There isn’t a great deal of sense to any of the arguments against the Cordoba Initiative and its attempt to establish an Islamic Cultural Centre two blocks away from Ground Zero. The proposal has already elicited yet another unprovoked assault on the English language from Sarah Palin (‘refudiate’ anyone?), who modestly compared her prowess for word coinage with Shakespeare himself, while neglecting to mention his mastery of rhythm, the depth of his characterisation and his astute political insights. Meanwhile, most of the front-runners in the GOP have made their statements against what they insist on calling a mosque, each endeavouring to outdo the other in shameless religious chauvinism.
But who would have expected an organisation that was explicitly established to combat religious and ethnic bigotry to tacitly endorse the positions of Palin, Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani? As Peter Beinart has usefully explained, the Anti-Defamation League has a long history, stretching back to the unjust trial and lynching of the Jewish-American businessman Leo Frank in 1913. The organisation was formed on the understanding that “if bigotry was indivisible, then anti-bigotry was indivisible too” and while the principle focus was on combating anti-Semitism, the founders refused to see that struggle as detachable from the struggle for African-American rights. But in advising the proponents of the Islamic Centre to find another location, the ADL explained to those of us who had been entertaining the usual liberal delusions, that this is not a question of rights but of ‘what is right’.
When the delicate question to be pondered is one of taste, perhaps the erosion of rights ought not to bother us too much. But did we not interpret the attack on the World Trade Centre as an attack on our freedom(s)? Was it not the case that we cherished our way of life precisely because we viewed the defence of rights as right? When Gingrich argues that the Islamic Cultural Centre should only be built when Saudi Arabia starts accepting the installation of churches and synagogues, is he really interested in spreading Enlightenment values to the Arabian Peninsula? The accidental logic of his contrast suggests instead that the Saudi model is actually one worth pursuing: but then any attempt to make a rational case for intolerance will cause any line of reasoning to wobble beyond comprehension. Unless, of course, you dispense with rationality altogether.
And this was the surprising position taken by the ADL’s director, Abe Foxman, who explained to us that “survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational. Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.” Who cannot accept the irrational feelings of those who have suffered from such an appalling history of persecution? But while the ADL seeks to prevent ‘the defamation of the Jewish people’ by ‘appeals to reason and conscience and, if necessary, to the law’, for Foxman to suggest that irrational feelings can serve as the basis for public ‘positions’ is to abjure reason and the law and to ignore the appeals of conscience. Foxman’s cheap and unhistorical invocation of the past is premised upon a wilful misunderstanding of the Holocaust and its universal significance that is breathtakingly audacious. Any number of coarse and divisive agendas would be well served by this sinuous legitimising of bigotry that invokes the ultimate and most violent expression of such instincts. Throughout America, there are many who are neither survivors of the Holocaust, nor the relatives of those who died on 9/11, who have protested the building of mosques and community centres where no such symbolic resonance inheres. Emboldened by the hostile stances taken by national figureheads, they care very little that there were also Muslim victims of the terrorist attacks: according to the worldview of these protestors, innocence has taken sides. Given this depressing public context, where the First Amendment of the Constitution is being openly challenged, Foxman’s words were either embarrassingly naïve or spoken in bad faith. And of course bad faith was what got us into this mess.
The hostile reception of the Cordoba Initiative has unfortunate relevance to all of us who purport to live in free societies. Last year saw the passing of a referendum banning the construction of minarets in Switzerland. Other nations, including Denmark and the Netherlands, have witnessed the rise of Far Right parties who seek to foment contempt and mistrust of the mythical continent of Eurabia. This fetid ambience of fear, mistrust and rhetorical belligerence that has resulted makes the position of the ADL all the more infuriating. Foxman has defended his stance by arguing that his organisation’s long-established support for religious pluralism underscores the sincerity of his argument. But the ADL’s stance is frustrating precisely because of that record and not in spite of it. Does Foxman really wish to stand with someone like Geert Wilders, the populist Dutch politician who has called for Islam to be effectively outlawed and who recently travelled to New York to join in the protests against the ‘mosque’? Religious and ethnic minorities ought to offer each other mutual support and counsel on any number of issues, whether these relate to legislation that battles discrimination, or programmes that expand the scope of dialogue and inclusion. There is a noble American tradition of this sort of collaboration, which effloresced during the 1960s and 70s with the movements for African-American Civil Rights and Gay Pride. Both revitalised the form of political activism, encompassing unlikely combinations of individuals and groups, connecting local with national concerns and harvesting substantial achievements which are no less impressive today for remaining precarious.
