Cordoba House and Religious Freedom

by David Bromwich

When Nancy Pelosi said the power and money backing the anti-Muslim protests in New York and elsewhere should be investigated, she had in mind the simplest of political questions. Who benefits? In this case, who benefits from a spectacle of words and images that suggest that right-wing populism in America has now taken a definitively anti-Muslim tone? The message of these protests against more than one mosque is that the fight to defeat al Qaeda has become a war against Islam.

No American is helped by that change of view. It exposes us to an enlarged hostility from the Arab world, heated by suspicion and legitimate fear. The only people who stand to gain are those who have an interest in setting the United States against the Arab countries of the Middle East. Who would that be? Pelosi has sharper instincts than the other leaders of her party. Her distrust of the sudden prosperity of a “grassroots” movement has been borne out by Jane Mayer’s recent investigation of the funding of the Tea Party by the billionaire Koch brothers.

The worst damage of the crowd actions of the summer has come from the faintheartedness of those who knew better, but declined to denounce them. The crowd has been permitted to go on believing it is wrong for Muslims to do something the Constitution gives all Americans a right to do. How did this deformation of public feeling begin? The protests against Cordoba House shifted from a parochial to a national issue on the impetus of two statements. The first came from Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, on July 30. Foxman put the ADL on the record in sympathy with the protest against the planned community center and mosque. His statement conceded the right of the planners, but defended the prejudice, that is, the rooted feelings of the non-Muslims in this case, regardless of reason, right, or law.

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