That center: Two arguments


Like every reporter, I get a lot of the "bias" word tossed at me, and in a way, Lord I wish it were true.

You come into this work with opinions, and tell yourself you can suppress them long enough to churn out copy, and then, later, in a cafe, over the phone, in bed, you hash out your opinions…

And then, without realizing it, you’ve crossed a Rubicon, and the "on the other hand" reflex you cultivated, you thought, solely for the purposes of continued employment, becomes, well reflexive.

And it’s not that you can’t argue anymore, it’s that you can argue only too well, from every vantage point.

You lose a chunk of yourself when that happens.

Maybe something similar happens to lawyers, or judges or referees, but soon, instead of sitting back and taking sides, you’re always equivocating, and exploring every side.

And occasionally you think, "Something’s missing." There’s an argument that has yet to be made, there’s a side that’s hasn’t shown yet.

I’ve been trying not to follow this Islamic Center business, because it degenerates so very quickly into ugliness, but when it sits astride your comics page, and when it calls you on the cell, it’s hard to look away.

So here are two arguments that I don’t endorse, but that have been missing from the fray, one inspired by a call from Mort Klein and another by Michelle Boorstein’s superb overview in today’s Washington Post Style section (wherein, the comics.)

Each belongs to one of the "sides" in the argument, and each side is free to use them, abuse them, reject them, trash them.

For: The bridge-builder’s test.

Mort wanted to know why we hadn’t yet made a story of the ZOA’s role in the debate. The organization has released a couple of compilations of the more controversial statements of Fiesal Abdul Rauf, the Imam at the center of the controversy over his planned community center/ Islamic prayer room a few blocks from the site of the Sept. 11 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Now, when a release is headlined
ZOA: Don’t Increase Pain To Families Of 9/11 Victims Of Islamist Terror By Building Mosque Led By Extremist, Anti-U.S., Pro-Hamas Imam

you know you’re not going to get Michelle’s nuanced take, which is fine: Mort is not a reporter. The ZOA is an advocate, not a public library. You’re not going to get the mitigating quotes.

But, the discrepancies between Mort’s take and Rauf’s supporters are so stark, that it begs analysis, especially when every second Rauf supporter seems to have "Rabbi" in front of his name.

Mort’s take is that Rauf’s deviations from the orthodoxies of pain  — refusing to condemn Hamas, asking questions about what Americans can do (or stop doing) to prevent terrorism — are so outrageous, that they seemingly negate any good will.

Jon Stewart pretty much made mincemeat of the second line of attack, showing that its best known advocate — Glenn Beck — like a whole lot of other folk, has posed the same questions about U.S. policy.

The first accusation, though, about Hamas is more vexing: How do you not condemn a group that deliberately targets civilians? How do you not call it terrorist?

Rauf’s defenders do not address, or hardly address, the matter, instead pointing to his vindicating statements, and this is where the argument devolves into a "He said this, but he said that" argument.

But it occurred to me, reading the ZOA release, that the thesis that underpins its anger, and the anger of many critics of the mosque — that Islam has, to whatever degree is posed, a Grahamish 100 percent, a Krauthammeresque 7 percent, been infiltrated by the crazies —  might undermine itself.

This is because Rauf is not positioning himself as a leader of Islam, but as a bridge builder. And as a bridge-builder, his job is to gingerly protect each party from hostile interests in the other’s court.

So, is it reasonable to hold him to the same standards one would expect of a leader? To set an F. W. DeKlerk example when his constituency as a leader seems not to expand much farther than the upper reaches of Manhattan?

So if he’s not a leader, if he’s simply bridge builder, if it is his job to expand understanding of Jewish and Christian sensibilities among Muislims — and the reverse — what good does it do him to charge into one camp screaming bloody murder?

And if it is true that the gap is as deep as the ZOA and the like minded suggest, wouldn’t there be an inverse ratio between the loudness of a compromised polity and the interlocutor who seeks to lower the volume? In a roomful of screamers, who’s likelier to get noticed — and respect — than the guy listening patiently?

Here’s an extreme example, and before I start, Islamism is not Nazism, Rauf is not a rigteous gentile. I’m invoking this example because the best way to demonstrate inverse proportionality is to examine it at its extremes.

My mother, who was a huge Edith Piaf fan, told me that once, when the SS came to arrest the songstress’ Jewish lover, she stood at the door and declared, "Moi, je suis juif aussi," and got herself arrested.

