An extremist pro-life Christian blows up an abortion clinic in Vermont, capturing national attention for several years. The explosion is so big it not only destroys the clinic, it takes out the entire strip mall. Documentaries, mournful songs and charities are created about the Vermont bombing.
Almost a decade later the strip mall is still an ugly crater, but word gets out that one of the strip mall lots has been purchased. The intention is to build a Christian church. The church, which does not list a denomination the public is familiar with, will be called King David's Palace.
How do you expect the country would respond?
Exactly the same was it responded to the Cordoba House in New York. It's hard to veil my analogy when my title reveals the true nature of the issue.
In brief, the organizers have every right to build the Muslim community center in New York City two blocks from where Islamic terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, and the government should not try to thwart the project in any way. However, the project has been marred by some tasteless choices and organizers like Feisal Abdul Rauf appeared foolishly unprepared for the backlash.
It's true that there are many different kinds of Muslims, and a Mosque is a temple, not a barracks. However, look at it through the lens of my example. Don't you get an instant reaction that the close prolixity appears rather triumphant. The Muslim center, renamed a vague "Park51," is not going to be built on top of the footprint of the two towers, but it is taking advantage of real estate that was cleared up because of damage from the terrorist attacks.
The site for Park51 is an old Burlington Coat Factory building that was abandoned after it was damaged by pieces of United Airlines Flight 175. It's part of the damage zone of the terrorist attacks. That doesn't mean that the entire zone should be off limits to Muslim centers, but someone wanting to build a Muslim center in that zone should expect public relations issues and have a plan to deal with them before they get big. They didn't, and the opposition has gotten very strong as a result.
The original name - Cordoba House - can be taken in two ways; as a place of enlightenment or conquest. Christopher Hitchens explained it much better in an essay on the foolishness of both sides of this issue:
I notice that even the choice of the name Cordoba has offended some Christian opponents of the scheme. This wonderful city in Andalusia, after the Muslim conquest of southern Spain, was indeed one of the centers of the lost Islamic caliphate that today's jihadists have sworn in blood to restore. And after the Catholic reconquista, it was also one of the places purged of all Arab and Jewish influence by the founders of the Inquisition. But in the interval between these two imperialisms it was also the site of an astonishing cultural synthesis... Here was a flourishing of philosophy and medicine and architecture that saw, among other things, the recovery of the works of Aristotle.In my Vermont church analogy, namesake David can be seen as a revered, wise ruler. He can also be seen as a giant-slayer. If this story was real, you would hear critics say the church sees the bomber as a David-like figure, drawing blood from the towering abortion-rights camp with mere pebbles. They would choose the ghastly interpretation while the church builders would cling to the noble one.
We need not automatically assume the good faith of those who have borrowed this noble name for a project in lower Manhattan. One would want assurances, also, about the transparency of its funding and the content of its educational programs. But the way to respond to such overtures is by critical scrutiny and engagement, not cheap appeals to parochialism, victimology, and unreason.
Let's change my hypothetical example. Let's say it wasn't a church, but a pro-life group that was building a regional base at the location. Does it sound like provocation yet? It doesn't matter how often abortion opponents distance themselves from the bombers and assassins, or that such a large swatch of Americans has produced less than a dozen violent extremists. Opponents will link the two.
Muslims shouldn't have to walk on egg shells when they practice their religion in America. They shouldn't be taunted if they want to build a religious center in New York City. But they are also aware that their entire religion has been given a bad reputation by a group of extremists. They should use better foresight than the Park51 organizers showed.
Let me give an example of their poor public relations skills: While researching this post I wanted to reference that Park51 was scheduled to open on Sept. 11, 2011. This was hard to see as anything other than provocation. I tried to confirm it dredging the official website, but found only vague nonsense like "Park51 will join New York to the world, offering a welcoming community center with multiple points of entry. "
A Google search turned up uncited references in blogs. I started to suspect that this was an urban legend, so I added the word "myth" to my search and found a Media Matters post demolishing the rumor. Fair enough, the rumor wasn't true. But look at how the organizers let the ball drop.
Such a damning rumor is out there, and there's nothing on their website to dispel it. Even some of their supporters believe it. The entire thing makes no mention of any controversy, so its clear they are trying to wait it out in silence and do not want to post something that mentions criticism. However, there are other ways to handle it. They could add a sentence to the website saying "we have not decided on an opening date at this time." This would satisfy their non-confrontational stance and still help combat the rumor mill.
What I want to know is, were the organizers really surprised by the response they've received? The vague platitudes the Imam has cloaked himself with have no meat to them. They are indistinguishable from the hollow words a hostile organization would hide behind.
President Obama seems to have the same stance I do. As NPR put it:
Weighing his words carefully on a fiery political issue, President Obama said Saturday that Muslims have the right to build a mosque near New York's Ground Zero, but he did not say whether he believes it is a good idea to do so.He's keeping half his hand hidden and won't say if he finds the plan tasteful or not. If he thought it was, he'd lose nothing as his liberal supporters think it is and his conservative critics disagree. However, if I'm right and Obama thinks the location is all wrong, then he'd anger some liberal supporters. His conservative critics would thank him for his support, but still oppose him on everything else.
I believe the community center project was well-intentioned, but from a public relations standpoint, it has been handled so terribly and with such a distant grasp on reality that supports should hold the organizers responsible for the bulk of the angry response.