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.
But it is also distressingly selective. Yes, there is a thousand year history of Muslim conquests of Christian lands. There is also a more recent history of conflict between Arab countries and the state of Israel, and the acts of terror perpetuated by those who claim the mantle of Islam to justify their deeds. The attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 seared American consciousness and are the immediate source of the emotional outrage that has greeted the planned center so close to the site of those brutal attacks. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have only augmented the intensity of these feelings.
Defenders of the project have called on American traditions of live-and-let-live, religious freedom, and diversity. They have also warned that the backlash against Park51 risks becoming a propaganda victory for al-Qaeda et al and used as proof that Americans really do hate Muslims. But in truth, the intense opposition draws from a deeper well than American history or 9/11. It taps into a Western meme familiar in Europe and woven through American culture, a visceral memory of war and conflict reified by cultural echoes of crusades and scimitars that we all seem to share.
But the history of relations between Muslims, Christians and Jews over the centuries is more than a litany of violence, discrimination and atrocities. To remember that history isn't to invalidate the very real episodes of violence and hatred but a history composed only of those is like reading every other page of a book. It so distorts and loses context that it becomes a false reading of the past, even if the particulars are quite true.
Take medieval Cordoba, which is the inspiration for the project. Ruled by a succession of Muslim dynasties between the 9th and 13th centuries, Iberian Cordoba was hailed as a center of religious toleration and intellectual and artistic creativity. Muslims, Christians and Jews employed by the ruling families translated works of ancient Greek philosophy and mathematics and thereby kept the wisdom of antiquity alive when it had all but disappeared in the Christian world. The "People of the Book" who compromised the three monotheisms and shared a common set of biblical stories lived not just in relative harmony. The interactions and co-mingling led to some of the great thinkers and philosophers, including Moses Maimonides, and Ibn Arabi in the 12th century. When Imam Rauf named his initiative, it was this legacy of Cordoba that he had in mind.
Critics have rightly pointed out that the rose-tinted vision of multicultural toleration elides the less noble moments in Cordoban history and Islam. Muslim Spain in the 11th century was marked by a pogrom against the Jews of nearby Grenada and by a succession of orthodox, theologically rigid dynasties in the 11th and 12th century that cohered to fight the Christian states of Leon and Castile in the northern part of modern-day Spain. Yes, Maimonides was born into this milieu, but he then fled to Egypt to serve at the court of Saladin because of fears of persecution. Throughout these centuries, while the majority Christian population was tolerated, Christians and Jews were decidedly second-class citizens, subject to a tax (as they were elsewhere in the Muslim world) and unable to ascend to the highest ranks of power.
In truth, neither picture is in itself accurate or complete. The ecumenical Islam that practiced a live-and-let-live theology and respected the minority views of the other "People of the Book" was on full display for much of these centuries, both in Spain and thousands of miles away in the heartland in Baghdad. But also present was the harsh, repressive, intolerant Islam that held in contempt those who did not embrace Muhammad as the final messenger and the Quran as the last testament. And because both are true, because both constitute core elements of a shared past, claiming that one or the other is "the truth" is - patently - false.
To add one more dimension, much of the history, including conflict, had little to do with creed, doctrine or what we now consider "religion." Dynasties fought among themselves and with others, sometime along religious lines and far more often not. Spain was riven by conflicts between Christian states and between Muslim states, and often presented a bewildering kaleidoscope of shifting alliances. At any given moment in the nearly 1500 years of relations between the faiths, it was more common for Christians and Jews in Muslim lands to live their lives relatively undisturbed by the ruling class, just as most Muslims did, tilling the soil, making their way, living, marrying, procreating, dying. Their stories are invisible, but they constitute a deeper legacy of the past than we realize.
The humdrum, the confusing, the complicated doesn't make for good polemic - or even for good history. Stories of injustice or nobility, of dynasties rising and collapsing, of searing injustices and cruelty or uplifting nobility, those are what we crave in our version of the past. And the world of politics and media, only those serve the political ends of partisans.
This isn't an American problem alone. Throughout the Muslim world, especially in the Arab lands, similar images prevail of a rapacious West intent on domination and destruction of Islam. But the planned Park51 touches that chord in America like few others. It speaks to history, yes, but to history assembled out of all context. There is a legacy of Christian war and violence; that should never be forgotten. But there is also a legacy of coexistence and cooperation, and that routinely is forgotten.
The desire of black-and-white simplicity erases the rich and difficult tapestry of life as it was. At times of insecurity and uncertainty, the history of conflict is regurgitated as it is now over the planned center. Heated partisans who would use the past to stir up passions have little use for nuance or for another perspective, and they are aided by the fact that too often, those who try to revive the legacy of coexistence downplay the violence and conflict that has so undeniably occurred.
This fight, now playing out over a structure in lower Manhattan, is an old one and a familiar one. Newt is in good company with past partisans and sounds little different from a Byzantine lord railing against the threat of Islam a thousand years ago. Muslims, Christians and Jews seem stubbornly stuck in this history of conflict, unable to integrate their own ability to live with one another without conflict and far more adept at recalling hurts, outrages and genuine threats. They forget the centuries under the Ottomans when Istanbul was every bit as multicultural, albeit under an autocracy that would be unbearably repressive by today's standards. They forget the centuries when Christian majorities lived in Muslim-ruled Syria and Egypt able to practice their religion and go about their lives. They forget that coexistence rarely meant respect or equality, but also rarely meant violence and animosity.
Meanwhile, a world uninterested and untroubled by this old conflict moves on. China cares little for these fights, and devotes it energies to its own emergence. The sheer time and energy we expend over these issues is time and energy not expended on the challenges of a changing world. And the more time we spend on arguing the past, the less we spend on constructing the future. The Park51 controversy is a repeat performance of a play that has been staged too many times; its passions burn and then dissipate, creating nothing. America will not find national strength in opposing it but it may lose even more in the fight.