I have no idea where my mother got this story, it doesn’t comport with the reality. It’s a nice tearjerker, but Piaf’s wartime experience was complicated: She consorted with Nazis, but used her position to save Jews.

Now which is the more useful Piaf? The real one who saved real Jews or the romantic one who almost sacrificed herself and saved bupkiss?

Let’s bring the beads back closer into alignment, and consider a bridge builder making the case for the West in a polity in which it is reviled: Does he blow his credibility wad the first time someone asks him about Hamas?

Or does he reserve it for increments that he trades for the credibility he’s earned? Does he make a name for himself as an authentic Muslim, and then make the gentle case for accommodation?

Now, one might justtifiably wonder about such a figure, is he truly authentic, not just as a Muslim, but as a bridge-builder? He might, after all, be reserving his condemnations because he’s a coward or worse, a fraud.

One predicate, then, would be a show of courage. A true colors moment, when an "Islamist" chit is traded, genuinely, for a moment of truth-telling grace.

Jeffrey Goldberg cites Rauf’s speech at a memorial for Daniel Pearl:

We are here to assert the Islamic conviction of the moral equivalency of our Abrahamic faiths. If to be a Jew means to say with all one’s heart, mind and soul Shma` Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ahad; hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one, Mr. Pearl.

If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one Mr. Pearl.

And I am here to inform you, with the full authority of the Quranic texts and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, that to say La ilaha illallah Muhammadun rasulullah is no different.

It expresses the same theological and ethical principles and values.

Jeffrey could probably put this better than I could, but let me assure you that, G-d forbid, were Rauf ever get into an actual extremist’s sights, the existence of this speech alone would be a death sentence.

Against: The offense of faith

Much of this debate has been predicated on whether Islam is appropriate at Ground Zero, near Ground Zero, about Ground Zero.

The defense, similarly, is predicated on notes of faith: Rauf is a moderate. The center is one where faiths will meet, is not exclusively Muslim.

What I haven’t heard — what’s only been hinted at, a little clumsily, by groups like the ADL — is whether any expression of faith is appropriate as a generalized marker of the site.

"Generalized." Clergy may visit the site and lead prayers, houses of worship in the vicinity might hold commemorative services, but the Cordoba Initiative appears to have ambitions of a universal status. Rauf intitally sought a larger site for his congregation, but now his aim is loftier. From its website:

The proposed community center in Lower Manhattan will serve as a platform for multi-faith dialogue. It will strive to promote inter-community peace, tolerance and understanding locally in New York City, nationally in America, and globally.

In this Washington Post video interview, Daisy Khan, Rauf’s wife, suggests divine intervention:

I think the building came to us, which goes to show there is a symbolism there and there is a divine hand in it, that it’s so close to the tragedy, that it’s close proximity is symbolic for the fact that we really want to reverse what happened on 9/11. And it will be, in our opinion, it will be a very strong message to the extremists thnat a center of this scale that is where real coexistence and pluralism is being practiced not only by Muslims, but people of other faiths, I believe it’s a very strong message that we will be giving.

Muslims. People of other faiths.

Who’s missing? Who’s left out?

A long, long time ago, in a different time — 1993 to be exact — Shulamit Aloni was Israel’s education minister and she tried (with a spectacular lack of success) to restore a secular Yizkor to ceremonies commemorating the fallen; the Yizkor written by Berl Katznelson, a founder of socialist Zionism, instead of the divine Yizkor that Rabbi Shlomo Goren had substituted.

Here’s a translation of Katznelson’s Yizkor by the late Moshe Kohn, the venerable Jerusalem Post columnist who — to his own evident surprise as an Orthodox Jew — found himself agreeing with Aloni:

"Let the Jewish people remember the pure souls of its faithful and valiant sons and daughters, people of toil and peace, who followed the plow and gave their lives for the honor of the Jewish people and out of love for the Jewish people. Let the Jewish people remember, and consider itself blessed by, its offspring, and let it mourn for the youthful splendor, the exquisite valor, the consecrated will and spirit of self-sacrifice that perished in this difficult battle. Let the Jewish people not remain silent or be consoled, and let the mourning not abate, until the Jewish people has redeemed its plundered soil."

There are times, in mourning, when G-d is absent, not just for atheists — although it would be enough if it were only atheists — but simply because there is grief that has no room for faith, when the abyss is more appropriate than the ephemera of belief

If there is to be a universal memorial, should it not accomodate the faithlessness of grief?

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