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In early December 2009, the New York Times ran an article on a new project in lower Manhattan called Cordoba House. The plan was ambitious, including a 500-seat performing arts center, a gym, a restaurant, a library, a culinary school, a swimming pool, and a prayer space. Two things made the development especially noteworthy: it was located a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, and it was being built by American Muslims.
I knew the projects co-founders, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan, a dynamic husband-and-wife team. As so called ‘moderate Muslims’ (sometimes the label was meant as a compliment, sometimes as an insult), we had met several times on the interfaith speaking circuit and developed a friendship. Our primary topic of conversation was the development of an American Muslim identity. While this was something each of us had cared about for many years, the subject was made all the more urgent by the horrors of 9/11. The attacks had created an association in the public imagination between Islam and terrorism, putting enormous pressure on American Muslims to prove their loyalty to the country while remaining true to their faith.
As the war on terror gained steam and a simplistic Islam vs the West dichotomy began to dominate policy circles and public discourse, people like us were doing our best to highlight the shared values between the two civilizations. We believed the principle link between America and Islam was the ethic of pluralism.
While most contemporary Muslim majority nations had a dismal track record regarding pluralism in comparison to their Western counterparts, many medieval Muslim societies were relatively impressive on this score. Of these, the civilization of Al-Andalus was especially inspiring. The Catholic nun Hroswitha described its capital city, Cordoba, as “The brilliant ornament of the world (that) shone in the west, a noble city ... wealthy and famous ... and resplendent in all things, and especially for its seven streams of wisdom and as much for its constant victories.” The library of the caliph had four hundred thousand volumes, a thousand times more than the largest library in the Christian-dominated parts of Europe. The catalogue of the library alone ran to forty-four volumes. Jews, hounded and hated elsewhere in Europe, thrived here. This was the milieu that gave rise to the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, where Hebrew poetry was rediscovered and reinvented, where a Jew rose to be the caliph’s foreign minister. While much of Europe was experiencing the Dark Ages, Muslim scholars were producing commentaries on Aristotle, texts that played a key role in sparking the Renaissance in Europe.
In our minds, the connections between medieval Andalusia and contemporary America were everywhere. There were beautiful symbolic resonances; synagogues on New York City’s Upper West Side contained architectural allusions to the mosques built in 11th century Cordoba. And there were deep substantive similarities. Andalusia had experimented with a partial pluralism, extended limited rights to diverse communities, and allowed some degree of civic and political participation. The American project was about the adoption and advancement of this ethic.
Imam Feisal and Daisy named their project Cordoba House to highlight the bridge of pluralism that connected Islam and America. They liked to speak about how Catholicism and Judaism had become American religions by bursting out of their bubbles, learning from and working with other communities, and building institutions that served the common good of their adopted homeland instead of just the concerns of their own parochial groups. Muslims, they insisted, ought to do the same. We could maintain our distinctive identities while contributing to the civic life of our nation. In fact, becoming a valued part of a diverse nation was a deeply Islamic thing to do.
Perhaps the most high profile opponent of Cordoba House was the former speaker of the House of Representatives and soon-to-be presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich. He characterized the attempts to establish Cordoba House as “purely and simply an anti-American act of triumphalism on the part of a radical Islamist ...” and compared it to placing a ‘Nazi’ sign next to the Holocaust Museum. For Gingrich ‘Cordoba’ did not refer to a Muslim civilization that was on the vanguard of pluralism for its time but, “the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church into the world’s third-largest mosque complex.” He further claimed, “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.” Such language was quickly turned into talking points which were repeated in thousands of speeches, blogs and tweets.
Gingrich raised particular concerns about what he called a ‘stealth jihad’: “Stealth jihadists use political, cultural, societal, religious, intellectual tools; violent jihadists use violence,” he stated in a widely-publicized speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington in July 2010. “But in fact they’re both engaged in jihad,” he continued, “and they’re both seeking to impose the same end state, which is to replace Western civilization with a radical imposition of Shariah.” (NYT 12/21/11).
Shariah literally means “path to the watering place”, but is more colloquially understood as Islamic law. While this conjures up images of Taliban brutality, much of what is covered in Shariah are straightforward matters regarding prayer and communal life. Furthermore, like the law of any religious tradition or nation, it is by no means fixed but requires interpretation and adaptation for various times and places. Gingrich said little about such nuances, content instead for his statements to provide an aerial attack for what was already an aggressive anti-Shariah ground game. Even before the Cordoba House controversy, a small group of anti-Muslim activists were encouraging state legislatures to pass anti-Shariah legislation, measures that would proactively forbid American judges from consulting Shariah law.
Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan official, was one of the leaders in the anti-Sharia movement. In 2010 Gaffney’s think tank, the Center for Security Policy, produced a report entitled Sharia: The Threat to America which stated: “Sharia is a doctrine that imposes the rule of Allah over all aspects of society. More precisely, contrary to the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and in a way absolutely incompatible with it, Sharia asserts that God did not create freewill but tied it to the will of Allah – the condition of human beings is submission to Allah and not freedom.”
The statement contains or suggests many of the most common tropes of the anti-Muslim movement: Islam is best understood not as a religion but as a political system bent on domination. While in Judeo-Christian America we cherish freedom, Islam requires submission. No wonder their guys committed 9/11. Could your Muslim neighbors be the next jihadist? Better stop them now.
By far the strongest public advocate for Cordoba House was New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Other leaders, ranging from Sarah Palin to President Obama, while granting that Muslims had a constitutional right to build Cordoba House, questioned the wisdom and sensitivity of the decision. In contrast, Bloomberg passionately supported the project in its original plan and location.
Bloomberg delineated several core American freedoms, but emphasized, “Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish.” He spoke passionately about the state’s particular role regarding religious freedom. Not only was Cordoba House private property, in which the state may not interfere except under exceptional circumstances, but the government is bound by the first amendment of the constitution to protect religious expression. Moreover, not only does the government have a duty of non-interference with religious practice, it has an obligation to exhibit fairness to all religious traditions and communities. “This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another.”
This combination of freedom and diversity poses challenges, Bloomberg conceded. It means that your neighbor has the right (within limits) to express things you may not like, believe things you think are wrong and act in ways that you view as sinful. This is to be expected in a society that is both free and diverse, and where the government is constitutionally bound to protect the expressions of a variety of groups.
But for the most part, Bloomberg noted, people from diverse backgrounds engage with one another in a spirit of “mutual respect and tolerance ... openness and acceptance.” Sometimes, people go beyond mere tolerance and engage in everything from intentional acts of interfaith cooperation to sacrificial service across lines of difference. The diverse religious leaders who had gathered with him in defense of Cordoba House were doing so out of the deep convictions of their different faiths. Bloomberg choked up talking about the first responders on 9/11 who saved the lives of everyone they could. “In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, ‘What God do you pray to?’”
The stark contrast between the views expressed by Mayor Bloomberg and those held by the likes of Speaker Gingrich illustrate two poles in the debate on the presence of Muslims in the United States. Where Gingrich et al spoke of American identity as inherently Judeo-Christian, Bloomberg spoke of American identity as essentially plural. Where Gingrich et al were part of a movement which overtly attempted to discriminate against and spread prejudice towards a minority religious group, Bloomberg sought to protect that community. Where they wanted government to be a party to their prejudice, Bloomberg insisted that government should refrain from interfering in religion and if anything should be sensitive to the needs of minority groups. Where they largely ignored constitutional questions, Bloomberg highlighted just how essential freedom of religion is in America’s foundational governing document. Where they linked all Muslims and the tradition of Islam with the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Bloomberg insisted that worst actions of a fringe minority could never be viewed as the responsibility of the larger community. Where they invoked American history, symbols and sacredness to advocate barring Muslims from establishing Cordoba House, Bloomberg invoked history, symbols and sacredness in defense of welcoming Cordoba House. Where they believed Muslims and their institutions were a threat to American democracy, Bloomberg insisted that they were a contribution. Where Bloomberg connected the prejudice he faced as a Jewish-American growing up to his solidarity with the Muslims attempting to build Cordoba House, Gingrich seemed blind to how his wife Callista’s Catholic faith (Gingrich had attended mass with her for a decade and converted the following year) was once subject to a form of discrimination that paralleled the very Islamophobia he was peddling.
The Cordoba House tale is part of a still-being-written chapter of American history, namely, how Muslims are going to be integrated into American society. On its own terms, it is an interesting and important story. Moreover, it serves as a sort of miniature in which a group of critical questions and a set of compelling interests related to both American religion and American diversity can be studied.
This post was excerpted and adapted from Eboo Patel's second chapter in Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise (Princeton University Press, 2018).