It should be noted that some of that spirit survives today. There have been numerous Jewish, Christian and Muslim organisations, whose representatives flanked Mayor Bloomberg as he made his sonorous defence of religious freedom at the end of July, but they have been left to lament the pettiness that has infected the public sphere. As Rabbi Irwin Kula, President of the National Jewish Centre for Learning and Leadership, noted with exasperation, “We ask the moderate leaders of the Muslim community to step forward, and when one of them does, he is treated with suspicion.” Minorities often bear the weight of a society’s frustration, all the more so when domestic problems, like an economic downturn, combine with the external pressures of a perceived threat. Muslims and Jews have both been seen as Fifth Columnists in North America and Europe, as subversive presences in our societies. Hussein Ibish has persuasively argued that much of the writing about Islam and American Muslims unpleasantly echoes the persistent refrains and motifs that were used against Jews in the 1920s and 1930s. Then, the spectre of Communism was haunting a country that had been recently ravaged by economic crisis and social division, and Jews were widely perceived as the resident aliens who imported the foreign menace.
Beyond this shared heritage of prejudice, there is far more which unites than divides Muslims and Jews living in the West. All of us, religious believers of whatever persuasion and non-believers alike, share the same economy, the same political institutions and the same cultural outlets, albeit with unequal degrees of access. Smoothing over these inequalities which might have something to do with discrimination, or geographical location, or income, is work for progressives, a label that, in the United Kingdom at least, has been pursued across the party political spectrum. But even over here the progressive agenda has become splintered across the last decade and there is now an urgent need to reconstitute the public sphere around those questions which affect us all. When the English Defence League emerged last year, there were publications that defended it as an unlikely champion of feminism in the face of Islamist wrath. Not only do such insinuations presume an inflated prevalence of fundamentalist sentiment, they also completely disregard the dynamics of a minority community that is dispersed among numerous different national and regional cultures. Why not draw attention to a more plausible civil society movement as British Muslims for Secular Democracy or Progressive British Muslims? Such organisations work as admirable bridge-builders, but only in the context of far more ambitious works of cultural engineering.
The sad truth is that we have projected the battle lines of foreign conflicts onto our civil societies and one result has been to make the claims of Muslim and Jewish communities appear as if they are mutually exclusive or in competition with each other. In a recent interview with Benny Morris, Shimon Peres deplored the British attitude towards Israel, arguing that “there are several million Muslim voters, and for many members of parliament, that's the difference between getting elected and not getting elected.” There are, in fact, fewer than 1.6 million Muslims in this country and their demographic presence did nothing to prevent the Blair government from declaring war against Afghanistan or Iraq, or lending tacit moral support to Israel’s war on Lebanon in 2006. While the British press has indignantly pointed to the support of successive governments for Israel, there has been little mention of this casual exaggeration of what Peres calls a ‘pro-Arab’ agenda.
On the other hand, many Jews living in Europe feel understandably alienated by a strand of bien pensant sentiment which seeks to cast Israel in a long tradition of historic villainy, without understanding either the progressive and secular roots of Zionism, that continue to nourish many living in the Diaspora, or the belligerent racism of those nations and terrorist organisations which seek to exploit the crisis. Holding robust opinions and pursuing activism on these matters need not preclude sensitivity towards other communities, particularly when they are also in need of support. While Jack Straw has successfully retained his parliamentary seat over the last two elections despite his close association with Blair’s wars and there being a large Muslim community in his Blackburn constituency, the Jewish MP Oona King lost an ill-tempered electoral campaign against George Galloway that was marred by the expression of anti-Semitic sentiments from within the local Muslim community.
And yet there is at least one salient lesson to be drawn from the seemingly intractable tragedy of the Middle East. It has often been remarked of successive Israeli and Palestinian delegations that they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. If it proves difficult for governments in the Middle East to negotiate compromises, those of us living outside of the region should never spurn the chance to learn more about each others’ histories, cultures and experiences. When asked to elaborate on his support for liberal Zionism, Beinart, one of the more responsible public intellectuals around, detailed his family’s history among the precarious Jewish communities of Africa, before affirming, “I really believe that Jews (…) need a Jewish state to go to in time of need (…) I’m close enough to people who’ve still got their bags packed”. Now that is a sentiment which should resonate with progressives and all of us who are descended from migrants, even if we might not assent to the position he holds.
Those seemingly fixed positions in fact conceal sympathies which we all share but we need to be able to facilitate the exchange of these and other experiences to prevent our own societies from descending into mistrust and division. But what chance is there for that right now? According to a great many conservative and liberal commentators, Muslims are to be considered guilty until proven innocent. This was George Orwell’s famously unattainable criterion for sainthood. To apply it to members of a religious minority who merely wish to participate in civil society seems profane, even by the standards of a secularist. Foxman has stated that “to make this a test of whether one supports religious freedom or is stereotyping Muslims is to engage in demagoguery”, but he is wrong. If he is not, then the First Amendment is sheer pedantry, and mob hysteria is productive debate. The truth is that the demagoguery was introduced by those who revel in the circulation of prejudice and derive advantages from its infiltration through society. And it is at such moments that heartening and emboldening gestures of solidarity are most urgently required.