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The situation is changing faster than I can blog it! (See my previous series of posts on Cordoba House.)
- In addition to his recent piece in The New York Times, Imam Rauf has also given an interview on “Larry King Live” that may shed more light on his intentions.
- Yesterday events took a surreally farcical turn as the two big Islam-related controversies in the news (each of which I’ve been trying to blog separately) converged as Terry Jones, pastor of the tiny Florida church that has threatened to burn Qur’ans on 9/11, implausibly announced that he had spoken to Rauf and had agreed not to burn the Qur’ans—in exchange for Rauf’s promise to relocate Cordoba House. No one with an ounce of sense was surprised when Rauf issued a denial, prompting Jones to accuse Rauf, again implausibly, of lying. In reality, it looks as if all that happened was that Jones met with an Orlando imam who agreed to broker a meeting between Jones and Rauf. Rauf said he hadn’t spoken to either.
- Throwing in his hand with others (including Archbishop Dolan and Governor Paterson) who have attempted to ameliorate the situation by brokering a relocation to a site further from Ground Zero, Donald Trump—who has called the plans to build the center so near to Ground Zero “insensitive” and “wrong”—put his money where his mouth is and offered to buy the current site for 25 percent more than the buyers paid for it, on condition that the center move at least five blocks further away from Ground Zero.
- Along with the seemingly positive developments noted in my last blog post, Rauf’s New York Times essay raised additional questions. For example, in his essay he consistently uses “Cordoba House,” not “Park51,” to refer to the “community center.” According to the project websites, Park51 and Cordoba House refer to different things: Park51 is the name of the planned community center, while Cordoba House will be “a center for multifaith dialogue and engagement within Park51s broader range of programs and activities.”
Rauf’s use of “Cordoba House” rather than “Park51” raised a flurry of questions, and the Park51 blog quickly responded:
In response to an op-ed in The New York Times written by our partner in Park51, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, we are issuing this statement today: “Park51 is the name of the planned Muslim community center being built in lower Manhattan. Park51 is also the name of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity that has already been established, which will fund and oversee this initiative. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf will be the spiritual leader of the Cordoba House which will be the interfaith and religious component of the center and will reside within Park51.”This blunder confirms my impression that Rauf is not always the best communicator of his own ideas. It may also be that the Park51/Cordoba distinction is a PR move designed to minimize controversy around the Cordoba brand. However, this isn’t a big deal to me since I think the Cordoba name controversy is overhyped. Cordoba is, I think, a fairly common touchstone for Islamic institutions in the West, including quite nontriumphal ones. (For instance, there’s a Cordoda University in Virginia that offers a “Certificate in Muslim-Christian dialogue” in tandem with the Washington Theological Consortium, which includes a number of Catholic institutions.)
- In his “Larry King” interview with Soledad O’Brien, Rauf reiterated his intention to have “prayer space for Christians and for Jews” as well as for Muslims. Although he referred a few times to a “mosque,” Rauf never used that word (either to affirm or deny it).
- Rauf had a number of interesting things to say about the location two blocks from Ground Zero. On the one hand, he acknowledged that the controversy was doing damage, and said again and again that if he had known the controversy that would result, he would not have picked that spot. Rauf also signaled at least some openness to relocating. When O’Brien asked, “Wouldn’t it further the goal of peacemaking, and you’ve talked a lot about it, to move it? Why is that an option that’s off the table now?” Rauf answered, “Nothing is off the table, Soledad.” He also made a point of saying that project sponsors “have not finalized all our plans yet.” In particular, Rauf emphasized again that he wanted to meet with the families of 9/11 victims and others in an effort to bring about an outcome that is best for everyone.
- On the other hand, Rauf also expressed some determination to stay the course, and among the various reasons he offered was this disturbing one: Moving Cordoba House would cause, he said, “headlines in the Muslim world” that “Islam is under attack”—which could bolster radical Islam abroad, potentially putting American troops in harm’s way:
I have a niece who works in the Army and served in Iraq. The concern for American citizens who live and work and travel overseas will increasingly be compromised if the radicals are strengthened. And if we do move, it will strengthen the argument of the radicals to recruit, their ability to recruit, and their increasing aggression and violence against our country.“If we don’t build here, American soldiers could die.” This comes dangerously close to a subtle, passive form of terrorism in itself: promoting one’s own agenda by warning what the terrorists may do if I don’t get my way. This is not the same as warning that e.g. Terry Jones burning Qur’ans could rally radicals and cost American lives. Clearly in that case there is no agenda other than not provoking Muslims, whether moderate or radical; and likewise burning Qur’ans is obviously a direct and inflammatory provocation to Islam in a way that building an Islamic center in one location rather than another is not.
- While Rauf may have overplayed the terror card on that hand, certainly an impression of Rauf being bullied away from Ground Zero wouldn’t do anyone any good. It would create ill will abroad. Rauf’s own stock with Muslims abroad would take a hit, and his bridge-building efforts to promote moderate Islam would suffer. It’s reasonable for Rauf to wish not to lose face, not to appear to be caving. It would be better if he could present a move as a bridge-building response to appeals from family members of 9/11 victims and the like rather than to strident opposition tinged with anti-Islamic rhetoric. (You can hear Rauf thinking along these lines in his interview with Soledad O’Brien when he says things like “We’re talking to various people about how to do this so that we negotiate the best and the safest option” and “It is important for us now to raise the bar on our conversation.”)
- In that sense, Rauf’s hard-line opponents are making it harder for him to relocate. Jones’s idiotic “Qur’ans for Ground Zero” prisoner-exchange stunt may have made any imminent concession on location nearly impossible for the time being.
More to come.
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