I have been trying hard to find an explanation for the intense controversy surrounding the Cordoba Initiative, whereby 71 percent of Americans oppose the construction of an Islamic Center and a Mosque next to Ground Zero. I cannot agree with the theory that such broad resistance represents Islamophobic sentiments, nor that it is a product of a recent “right wing” blitz against one Imam or another.
Americans are neither bigots, nor gullible.
Deep sensitivity to the families of 9/11 victims was cited as yet another explanation, but, this, too, does not answer the core question. If one accepts that the 19 fanatics who flew planes into the Twin Towers were merely fake Muslims who, by their very act, proved themselves acting against the tenets of “true Islam,” then building a Mosque at Ground Zero should evoke no emotion whatsoever; it should not be viewed differently than, say, building a church, a community center or a druid shrine.
A more realistic explanation is that most Americans do not buy the 19-fanatics story, but view the 9/11 assault as a product of an anti-American ideology that, for good and bad reasons, has found a fertile breeding ground in the hearts and minds of many Muslim youngsters who see their Muslim identity inextricably tied with anti-Americanism.
The Ground Zero Mosque is being equated with that ideology, not with the faith or religious practices it aims to house. Public objection to the mosque thus represents a vote of no confidence in mainstream American Muslim leadership which, on the one hand, refuses to acknowledge the alarming dimension that anti-Americanism has taken in their community and, paradoxically, blames America for creating it.
American Muslim leadership has had nine years to build up trust by taking proactive steps against the spread of anti-American terror-breeding ideologies, here and abroad. Evidently, however, a sizable segment of the American public is not convinced that this leadership is doing an effective job of confidence building.
In public, Muslim spokespersons praise America as the best country for Muslims to live in and practice their faith. But in sermons, speeches, rallies, classrooms, prisons, conferences and books sold at those conferences, the narrative is often different. There, Noam Chomsky’s conspiracy theory is the dominant paradigm, and America’s foreign policy is one long chain of “crimes” against humanity, especially against Muslims. Affirmation of these conspiratorial theories sends mixed messages to young Muslims, engendering anger and helplessness: America and Israel are the first to be blamed for Muslim failings, sufferings and violence. Terrorist acts, whenever condemned, are immediately “contextually explicated” (to quote Tariq Ramadan), Spiritual legitimizers of suicide bombings (e.g, Shaikh Yusuf Qaradawi of Qatar) are revered beyond criticism, Hamas and Hezbollah are permanently shielded from the label of “terrorist,” Overall, the message that emerges from this discourse is implicit, but can hardly be missed: When Muslim grievance is at question, America is the culprit and violence is justified, if not obligatory.
True, we have not helped Muslims in the confidence-building process. Treating home-grown terror acts as isolated incidents of psychological disturbances while denying their ideological roots has given American Muslim leaders the illusion that they can achieve unreserved public acceptance without engaging in serious introspection and responsibility sharing for allowing victimhood, anger and entitlement to spawn such acts. Opponents fear the construction of the Ground-Zero Mosque would further prolong this illusion and thus impede, rather than promote healing and reconciliation.
If I were New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg I would reassert Muslims’ right to build the Islamic Center and the Mosque, but I would expend the same energy, not one iota less, trying to convince them to consider an alternative project: a community-run multi-faith center in honor of the 9/11 victims. Given the current intensity of emotions, fellow Muslim Americans will benefit more from co-ownership of consensual projects than sole ownership of confrontational projects.
Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, named after his son. He is a co-editor of “I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl (Jewish Light, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award. A preliminary version of this text was previously published in the Jerusalem Post.