Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Mosque on Park Place

More than any other holiday, Sukkot represents the idea of Israel not being an isolated nation concerned only with its only affairs—the am levadad yishkon of Balaam’s vision—but a people that lives in harmony with the family of nations not by ignoring the world but by embracing its place in the larger mosaic of peoples and cultures. Indeed, the Talmud itself interprets the seventy sacrificial bulls that were offered up in ancient times in the Temple during Sukkot were meant to bring merit to the nations of the world. (The nations of the world were traditionally supposed to number seventy.) And the idea has its own biblical antecedent as well: there is a vision at the end of the Book of Zachariah in which the prophet looks to the end of time and imagines the nations of the world, finally possessed of faith in the one God, coming to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot together with the Jewish people.

Where this specific aspect of Sukkot has its origin, who knows? Maybe it has to do with the lulav and etrog being representative of the bounty of the world or with the sukkah itself obliging the faithful to leave their homes and spend some serious time outdoors and in the world. Or maybe it has to do with the onset of the rainy season in Israel and the sense that the concept of weather itself unites the nations of the world, or should unite them, in a common sense of responsible stewardship for the world we all inhabit together. But regardless of the real reason, the bottom line is that Sukkot has a certain universalist feel to it that is distinctly less prominent at other festive times of the year.

All that being the case, perhaps Sukkot is just the right time of year for us to revisit the issue of the mosque the Muslim community intends to build on Park Place in lower Manhattan. I’ve lost track of how many op-ed pieces on the topic I’ve read in the last few weeks, but the very fact that something that might otherwise have been an innocuous building project has garnered this kind of attention both from the media and the public is itself something worth considering in its own right. Clearly, the proposal has touched a nerve! And so I’d like to suggest we use this festival of Jewish universalism to ask ourselves where we stand on the matter.

We could argue, not at all unreasonably, that there should not be anything to discuss. One of the hallmarks of American democracy, after all, is precisely that citizens do not need the permission of the government to exercise their civil rights. In that regard, I am reminded of the controversy that dogged the National Voting Rights Act of 1965 before President Johnson was finally able to sign it into law. That legislation was precisely designed to prevent individual states from erecting any barriers that might serve to prevent citizens from voting in national elections. Indeed, the concept was specifically that the right to vote, being among the most basic rights of the citizenry in any democracy, can therefore never be subject to artificial restrictions or requirements that exist solely to prevent citizens from exercising their franchise. We have, I think, moved so far down the road from where we were in 1965 that the right of citizens to vote without first having to get the government’s permission to do so now seems so basic as hardly to require defending at all. And surely all of us feel the same way about freedom of religion, that it may never be made dependent on permission would-be worshipers are required to solicit from the government. That doesn’t mean, of course, that every building proposal for a house of worship has to be automatically approved. But it does mean that legally defensible opposition to any house of worship being built must be rooted in factors unrelated to the basic right of the people involved to worship as they please. This should be obvious to all Americans, but I think it should be especially obvious to Jewish citizens. We, after all, know all too well what it means for the future of Judaism anywhere when the Jewish population is suddenly obliged by law to seek the government’s permission to build a synagogue or a mikveh or to open a kosher abattoir. In any event, it can surely never be in our best interests to see the basic
civil rights of citizens eroded even slightly, let alone grievously.

Two weeks ago, I read the essay published on the Op-Ed page of the Times by the imam who is the public face of the effort to build the mosque on Park Place, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Entitled “Building on Faith,” it is a piece that everybody should read and digest. (You can find it easily at www.newyorktimes.com just by typing the words “building on faith” into the search box at the top of the screen.) In it, of course, the imam says exactly what all Americans want to hear from Muslim leaders: that the mosque he is proposing to build will be a symbol of interfaith harmony, that it will offer an opportunity for people of all religions to gather together and learn about each other’s traditions, that it will provide a space that will be devoted to building bridges between different faith and ethnic groups. It is an inspiring essay, but just as I was reading it I suddenly saw the whole controversy regarding the mosque differently than I had previously…and as having something far more important to say about the way Americans think about religion than specifically about the way they feel about civil rights.

Imam Rauf’s essay could not be more encouraging. Here, finally, is a Muslim leader prepared to renounce and denounce terrorism, who speaks patriotically about the United States as his country (Rauf is an immigrant from Egypt), who is prepared to create places for Jews and Christians to conduct their own religion-specific worship services within his mosque. The only flaw in all of this is the problem of knowing whom to believe. To listen to Imam Rauf, we get the sense that Islam is a peaceful faith and that the people who perpetrated the crimes of 9/11 were renegades who were merely using Islam to justify their murderous hatred of the West. That, of course, is precisely what we all want to think! But it is also so, of course, that there are millions of Muslims who insist that Al-Qaida has it right and that the Taliban does, that Muslims are called upon by their faith to wage war on the world until all infidels are brought one way or the other to embrace Islam, that Islam and the West are already at war. Such people see nothing wrong with terrorism if that is the best way of advancing their aims and eventually of reaching their goals. And I have no doubt what such people think of Feisal Abdul Rauf: that he is the supreme example of whatever the correct term for a Muslim Uncle Tom would be, that he exemplifies the Western Muslim so eager to please the people among whom he lives that he is prepared to abandon the most essential lessons of his faith for the sake of appearing peaceful and unthreatening to his neighbors.

And that, I have come to think, is where the real issue surrounding this mosque lies. Most Americans are not professors of comparative religion or experts in Islam. We see an Islamic world before us that is divided sharply in two, a world in which two worldviews that feel diametrically opposed to each other both claim to be the “real” version of Islam that the faithful Muslim should embrace. We are drawn to want to believe the side that is proffering the version of Islam that we personally find the most appealing. But how self-serving is that approach? In the end, most of us aren’t sure what we think.

Of course, the same could be said of our Jewish world—that in our world there are both fundamentalist extremists insisting that their xenophobic, fanaticized version of Judaism is the authentic version of our faith and also thoughtful, tolerant, non-fundamentalists eager to insist that their kinder, more liberal, and less extreme version of Judaism is the real thing bequeathed to modern Jews by their forebears. And we have all known the frustration of seeing well-meaning non-Jews simply unable to decide which school of thought represents “authentic” Judaism, as opposed to some version of Judaism willed into existence by people who are primarily interested in using religion to buttress priorly held convictions, including political convictions, that they feel the need to anchor in something more respectable than their own wishes about the way things should be in the world.

In the end, I think our best interests are served by helping the Imam Raufs of the world to foster the version of Islam they have embraced. Indeed, we would only be serving our own best interests, both as Jews and as Americans, not merely to tolerate the Muslims in our midst but to embrace those who seek to transform their faith into the kind of religion that can co-exist in a world that will only endure if the peoples in it embrace the idea of living together in some sort of reasonable harmony. Jews have been laboring for centuries to develop a version of our faith that is tolerant, broad-minded, and respectful of others. Can Islam do the same? That, I suppose, remains to be seen…but it’s hard to imagine in what sense we would be acting wisely or in our own interests not to foster the imam’s efforts to open his Cordoba House on Park Place, and then to hold him to his promise that his house be a house of prayer for all people.

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