Cordoba House: A Closer Look, Part 6

The Mosque and the Monastery

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Attempts to express the insensitivity of the Cordoba project have not always been as effective as possible. Opponents have compared it to a Japanese monument at Pearl Harbor or an American monument at Hiroshima. While these examples illustrate the principle of the need for sensitivity and respect in connection with what may be called sacred sites, as direct analogies they are more misleading than illustrative. Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima were bombed not just by, respectively, Japanese and Americans, but by Japan and America. These were acts of nations, sanctioned by their governments and carried out by their military. By contrast, the United States on 9/11 was attacked by Muslim terrorists—not by “Islam.” Any Muslim can reasonably say “The 9/11 terrorists were not acting on my behalf” in a way that a citizen of the U.S. or Japan, even a conscientious citizen horrified by his government’s actions, cannot say “The [Hiroshima / Pearl Harbor] bombers were not acting on my behalf.”

All analogies limp, but one analogy—despite differences and difficulties—does deserve a second look: the Carmelite nuns at Auschwitz. In 1984, Carmelite nuns opened a monastery close enough to Auschwitz to be seen from the camp. When Jewish groups protested, the Vatican ordered the nuns to leave, which they eventually did. However, the cross that they left behind remained a point of controversy for many years.

What gives this analogy some traction? The sponsors of Cordoba House say that their project, which is not at Ground Zero but a short distance away, is intended not as a provocation or celebration of 9/11, but to promote Muslim-West relations and to marginalize extremism. Likewise, the Carmelite convent, which was not on the camp grounds at Auschwitz but a short distance outside the camp, was not intended to celebrate Auschwitz or the Holocaust, but to offer prayers and reparation. The Cordoba House sponsors say that Islam per se had nothing to do with 9/11, and indeed many Muslim victims lost their lives in the attacks. Likewise, the Catholic Church had nothing to do with the atrocities carried out at Auschwitz, and indeed many Catholic victims, such as St. Maximilian Kolbe, lost their lives at Auschwitz.

Nevertheless, the presence of the Carmelite convent was reasonably considered (by both Jewish groups and the Vatican) an affront, just as it seems a majority of New Yorkers and Americans consider the Cordoba House project an affront.

There are obviously important differences. For one thing, the Carmelite convent was visible from within the camp at Auschwitz, whereas the Cordoba House project will reportedly not be visible from Ground Zero. However, as previously noted, this point is blunted by the fact that the project site actually suffered 9/11 damage. 

It is also true that the significance of Ground Zero for Americans and even for New Yorkers pales in comparison to that of Auschwitz for the Jewish people. This is not only because millions of people were killed in the Holocaust and only several thousand died in the 9/11 attacks. It is also because the Holocaust represented an existential threat to a comparatively powerless, long-persecuted minority, executed by a great world power. The 9/11 attacks were not an existential threat of this kind for America or New York. They were terror attacks carried out by a comparatively weaker power—an organization upon which we were well able to inflict punishment in return, and which has in fact suffered just consequences of their actions (not to say either that everything we have done was just, or that justice has been satisfied).

All of this is true, but there is a counter-consideration weighing in the opposite direction: While the 9/11 terrorists cannot legitimately claim to have been acting on behalf of all Muslims, it is also true that they were Muslim members of a Muslim terror organization acting expressly on behalf of their understanding of Islam. Or, if Rauf prefers, self-styled Muslim members of a self-styled Muslim terror organization acting expressly on behalf of their understanding of Islam.

The star and crescent that would be raised at Park51 is the same star and crescent that people like the 9/11 terrorists claim as their own symbol. By contrast, a cross is not a swastika. The Nazis were in no sense a Catholic group; in fact, the Catholic Church condemned Nazi ideology in a way that global Islam has not and cannot repudiate terrorism. (The lack of centralization in Islam cuts both ways.) This is another reason why the need for “special sensitivity” at Ground Zero is so great.

Next: Building Bridges

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