Cross-posted at River Twice Research. This article first appeared in The Atlantic.
Over the past two months, the planned construction of a Muslim cultural center in the vicinity of the World Trade Center site has become the fulcrum of an acrimonious debate about religion, freedom of expression, and the place of Islam in the United States. You would have had to be living off-the-grid somewhere not to have noticed the hundreds of opinion pieces, thousands of blogs, and considerable airtime on television and radio. As characterized by Newt Gingrich, the planned center is no less than the latest chapter in a war of civilizations: “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.”
By now, defenders of the plan have made clear that the proposed “Cordoba House” (also known as Park51) isn’t a mosque per se; it is a cultural center that would include a prayer room. It is modeled after the YMCA or various Jewish Community Centers throughout the United States, complete with a theater, recreational facilities, and day care. It is the brainchild of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan, who have been active in numerous interfaith initiatives for many years, both of whom live and work in New York City. Rauf – who during much of the controversy was touring the Persian Gulf sponsored by the U.S. government to promote cooperation – said of his initiative “I can assure that whatever we do will increase harmony and peace and well being, both within our city, our community, our nation and the world.”
Yet in spite of these soothing words and Rauf’s own history of moderation, many remain hostile and are unlikely to be swayed. You would think from the tenor of the opposition that Park51 was being sponsored by al-Qaeda and is slated to include a weapons lab along with a radical madrassa. Describing it as a “beach head,” as many opponents have, casts the center as the vanguard of a new wave of Muslim armies that used to assail the Western (aka Christian) world at regular intervals over the course of a thousand years from the death of Muhammad in 622 through the last failed Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683. Perhaps most striking about the vehement opposition to the center is the degree to which history is used as proof of ill-intent. It’s often – and correctly – said about American culture that historical memory is scant, but in the case of Islam, it is surprisingly robust.
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