The Proposed Lower Manhattan Islamic Center Deserves Nuanced Discussion, Not GOP Fear Mongering

Given how far to the right the mainstream of the conservative movement has moved in the last few years, it is not often that I read a piece from a right-leaning columnist that actually adds to the national discussion of an issue. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised by Ross Douthat's column in the New York Times today on the proposed Lower Manhattan Islamic center.

I have been disgusted by the right's decision to politicize the issue, using the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the proposed Islamic center as a way to turn fear of "the other" into votes. (Newt Gingrich, an avid practitioner of fear mongering, has, not surprisingly, staked out a far-right position, equating Islam and the Nazis.) With each appeal to our basest, most xenophobic selves, the Republicans are systematically eroding the great American traditions of tolerance and diversity that have been a large part of the growth of the nation. (Note to the GOP: The Statue of Liberty is not just a pretty sculpture. It actually stands for something.) Even the use of the term "Ground Zero mosque" to describe the project is incendiary, intended to alarm at the expense of accuracy (the proposal is not for a stand-alone mosque, and the building would not be at Ground Zero).

Most of all, I have found it depressing that the right has turned a truly nuanced and complicated issue into a mean-spirited, us-versus-them test of patriotism.

Enter Douthat, who, frankly, I usually find to be a stealth apologist for distasteful policies on the right. He tends to act as if he is taking a reasonable, moderate position on an issue, only to come in with his true doctrinal-conservative take on the subject in the final paragraphs. (A great example is Douthat's piece on gay marriage, in which he begins by debunking several arguments against same-sex unions, before swooping in during the final third of his piece to declare an "ideal" in which "children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents," and that Judge Vaughn's ruling "suggests that any such distinction [between gay and straight relationships] is bigoted and un-American." In other words, he set himself apart from the typical right-wing arguments on the issue, only to take a position that is every bit as insulting to same-sex couples -- they're not "ideal," after all -- as those mainstream right-wing arguments.)

While I don't agree with many of Douthat's points on the proposed Lower Manhattan Islamic center (more on that later), I think he astutely recognizes that there are two issues at play here. Douthat says there are two Americas, one "where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides," and another "that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions." While I find his set-up strategically chosen to reach his intended result, I give him full credit for being one of the few writers who has acknowledged the complicated and potentially difficult-to-discuss aspects of the issue.

I would turn Douthat's two Americas into two questions. The first is whether those proposing the Islamic Center should be legally permitted to open the facility on Park Place. I think there is really only one correct answer, one we have heard from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Barack Obama: Of course the Constitution protects the right of the sponsors to build the Islamic center. And I can't believe any American would take the opposing position, let alone file lawsuits to prevent it from happening. Telling a religious group that it cannot purchase private property and open a house of worship is about as un-American as it gets. You would think a modern conservative movement that has fetishized the right of citizens to act without government intervention would support the side of private citizens seeking to maintain private activity on private property.

But there is a second question, and, to me, this is the question that has really spurred the debate, but one that deserves thoughtful and honest discussion, not the political games-playing and fear-mongering of the right: Should the sponsors of the Islamic center build their project at this location. Those on the right paint the decision as insensitive, as the location is two blocks from the site of a terrorist attack carried out by those who claimed Islam as the justification for their barbarity. Others see the establishment of a center by self-described moderate Muslims as a positive (or at least benign) action, sending a message to extremists like Hamas and al-Qaida that they are powerless to intimidate Americans into surrendering their ideals out of fear. (To be clear, not surprisingly, I am in the latter group.)

But buried in this second question is an inquiry that Douthat gets at that I think is absolutely justified, and it is at the heart of the question of what American culture really is. Douthat's point (in his "second America") is that there is an essential American character (he describes it as being Anglo-Saxon and derived from Protestantism and later adapted to include Jewish and Catholic values), and that immigrants had to assimilate into this American way of life to survive and prosper, thus allowing this essential American character to continue to hold the country's society together.

Now, Douthat's approach seems to justify bigotry and discrimination as a means to an end that forced new immigrants to become Americans (citing as examples the need for Mormons to give up polygamy and for Catholics to shake their "illiberal tendencies" so that they were inspired to "prod their church toward a recognition of the virtues of democracy, making it possible for generations of immigrants to feel unambiguously Catholic and American"). I can't get behind this kind of thinking. Bigotry and discrimination are always wrong, full stop.

But the underlying question of core American values is a valid one. It is clear that there has to be an American culture, at least strong enough to have acted as a uniting element for the country as it expanded and prospered over more than 200 years. It had to be strong enough to allow Americans to unite after the Civil War (to the extent that they did), and to rally together in the face of tragedies and wars. And it was on full display with the sacrifices of ordinary citizens who stepped up to help after the 9/11 attacks. There clearly is an American culture of some kind (although I'm not sure I agree with Douthat as to what is at its core), and it seems to me obvious that immigrants have found a way through the decades to come to the United States and assimilate into that culture, even while keeping the traditions and beliefs of their homelands.

The reason the GOP sees an opportunity here to score political points is, in part, due to concerns of some that the nature of Islam prevents its adherents from embracing these values that have held together American society. Personally, I think that the existence of a moderate-leaning Islamic center in Lower Manhattan could, potentially, demonstrate why such a fear is unfounded. But given world events and the behavior of those who have used Islam as a justification for violence (or even for societal intolerance, misogyny, etc.), it is fair to discuss these questions. Burying concerns doesn't mean they'll go away. Only through airing our society's darker thoughts can they be confronted and hashed out.

Obviously, when you throw religion, politics and a seminal tragic event in modern American history into a pot, it's going to get sticky, messy and potentially unpleasant. Such a cocktail requires a thoughtful discussion of the issues with a goal of reaching the truth and finding consensus.

Which is why the GOP strategy of using these issues to stoke fear for political gain has been especially odious. But it's also why a progressive blogger should highlight a conservative columist's attempt to have a more nuanced discussion of the issue (and to address some of the hot-button topics in a more mature way), even if he doesn't agree with all of what that conservative columnist has to say.

So I thank Douthat for taking a more thoughtful approach to the proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan, and I am happy to point out the places where I agree with his analysis, and those where I find his arguments to be less convincing. If only the majority of Douthat's conservative colleagues would take the same approach. If nothing else, we should all agree that what is best for America is a thoughtful discussion, not cynical attempts to stoke fear for political gain.