From the New Yorker
A couple of weeks before the last election, the Republican nominees for President and Vice-President granted a joint interview to Brian Williams, of NBC. “Governor,” he asked, turning to the distaff half of the ticket, “what is an élite? Who is a member of the élite?” Sarah Palin replied, “Anyone who thinks that they are, I guess, better than anyone else—that’s my definition of élitism.” “It’s not geography?” Williams pursued. “Of course not,” she said. The ticket’s other half blinked and smiled a tight smile. John McCain had something to say.
MCCAIN: I know where a lot of them live.
WILLIAMS: Where’s that?
MCCAIN: Well, in our nation’s capital and New York City. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived there.
These élitists, he went on to explain, “think that they can dictate what they believe to America rather than let Americans decide for themselves.”
It was nice of Palin not to go all geographical on us back then. She has forgotten her patron’s admonition about Americans letting other Americans decide for themselves, but at least she says please, or its Twitter equivalent. In a follow-up to her quickly famous, quickly removed “pls refudiate” tweet, she tweeted, “Peaceful New Yorkers, pls refute the Ground Zero mosque plan if you believe catastrophic pain caused @ Twin Towers site is too raw, too real.” Sic, sic, sic.
Ah, the “Ground Zero mosque.” Well, for a start, it won’t be at Ground Zero. It’ll be on Park Place, two blocks north of the World Trade Center site (from which it will not be visible), in a neighborhood ajumble with restaurants, shops (electronics, porn, you name it), churches, office cubes, and the rest of the New York mishmash. Park51, as it is to be called, will have a large Islamic “prayer room,” which presumably qualifies as a mosque. But the rest of the building will be devoted to classrooms, an auditorium, galleries, a restaurant, a memorial to the victims of September 11, 2001, and a swimming pool and gym. Its sponsors envision something like the 92nd Street Y—a Y.M.I.A., you might say, open to all, including persons of the C. and H. persuasions.
Like many New Yorkers, the people in charge of Park51, a married couple, are from somewhere else—he from Kuwait, she from Kashmir. Feisal Abdul Rauf is a Columbia grad. He has been the imam of a mosque in Tribeca for close to thirty years. He is the author of a book called “What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America.” He is a vice-chair of the Interfaith Center of New York. “My colleagues and I are the anti-terrorists,” he wrote recently—in the Daily News, no less. He denounces terrorism in general and the 9/11 attacks in particular, often and at length. The F.B.I. tapped him to conduct “sensitivity training” for agents and cops. His wife, Daisy Khan, runs the American Society for Muslim Advancement, which she co-founded with him. It promotes “cultural and religious harmony through interfaith collaboration, youth and women’s empowerment, and arts and cultural exchange.”
Pretty scary. Leading the pack of scaredy-cats, along with Palin, was her fellow Presidential mentionee Newt Gingrich, a leading intellectual light of the Republican Party. According to Gingrich, Park51 is “an assertion of Islamist triumphalism,” part of “an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.” Those who think it’s O.K. are “apologists for radical Islamist hypocrisy” who “argue that we have to allow the construction of this mosque in order to prove America’s commitment to religious liberty.” Gingrich argues for proving our devotion to religious liberty by taking it hostage: “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.”
Not all the project’s opponents have embraced the Gingrichian apocalypse. Most, like Palin, have appealed to hurt feelings—“especially the anguish of the families and friends of those who were killed on September 11, 2001,” in the words of a statement issued by the Anti-Defamation League, the venerable Jewish civil-rights organization, which (disgracefully, and in opposition to local Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan and the U.J.A.-Federation of New York) takes the Palin line. There are many 9/11 families who feel differently, and just as strongly. Defending the A.D.L.’s position, its national director, Abraham H. Foxman, reflexively likened the families—the anti-Park51 ones, that is—to Holocaust survivors: “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would characterize as irrational or bigoted.” No doubt. But, as a guide to public policy, anguish is hardly better than bigotry. Nor is it an entitlement to abandon rationality itself.
Where the “Ground Zero mosque” is concerned, opposition is roughly proportional to distance, even in New York. According to a recent poll, Manhattanites are mostly for it, Staten Islanders mostly against. Community Board No. 1 endorsed it, twenty-nine to one. That’s the council that represents a corner of Manhattan that includes both Park51 and the 9/11 site—and us, too, in the not too distant future. The New Yorker is set to move from 4 Times Square to 1 World Trade Center, once it gets built. Opinion here is divided, depending on whether one’s subway ride will be longer or shorter. No one has a problem with Park51.
Last Tuesday, after the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, in a unanimous vote, gave Park51 a green light, Mayor Michael Bloomberg celebrated the occasion with a speech that, in its gruff eloquence, will be remembered as a high point in his distinguished tenure. “We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors,” he said.
That’s life. And it’s part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11.
That should have been the end of it, but it isn’t. The midterm elections loom. Locally, partisanship—Republican partisanship, to be specific—trumps propinquity. The two leading Republican candidates for governor of New York have made the “Ground Zero mosque” an issue, urged on by Rudy Giuliani, the ex-mayor, and by George Pataki, the ex-governor. Nationally, opposition to Park51 is rapidly becoming a matter of Republican discipline and conservative orthodoxy. By the end of last week, John McCain had joined his former running mate’s chorus. (“Obviously my opinion is that I’m opposed to it.”)
In a famous letter—the one that holds that the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens”—George Washington offered a benediction:
May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.Lower Manhattan is a little short on vines and fig trees nowadays, though there are some excellent wine bars. Washington’s point remains. His letter was addressed to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island. But, as he knew, Muslims are Abraham’s children, too. By the McCain standard, George Washington was a three-time loser: as President, he lived in New York City; the nation’s capital bears his name; and, even by the standards of his time, he was an élitist. Nevertheless: he was right. ♦
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