The Associated Press
and the New York Times
have banned the use of the term "Ground Zero Mosque" in all future stories about the "Unbelievably Benign Community Center Containing Acres and Acres of Facilities For All Kinds Of Inclusive and Unobjectionable Activities (including a nearly undetectable worship thingy of some sort) Located Two Vast, Gargantuan, All But Impassable City Blocks Away From A Place Where Something Vaguely Unpleasant May or May Not Have Happened At Some Indeterminate Point In The Past." Instead, most stories about the . . . entity, are using "Park51," the name chosen
by its sponsors, and a standard nomenclature for New York real estate developers promoting new office buildings, condos and retail sites.
The substitution of "Park51" for "Ground Zero Mosque" treats the fact that Park51 is more than a mosque, located near but not right at Ground Zero, as politically significant, not an incidental detail. And that fact is indeed emphasized by those who believe that the Park51 controversy is about, not just the constitutional limits determining how government treats religion, but the social attitudes that make religious freedom a day-to-day reality in America. Thus did President Obama say, in endorsing Park51, "This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable." Thus did his admirers interpret
Obama's endorsement as "casting this as a larger argument over the bedrock moral principles that are the foundation of American identity."
As Clive Crook points out
, however, if the Park51 controversy is simply and solely about Americans' tolerance for religious diversity, it wouldn't matter if the "Ground Zero Mosque" really were a Ground Zero Mosque. Indeed, it wouldn't matter if it were the "Osama bin Laden Mosque," located as close as physically possible to where the World Trade Center stood, preaching every day about the vileness and treachery of the American infidels. In that case, Park51 would be a deliberate provocation, like the attempts
by neo-Nazis in the 1970s to march through Skokie, a Chicago suburb that was home to many Holocaust survivors. Americans, you say you're tolerant? Tolerate this
Park51 is supposed to be nothing like Nazis marching in Skokie. Its defenders say
it represents a "vision of interfaith harmony." Its developer says
, "we know the best way to start a conversation is by extending a hand." These are relevant considerations if we are supposed to make a distinction, as President Obama did by the time he finished expressing his thinking on Park51 last weekend, between the right
to build Park51 and the wisdom
of exercising that right in that particular way, and place.
It is, therefor, legitimate to inquire about the vision of interfaith harmony Park51 will represent, rather than accept the characterizations advanced by the project's defenders as dispositive. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the sponsor of Cordoba House, Park51's mosque and Islamic center, has at least some notions of interfaith relations that are not self-evidently harmonious. Rauf's repudiation
of the 9/11 attacks, delivered in a 2001 television interview, was notably equivocal: "I wouldn't say that the United States deserved what happened, but the
United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened." Rauf has had almost nine years to retract or clarify those remarks, and un-blame the victim. If he has ever done so it is a remarkably well-kept secret, given that it would be so politically useful.
Moreover, if Park51's developers and defenders sincerely want the project to reconcile Muslims and non-Muslims, the undeniable fact that lots of Americans consider the project a gratuitous provocation cannot be dismissed as unimportant, or ascribed to bigotry and intolerance. The "rights-ization" of the debate over Park51 is, for those purposes, exactly the wrong approach. Defenders of Park51 who conflate
the most strident opponents of the project with all
opposition to it, thereby denying that there are any
legitimate arguments or respectable sentiments against Park51, are guaranteeing that the whole endeavor will lose friends. As Micheal Tomasky recently conceded
, the argument that liberals have erred by framing the Park51 debate entirely in terms of rights and tolerance, leaving no room for the consideration of community norms, is "not wrong." For them to continue to insist that those who consider Park51 an affront should simply accede to the idea that First Amendment rights trump all competing political considerations, as the Skokie residents were told they must do 30 years ago, is . . . not wise.