On August 3, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Society voted unanimously not to extend landmark status to 45–47 Park Place, formerly a Burlington Coat Factory, now a partially-damaged warehouse. As far as municipal law goes, the decision was as mundane and routine as handing out a parking ticket or issuing a liquor license — the warehouse, with its commonplace architectural style, simply did not offer a compelling justification for landmark status. And yet to hear many conservatives talk about the matter, it seems as if the Landmarks Preservation Society has dealt a death blow to the American way of life. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich claims that it will “encourage [radical Islamists] in their challenge to our civilization,” and Arizona Senator Jon Kyl writes that it will “risk giving militant Islamists a victory to exploit.”
I enjoy a classically crafted building as much as the next man, but it seems to me that Gingrich and Kyl are taking their architecture-philia to an unhealthy extreme.
Of course, I’m being a bit facetious. No doubt Gingrich, Kyl, and others are up in arms not due to a love of the Italian Palazzo style, but because the shuttered warehouse is situated two blocks north of the World Trade Center site, and the owner of the building, Sharif El-Gamal, intends to demolish it to make way for a $100 million mosque and cultural center to be operated by the Cordoba Initiative. In the greater scheme of things however, the political assault on the proposed mosque would make more sense were it motivated by fashion or taste.
Initial opposition to the mosque was founded on the notion that the Cordoba Initiative was an extremist organization, funded by shadowy sources, intent on building the mosque as a statement of Islamic triumphalism.
It has become clear however, that the reality is nothing of the sort. To be sure, the Cordoba Initiative’s leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, had given some mild criticism of American foreign policy over the past decade (I’ve yet to meet a soul who hasn’t) but on the whole he is one of the most moderate Muslim leaders in America today. Rauf has been an imam in New York City for 27 years, he has publicly denounced Osama Bin Laden as an abomination, and he stands in every way opposed to the work of Al Qaeda. He does not hate America — he celebrates it as the quintessential proponent of his faith.
These truths have left the mosque’s opponents undeterred. Religious conservatives, having manufactured the controversy, now claim that the controversy is self-justified — if Imam Rauf’s intentions were pure, he would not continue to push for something that has engendered so much conflict, and if his intentions are not pure, we should not allow him to continue his plans. Such is the absurd catch-22 that the mosque now finds itself in.
In these depressing days, the American people have become pessimists. Amid economic recession and an uncertain geopolitical landscape, we question (as we have several times in our past) whether our ideals can withstand the challenges brought by other civilizations. We wonder if the mosque is symbolic of a weakness inherent in our system — if this is perhaps an example of our enemies exploiting our freedom and tolerance as a weapon against us.
It is hard to argue with a widow’s grief or a father’s anger. There is the understandable desire to build something on that hallowed site that is more directly defiant of those who attacked us — perhaps a predator drone factory with a mural of a smiling Uncle Sam placing his boot on the throat of Osama bin Laden.
But what the mosque’s opponents should understand is that the Cordoba Initiative is a uniquely powerful — and uniquely American — weapon in the war on terror, and that their proposed center represents the fiercest threat to our adversaries as any nation can muster.
The members of the Cordoba Initiative are not confederates of Al Qaeda — they are its sworn enemies. Indeed, they are its greatest fear. They share a religion with the 9/11 hijackers only in the most nominal sense. These are the men and women who are leading the assault on Al Qaeda’s ideology. As our soldiers hunt down and destroy Al Qaeda’s fighters and physical assets, Cordoba hunts down and destroys the ideas of Al Qaeda with equal prejudice. Our economic system gives us the men and materiel to keep radical Islam in check. Cordoba gives us the means to erase it completely, to banish it to the history books. Our military can threaten terrorists with biological death. Cordoba threatens them with the extinction of their very purpose in life. We will bury them. Cordoba will ensure that they are not mourned.
A free and tolerant society is not weak; it is resilient. Our liberty is not some white elephant; it is the font of our civilization’s power. It is no coincidence that the Cordoba Initiative fights on our side. By protecting the rights of every individual, our society finds itself able to enlist not just from the efforts of a single race, or creed, or caste, or class, or gender, but of the entire spectrum of peoples willing to live together in freedom.
This is our strength, it is the reason why, unlike those other great nations now resigned to the ash heap of history, our country shall triumph, and why the ideology of freedom that sustains us shall ultimately prevail over any strain of fear, tyranny, or hate. Our enemies will only ever challenge us with a fraction of man’s potential; we shall have its full measure at our disposal. We should have faith in this premise — that economic, political, and religious freedom is what allows us to recruit the energies of the broadest section of society — and draw from that faith an optimism in the eventual success of the cause of freedom.
To halt the Cordoba Initiative and their ambition to build a place of worship on properly zoned private property would mean sacrificing our most cherished ideals; it would twist our system of courts and due process away from its purpose as a safeguard of our natural rights and into just another tool in a war between civilizations. I can imagine nothing more self-destructive.
For 234 years, our republic has withstood its enemies, foreign and domestic, by tacking a course towards greater and greater freedom. We made sacrifices for our rights — staggeringly large sacrifices — not as a matter of mere preference, but as an existential necessity. We cannot, in this time of peril, forsake the principals that have formed the basis of our strength. The mosque must be built.