which was unequalled in Europe. … Owing to the peace which the Christians of Cordova then enjoyed, some knowledge of their condition has been preserved … at that period, the citizens of Cordova, Arabs, Christians, and Jews, enjoyed so high a degree of literary culture that the city was known as the New Athens. From all quarters came students eager to drink at its founts of knowledge. Among the men afterwards famous who studied at Cordova were the scholarly monk Gerbert, destined to sit on the Chair of Peter as Sylvester II (999-1003), the Jewish rabbis Moses and Maimonides, and the famous Spanish-Arabian commentator on Aristotle, Averroes …
There is naturally another side of the story, which the Catholic Encyclopedia also notes:
During this time, the faithful could, it is true, worship freely, and retained their churches and property on condition of paying a tribute for every parish, cathedral, and monastery; frequently such tribute was increased at the will of the conqueror, and often the living had to pay for the dead … In 786 the Arab caliph, Abd-er Rahman I, began the construction of the great mosque of Cordova, now the cathedral, and compelled many Christians to take part in the preparation of the site and foundations … Under Abd-er Rahman II there came a change in the attitude of the Arab rulers, and a fierce persecution ensued, during which many Christians were accused of abusing the memory of Mohammed, of entering mosques, and of conspiracy against the Government. Saracen fanaticism ran high. Among the martyrs of this period are Perfectus, Flora, Maria, numerous nuns of the monastery of Tabana in the Sierras, also Aurelius, Sabiniana, Abundius, Amator, and others; the names of more than thirty are known. The most famous of these martyrs is St. Eulogius, priest and abbot, who was in 858 chosen Archbishop of Toledo … With slight interruptions this persecution continued under succeeding bishops, Saul (850) and Valentius (662) …
It’s not hard to see why Muslims would cast a nostalgic eye to Córdoba as an example of how members of the Abrahamic religions need not be out to kill one another, and can in fact cooperate economically and culturally.
It’s harder to see how Muslims could fail to recognize that Christians and Westerners generally would see in Córdoba a symbol with a rather different meaning—not just because of oppression and persecution or even because of marks of inferiority such as the tribute, but also simply because it was a city conquered and governed by Arab Muslim invaders. Sometimes things were good, other times not so much, but either way Muslims were in charge.
This makes Córdoba at least a provocative symbol, if not necessarily an offensive one. Cordoba Initiative as the name of an organization seems to me defensible; Cordoba House as the name of a building project including a mosque a couple of blocks from Ground Zero seems more charged. Critics have pointed out that Córdoba’s Great Mosque was built on the site of a razed Catholic church (a mosque that in turn now serves as the cathedral of Córdoba).