Based on the evidence, this post seems unnecessary and even risks treating bigotry with more respect than it deserves. But based on rhetoric in the mass media and polling numbers the post seems overdue.
The Cordoba Initiative is building an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan, called Cordoba House. The center will include a mosque, an auditorium, a swimming pool, a restaurant, and a bookstore. It’s based on the model of Jewish community centers and Y’s in Manhattan; the board will include Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders. The center is “dedicated to pluralism, service, arts and culture, education and empowerment, appreciation for our city and a deep respect for our planet” and to serve as a model of moderate Islam.
Located near (but not at) Ground Zero, Cordoba House replaces a building damaged in the September 11 attacks. Announcement of the plans led to a brouhaha, what Anthony DiMaggio calls a “manufactured controversy.” Although there is both support and opposition among every group (9/11 survivors and families, people in Lower Manhattan, Christians, Muslims, etc.), the majority view is opposed. Some people go so far as to argue in effect for an abandonment of the First Amendment, for the government to establish which religions should be allowed to practice where, not to mention an extraordinary abridgment of private property rights.
But as Todd Gitlin writes, it is not the duty of American governments “to construct a mosque-free zone around the World Trade Center site because some Americans oppose putting it there.” To his credit, Mayor Bloomberg gave unambiguous support to the idea that the fact of terrorism should not be allowed to destroy American values or Constitutional rights.
Referring to the firefighters and police officers who entered the trade center on September 11, Bloomberg said, “In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, ‘What God do you pray to?’ ‘What beliefs do you hold?’” Further, “We do not honor their lives by denying the very Constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights—and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.”
Bloomberg based his actions on general principles of religious freedom and against bigotry. But having lived for many years in Cambridge and Somerville, Mass., I can’t help noting that his parents had to hide their identity when they wanted to buy a house in Medford. Joyce Purnick says in her biography:
“My uncle wouldn’t dare sell to a Jew,” says a childhood friend of Mike, Thomas Buckley, about his relative, the realtor who sold the stone-and-clapboard houses in the newly built community that attracted the Bloombergs. “If he did, he would have been out of business. He knew they were buying it. He just didn’t say anything.”
No Jews lived in the immediate neighborhood, very few anywhere in Medford. But everyone assumed that would change, including the Bloombergs, who resolved not to let residual anti-Semitism block their path. “They weren’t very happy,” Mrs. Bloomberg said of some neighbors. “Our lawyer, George McLaughlin, who was Irish, bought the house and sold it to us.
Bloomberg managed to survive Medford and later endowed his hometown synagogue, Temple Shalom. It was renamed for his parents as the William and Charlotte Bloomberg Jewish Community Center of Medford.
After 9/11, many people asked Muslims to condemn the trade center attacks, fanaticism, terrorism, and Osama Bib Laden. They also demanded that Muslims reach out to mainstream America. That’s exactly what the Cordoba Initiative is doing. But even if they weren’t doing that, our Constitution as well as basic human decency call on us to respect the rights of all, even those we misunderstand.
Barbaro, Michael, (2010, August 12). Mayor’s stance on Muslim center has deep roots. The New York Times.
DiMaggio, Anthony (2010, August 12). The Muslim community center at Ground Zero: A manufactured controversy. counterpunch.
Gitlin, Todd (2010, August 13). American values and the Ground Zero mosque. The New Republic.
Purnick, Joyce (2009). Mike Bloomberg: Money, politics, power. PublicAffairs, Perseus Books Group.