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Previous: The Mosque and the Monastery

Finally, one last point about the Carmelites at Auschwitz is worth noting. The Carmelites were not forcibly expelled; they left in response to objections from Jewish groups—though it was Pope John Paul II, not the Carmelites, who acknowledged the legitimacy of Jewish concerns in this regard, and the nuns apparently took their sweet time about leaving, missing the pope’s deadline by a few years.

The Park51 project should not go forward at 51 Park Way. But what should opponents do about their concerns? The best solution would be if project sponsors came to recognize the insensitivity of their proposal and voluntarily agreed to move the project elsewhere.

Rauf and Khan say that they are all about building bridges. If they are sincere in that, it is clearly in their best interest to move elsewhere. At present, bridges are being burned, not built—and the longer they buck growing public opposition, the worse the damage becomes.

It may be the case that in part bridges are being burned through unscrupulous or incendiary attacks from opponents stirring up tribal resentments and fears against Muslims. But that’s not the whole story. In the meantime, Rauf is giving those with an axe to grind all the ammunition they need to use against him—and American Muslims of good will may be the ones to suffer.

While I could be wrong about this, for what it’s worth my impression is that Rauf and Khan did not intend their project as a “Mosque de Triomphe.” Those who view them as closeted (or semi-closeted) radicals are, in my opinion, misreading them. Although their message at times seems muddled by glib, agenda-laden speech playing to different audiences, fundamentally I’m inclined to take them at their word that they are opposed to terrorism and deplore what happened on 9/11. I suspect that they genuinely want to “send the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11.”

Some will consider my reading of Rauf naive. In my opinion, it was Rauf who was naive, about the ultimate fallout of his error in judgment. (Note Rauf’s openness about the “iconic” location in that story mentioned earlier. Clearly he didn’t realize at the time that this might pose a problem for him down the road.)

Making matters worse, though, is Rauf and Khan’s slowness to acknowledge their error. In part, perhaps, this may be linked to conflicting interests involving other parties who may or may not have shared their naivete.

Rauf and Khan’s bridge-building mission necessarily reaches out to multiple constituencies, and their work domestically and abroad brings them into contact with both non-Muslims and Muslims of many stripes. I doubt anyone will deny that there are Muslims in the world who would like to see a Mosque de Triomphe on the site of 9/11 violence—on Ground Zero itself if possible, but on a site where airplane wreckage fell as a next-best option. While I think Rauf opposes terrorism, he probably sees Muslims who do not oppose terrorism as within the scope of his bridge-building efforts. Indeed, he practically says as much in the WABC interview.

Whatever Rauf’s intentions, surely from his perspective an Islamic center that could be welcomed by non-Muslim Americans, Muslim Americans and non-American Muslims could only be a good thing — even if not all these constituencies necessarily saw the center in exactly the same way or appreciated it for the same reasons. The exciting prospect of such a win-win victory could have led to excessive optimism on Rauf’s part, leading him to turn a blind eye to potential difficulties.

It could also help explain Rauf’s reluctance to admit his mistake. Bridge builders don’t like to disappoint their constituencies. For awhile it looked like a coalition on both sides could be held together, even as the first voices of dissent arose. Now, though, it looks increasingly like Rauf and Khan will have to disappoint one group or another.

Which group they choose will prove telling. The longer they continue to stick to their guns, the hollower their talk of bridge building will sound, and the more it will seem as if they are less interested in building bridges than in building their “close to 9/11” mosque. It’s not too late to undo the damage, at least in part, but time is running out.

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