Ordinarily, history pushes us along in a steady current toward the future, but once in a while it creates a vicious undertow that threatens to pull us under and away. The gusts churned up by our talking elite this week seem to be creating just such a displacement, in that the airwaves are filled with the ramifications of the last Administration: 9/11, Iraq, Katrina.
Were it not for the events of September 11, 2001, nobody would care that Soho Properties wanted to buy a building on Park Place once housing an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory and convert it to an Islamic cultural center. After all, a lot of Muslims live and work in lower Manhattan, and initial plans were well received by the locals.
The front man for the Cordoba Initiative was no wild-eyed imam. Feisal Rauf, a Columbia grad, had actually worked for the State Department in the Middle East in the rarefied field of Muslim outreach, trying to explain the Bush Administration’s military machinations in Iraq and Afghanistan as a manifestation of positive concern. He stood up for the Bushies and must have assumed they’d return the favor when he began touting his new project.
He didn’t reckon with what the internet had to say.
In May of this year, led by blogger Pam Geller, bandwidth started filling with invective against what was now called, with the right’s usual sure gift for branding, “the Ground Zero Mosque.”
The Islamic cultural center was characterized as, at best, an affront to the memory of those who died at the WTC and, at worst, a breeding ground for a new generation of America-hating Mohammedans who would wreak further vengeance upon innocent infidels, probably with gelignite sewn into the linings of jackets once sold at Burlington Coat Factory.
Once a meme starts bouncing around the blogosphere, insubstantial inferences become documented facts. For starters, there’s the “Ground Zero” label. In fact, 51 Park Place is four blocks away from the site of the attacks. Certainly it was in the shadow of the Twin Towers, but given the record height of the structures, most real estate in that part of New York could be described as such.
If the proposed location of the center is “hallowed ground”, what is one to make of other sacrosanct undertakings in the neighborhood even closer to the site of carnage, such as the New York Dolls Gentlemen’s Club or the Pussycat Lounge? (God’s name is likely invoked in those establishments as well, but one would assume in a slightly different context.)
Intolerance, like summer heat, rose quickly and lingered overlong. Newt Gingrich called the project an example of Muslim “triumphalism.” Sarah Palin demanded that “peaceful” Manhattanites “refudiate” the plan. Rising GOP star Marco Rubio called it “divisive and disrespectful.” One Christian activist demanded that no more mosques be built anywhere in the U.S., while a minister in Florida opted for the more visceral concept of a public Koran burning.
Then, the President made the mistake of affirming the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. It’s easy to understand how he made such an egregious error, having taken an oath to defend it and all.
The airwaves once again resounded with the baseless canards that the President secretly worships Islam himself and that his education in an Indonesian school inculcated him with the desire to impose so-called sharia law upon our republic, topped off with the assertion that—according to the son of Billy Graham himself—Obama must be a Muslim because “The seed of Islam is passed through the father like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother.”
It’s all right there on that Kenyan birth certificate, no doubt.
In American history, we learn early of the travails of Congregationalists, Catholics, Quakers and the like who emigrated to this country, but it’s hard to find the initial narrative of Muslims in our annals of religious freedom, perhaps because the first in America were brought here against their will from Africa. Muslims worship the same God as do Jews and Christians, but to hear some erst while followers of Jesus put it, they’d rather have Christopher Hitchens move in next door than a Mohammedan.
Sorry, haters, but you cannot alter the fundamental fact that this nation was predicated on the desire for religious freedom and that, thanks to the Constitution so many bigots are otherwise fond of exalting, an American citizen can be a Sikh, a Satanist, a Scientologist, a Methodist, a Mormon or a Muslim, and Godspeed to you—whichever God it is.
Having droned on too much about all that, I must defer a discussion of our Iraqi victory for now (we’ll still be celebrating it in the Green Zone for years) and jump to New Orleans for the fifth anniversary of another manmade disaster, namely, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or, as they call it down there, Hardly Gras.
I know many people who’ve driven down to help raise up the flinders of that battered metropolis, including the hardy Oneontans of Lester UMC and my own niece, Shay Howell, but I’ve had no will to revisit the old town, despite assurances that hoodoos have been replaced by Who Dat. I do, however, recommend the current documentary offering by Mr. Spike Lee on the HBO, entitled If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise, a worthy sequel to his epic When The Levees Broke.
Troubles still run deep in the wake of the flood, but Lee draws your attention to the resilient spirit of the city’s residents. He does not flinch, though, from depicting the effects of what he calls “Katrina fatigue” or from using his wicked-sharp cinematic skills to prove a political point or two along the way, incorporating never-before-seen interviews with such as Mayor Ray Nagin, Governor Kathleen Blanco and Michael “ Heckuva Job” Brown, formerly of FEMA.
I’d like to stroll down yonder and second-line, but for now, I reckon I’ll sit around with Spike and second-guess.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.