Who Let The Dogs Out?

It is painful for me to read my old friend Christopher Caldwell's screed against the Cordoba Initiative, a complex two blocks from Ground Zero which will include a mosque within it. Essentially, Chris believes that Islam is an exception to the First Amendment's protection of religious faith. Here's his argument:

Including Islam within the fold of traditional western religious tolerance is not business-as-usual. It is an experiment. Our Lockean ideas of religious tolerance had their origins in the 16th century (the peace of Augsburg) and the 17th (the peace of Westphalia). Those understandings regulated relations between Christian sects and were steadily liberalised. Judaism later proved assimilable into this system in the US, but not, to put it mildly, everywhere in the west.

Islam – which is, like Christianity but unlike contemporary Judaism, an evangelising and expansionist religion – is a bigger challenge. A radical school of it views the US as its main enemy. Because that school is amply funded by Arabian oil, there is a standing fear that radicals will capture any large international project involving Islam, no matter how good its original intentions.

Notice, as Andrew Sprung does, the guilt by association. Regardless of the nature of a particular mosque, even the most peaceful, mainstream and American Muslim community is now an inherent potential terror threat. There is a "fear" that any mosque could be coopted by Wahhabist money. Therefore, no mosques are safe.

This, of course, is exactly the argument that was made about Catholicism in England (and by Locke in his famous Letter!) in the sixteen and seventeenth centuries - particularly after the Gunpowder Plot (England's foiled 9/11 of 1605). The argument was that because Catholics owed obedience to a foreign ruler, the Pope, they were not so much a religion as a cult allied to a foreign force. For the Vatican, read the House of Saud.

And, yes, many Protestants of the day did regard Catholicism as a cult - and yes one "radical school" within it nearly lew up the Houses of Parliament. The religious wars that followed kept Catholics out of British public life for centuries; fomented conflict and hatred that still burns on in places like Northern Ireland, centuries later; and this precedent was clearly in the Founders' minds when they established the First Amendment. We have, in other words, been here before. And we have a debate between those who believe that the West is too weak to stand up to Islam and those of us who believe that if the West sticks to our core values, we will be able in the end both to defang Jihadism and help nurture Islam into modernity and prove by our actions that we are not hostile to Islam as such. In fact, I would argue with George W. Bush, that not making this distinction, conflating all of Islam with al Qaeda and Wahhabism, is a gift to bin Laden. The neoconservative right have unwittingly empowered al Qaeda more effectively than al Qaeda could ever have done on its own.

I find it preposterous and self-defeating to describe one of the three great monotheisms in human civilization as a cult that cannot be integrated into Western ideas of religious freedom. Moreover, I think the attempt to stigmatize, isolate and collectively punish all American Muslims as all potential Fifth Columnists is a McCarthyite move that will profoundly weaken our ability to isolate the extremists, appeal to the middle and survive this upsurge in medieval murderousness that is the essence of al Qaeda.

One side in this country clearly wants a war of religion. They have been given permission by their leaders, Gingrich and Palin and Peretz and Caldwell and the bigots at the ADL. And so we should not be surprised when the following begins to happen ... and spreads like wildfire:

At one time, neighbors who did not want mosques in their backyards said their concerns were over traffic, parking and noise the same reasons they might object to a church or a synagogue. But now the gloves are off.

In all of the recent conflicts, opponents have said their problem is Islam itself. They quote passages from the Koran and argue that even the most Americanized Muslim secretly wants to replace the Constitution with Islamic Shariah law.... In late June, in Temecula, Calif., members of a local Tea Party group took dogs and picket signs to Friday prayers at a mosque that is seeking to build a new worship center on a vacant lot nearby.

I believe history shows that such wars are extraordinarily dangerous, destructive and hostile to faith. Another side sees this conflict as a war for religious freedom. As we watch the GOP become a religious party bent on imposing its religious views on civil society and determined to wage war against Islamic countries as a crusade to prove our own superiority, it feels very Weimar to me.

But what's most Weimar about all of this is the role of the intellectuals in aiding and abetting this ugliness, in the deeply hidden contempt for the democratic West that lies within the neoconservative project. They believe in one thing: war. And they are doing all they can to expand and provoke it.