Who Is Us?

August 13, 2010 4:24 a.m.

A few articles on the Manhattan mosque disgrace. A piece in the Times on Mayor Bloomberg’s staunch support for the project. And another by Christopher Hitchens (who writes with a new sort of power, unbent in the face of a grim cancer diagnosis) in Slate on the disgrace of the opposition to the project . I think Hitchens is far too credulous or perhaps better to say accusatory in cherry-picking a few quotes from Imam Feisal Adbul Rauf. But he’s more right than not in arguing that these are really beside the point. We don’t demonstrate our values by disgracing them. The whole episode is really far beyond the particulars of the identities of the organizers of the project — notwithstanding the fact that the Bush administration picked the Imam leading the effort to represent the US abroad as a spokesman for pluralist, moderate Islam.

Indeed, what’s struck me in recent days about this ‘controversy’ is how much the opponents of the project have more or less given up on the idea that Rauf et al. are some sort of crypto-terrorists or radical Islamists or somehow or another in hock to bin Laden or Hamas or whomever else. Yes, there are some people still claiming this. And various critics are still distorting scattered quotes from the past or seizing on Rauf’s failure to denounce this or that group sufficiently. By and large though the critics are conceding this point. The core of their argument now is simply that there shouldn’t be any mosque anywhere in the vicinity of the Trade Center Complex. (Set aside for the moment that this mosque isn’t really a mosque; it’s more like a YMCA, perhaps YMMA. And there’s already at least one mosque already there.)When this crystalized for me a few days ago it got me to thinking about the different mental maps we have in front of us as we encounter the world. Occasionally we find ourselves in disagreements that are really more than disagreements. Haggling over the logic of the situation is sort of beside the point because we realize that the map of reality sitting before the person we’re arguing with is just too different from ours. My North is their South; her red is my blue. Discussion is near to impossible because too many of the reference points simply do not match up.

So, for the sake of argument, set aside the shameless rabble-rousers (Gingrich, Palin, Giuliani, et al.) who may know better or more likely couldn’t care less. And do the same with the people who know so little of the facts of the situation that they probably think it’s a pro-bin Laden outreach organization trying to take over the Trade Center complex itself. Then we’re left with folks who really do think this is sacred ground — most of lower Manhattan apparently — not ‘hallowed’ but ‘sacred’ (there’s a difference), and sacred ground in such a sense that Muslims setting up shop there is just an inherent offense.

The only way this makes sense is if you imagine we’re actually involved in a sort of global half-racial holy war against Islam. From this perspective, it’s sort of like some ‘good’ Germans trying to set up a Beer Garden in Tel Aviv in 1950 or perhaps 1944. To which folks might say, ‘Look, we know you guys didn’t do the Holocaust yourselves. And maybe you mean well. But it’s just not right. Go somewhere else.’ And most of us would probably see the logic of that sentiment.

Now, I get it. Quite a few people think this is precisely the point. (Not a lot of TPM readers. But a lot of people. Let’s not kid ourselves.) We are engaged in a half-racial holy war against Islam. It’s not us versus a series of interconnected terrorist networks which are relatively small but episodically quite lethal. It’s us, the white Christians and our Jewish junior partner sidekicks versus the brown Muslim people. (If you’re keeping score at home, let’s call it the Judeo-Christians -white jerseys- vs. the Muslims -brown jerseys.) So isn’t it a bit soon for these Muslims, even if these are some of the good ones, to come over here from wherever they’re from in the Middle East and set up shop on Judeo-Christian territory? Particularly where the first battle of the Holy War was fought? Soon? … heck, the Holy War is still on. As Eric Cantor said a couple days ago, C’mon!

I know these are somewhat over-the-top constructions of the mindset. Yet I think it is the mindset. Because only in that mode does it make sense that American Muslims building a community center near the site of a terrorist attack from a decade ago constitutes such an outrage. And in this sense, though the contradiction of the 1st Amendment is obvious and critical, the shame of the whole situation goes well beyond it.

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