NEW YORK (JTA) — In an address at last week’s annual meeting of the Anti-Defamation League, National Director Abraham Foxman urged decent people to speak out against anti-Muslim bigotry. Ordinarily this worthy plea would hardly merit special notice. It is, after all, consistent with the century-old organization’s mission to fight prejudice. But it also is a reminder of the ill-founded criticisms of ADL’s stance against building an Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero.
The sponsors of the mosque project ostensibly wanted it to promote peace and understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. Instead the proposal has become mired in dissension and ugly accusations. The tensions became worse after a barrage of self-righteous reactions to the ADL’s statement on July 28.
By any fair measure, the statement was civil and restrained. It deplored the bigotry expressed by some opponents of the mosque, and it recognized the right of proponents to build near Ground Zero. The organization also acknowledged the anguish felt by many 9/11 victims about the location. A mosque there would cause them more pain, the statement said, and would be “counterproductive to the healing process.”
Before then, the public debate had been animated but hardly histrionic. That changed after the ADL statement, when the organization itself became a target of mosque supporters. Conciliation through civil discourse grew more elusive as fury directed at the organization became unforgiving.
Among the first to pounce was Fareed Zakaria, then a foreign affairs columnist for Newsweek and host of a CNN interview program. He wrote to Foxman that he was stunned by the ADL’s decision to side with those who favored relocating the mosque, and announced that he was returning an award and cash prize he had received from the organization.
Zakaria urged the ADL to admit error and reverse its position, saying it’s “a small price to pay to regain your reputation.” He repeated his admonition in his column and on TV, as if the organization could not be reminded often enough of its purported indiscretion.
Even if one disagrees with its conclusion, the ADL’s measured assessment hardly merited a scolding. In truth, the statement’s sensitivity to the concerns of the 9/11 victims as well as the to rights of Muslims was exemplary. Yet the remarks by Zakaria and subsequent comments by others condemned the organization as if it was championing bigotry.
For a while, the ADL was buffeted like a pinball in a maze of bumpers. The New York Times editorialized that its decision was inexcusable and that the organization had “eagerly piled on with the opponents of the mosque.” Writers in publications from coast to coast called the ADL’s position ill advised (The Los Angeles Times), terrible (The Atlantic), despicable (The Nation) and bigoted (Washington Post). Talk about piling on!
Denunciations of the ADL died down after a few weeks, but the media tilt in favor of the mosque persisted. Network television frequently posed the issue as if only one side deserved a hearing. ABC’s Christiane Amanpour, for example, held forth with two panelists, both eager that the Islamic center be built. One was Daisy Khan, the wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who headed the mosque project.
Is America Islamophobic? Amanpour asked Khan. Beyond Islamophobic, Khan answered. “It’s hate of Muslims,” she said.
Then Khan insisted there would be no compromise about the mosque, saying "It has to go ahead. There’s so much at stake.”
Amanpour, evidently content with Khan’s position, did not respond and the interview ended.
In fact, the ADL’s stance mirrors that of most Americans. A CBS poll at the end of August indicated that 72 percent of the public believed the mosque should be located elsewhere. Still, rigid advocates continued to assail opponents as bigots or enablers of bigots. If true, not only would this label apply to the ADL but, just as absurdly, to prominent political figures including Democrats Harry Reid, Howard Dean and New York Gov. David Paterson, as well as Republicans George Pataki, Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin.
Denying any legitimacy to their concerns only intensified the resentment of many opponents. The obduracy on either side has drawn increasingly nasty responses. As the ninth anniversary of 9/11 approached, a Florida preacher threatened to publicly burn copies of the Koran unless the mosque was relocated. Ultimately he backed down, though his hateful idea demonstrated how uncivil the debate had become.
However the contest of wills turns out, absolutist approaches are bound to fuel continued antagonism. The losers would likely carry resentment far into the future. A reasonable outcome would involve neither establishing a mosque near Ground Zero nor debasing its well-intentioned advocates. A solution could come in the form of a different sort of edifice at that location, one expressly dedicated to interfaith engagement.
Meanwhile, rhetorical excesses need to be tempered. A good start might be acknowledgment by Fareed Zakaria that the ADL was not far off the mark after all.
(Leonard A. Cole, an adjunct professor in the division of global affairs at Rutgers University, is the author of "Terror: How Israel Has Coped and What America Can Learn.”)