Whose Place Is It Then?

By Mike Dorf

My post yesterday noted how at least a sizable fraction of the participants in the public discussion of the planned Islamic Center near ground zero have come to accept that the people proposing to build the Center have a right to do so.  Now the question is whether they ought to do so or whether they ought instead to build somewhere else.  Like the President, I don't have a view on that question.  I share the sense of some of the commentators that there doesn't seem to be any good reason for people to be offended by the planned Center.  And, as I noted in my comment on yesterday's post, I think anti-Muslim prejudice likely accounts for most of the offense.

That's not to say everyone who opposes the Cultural Center is acting out of prejudice.  E.g., Charles Krauthammer likened the building of the Islamic Center to the building of a Japanese Cultural Center at Pearl Harbor, a disney park at Manassas, or a convent at Auschwitz, on the ground that to each of these groups it should be said "This is not your place."  But while I don't doubt the sincerity of the non-crazy opposition, I don't think that the argument works.

President George W. Bush got a great many things about the response to 9/11 wrong but the one piece he got right was his consistent (albeit not so successful) effort to make clear that the U.S. was attacked by people acting in the name of Islam, not by Islam itself.  And even Krauthammer says that Al Q'aeda represents only a minority strain of Islam. So why is the vicinity of Ground Zero not the "place" of Muslims who preach tolerance and mutual understanding?

I suppose it's possible that the people opposing the construction of the Islamic Center would oppose the construction of any new religious facility near ground zero--but in fact no one appears to take that position, which makes no sense in any event.  Why would the construction of a church or synagogue near ground zero be offensive?  But if no offense would be given by a church or synagogue, then why would an Islamic Center be offensive?  The Pearl Harbor analogy--which has been promoted by others besides Krauthammer--is revealing,  Presumably a Japanese cultural center at Pearl Harbor would be offensive (or would have been offensive 65 years ago) because the Empire of Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor.  But the analogy only works if one then says that Islam attacked the United States on 9/11.

This explains why many of the critics of Park51 have characterized it as trafficking in "radical Islam" or have pointed to Saudi financing for the center.  Radical Islam is an umbrella term that can encompass Al Q'aeda, while Saudi Arabia produced all but one of the 9/11 hijackers.  There's perhaps something to this line of argument, though much less than meets the eye.

Thus, when Newt Gingrich (straddling the line between the crazy right and the sane-but-craven-say-anything-right) says that Park21/Cordoba House should not be permitted because there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia, he both draws attention to the Saudi connection and shows that he's not really making the claim that ground zero is not the right place for an Islamic Cultural Center.  The logical inference to draw from Gingrich's invocation of Saudi Arabia's exclusion of non-Islamic houses of worship is that no mosques should be allowed anywhere in America.  And again, it's hard to shake the feeling that that's the sentiment underlying most of the opposition.