The Cordoba House: Bowing to Bigotry Can Never Be Right

In recent weeks, a number of groups have shown their support for the proposed Cordoba House/Park51 Islamic Cultural Center – and some have vocally opposed it. Others – including Gov. Paterson, who offered state-owned property for the project – have called for it to be built elsewhere.

In particular, the ADL's recent statement saddens us. For an organization dedicated to fighting religious bigotry to play into the hands of those it purports to oppose is unfortunate at best and illogical at worst.

As the ADL correctly noted: "Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam.  The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong. But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right."

They're certainly correct about that: this is a question of what is right.  And what is right is to do due diligence investigating the project – as the Community Board has done – and, assuming there are no problems, to allow the construction of the so-called "ground zero mosque." (Which is neither a mosque – it's a cultural center that includes prayer space – nor at ground zero; it's several blocks away from the site. How far away would be far enough?)

The ADL itself acknowledges that Park51's founders have the right to build, that Park51 can send a positive message about Islam and that the bigotry of the attacks is wrong. Why, then, is its construction still problematic? The argument that seems to be driving the most vocal opponents is the bigoted trope that Muslims – all Muslims – represent terrorism.

So what is right?

What's right is to support peace-loving Muslims in their efforts to educate and improve relations between the West and the Islamic world. We cannot condemn Muslims for not speaking up post-9/11 and simultaneously excoriate them when they make an effort to do so.

What's right is to name and stare down religious bigotry wherever we find it, and to rise above it and recognize the citizenship and personhood of all people, regardless of where they worship.

What's right is to reject the idea that Muslims are necessarily equated with terrorism, and that an Islamic Center is nothing more than a painful reminder of a terrible day and not a beacon of hope for those dedicated to a peacefully plural society. Fair-minded Americans must stamp out the conflation of Muslim with terrorist, from whatever quarter it comes. There have been terrorists of all faiths and none. There are peaceworkers of all faiths and none.

What’s right is to remember that there are also 9/11 victims of all faiths and none, and to chalk up rejection of Park51 to the "sensitivities of the victims" overlooks the many Muslims who died both in the attacks and as first responders. Let us not forget that "Muslim" and "American" are not mutually exclusive categories. Comparing Park51 to a proposed convent built at Auschwitz, as the ADL did in an August 4th letter to the New York Times, conflates two very different locations: one which saw the targeting of a particular religious community, and another that saw the targeting of an entire country in all its diversity.

What's right is to be respectful but responsible. It is right to ask basic questions about Park51, including what funding sources it relies on. It is right to ask for details on a major building project that is adding new features to the neighborhood.

What's right is also to recognize that there are fair-minded people who are troubled by this project. The response, however, should not be to deny the project, but to explore what it is that we find troubling and to examine the assumptions that are driving our discomfort.

What's not right? Denying one group of Americans a basic right based on assumptions about how people will react. Condemning the entire project before it gets off the ground because of baseless stereotypes. Failing to recognize when our own biases are getting in the way of reasoned argument.

Bowing to bigotry can never be right.