A response: The case against the Islamic center

Two weeks ago, The Jewish Journal published a column by Dennis Prager titled “A Question for ‘Progressive’ Jews Who Support the Ground Zero Mosque.” In it, he argued that there are similarities between plans to build an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero in Manhattan and a 1984 plan to build a convent at Auschwitz to which Jews strongly objected. The Journal received many letters and comments in response to Prager’s column (see below). Click here to read leading Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum’s response to Prager.

First I want to thank my respondents, with one exception, for the civility of their responses.

As listeners to my radio show hear me say almost daily: 1) There are good people on both the left and the right (and bad people, too), and 2) We should prefer clarity to agreement. So if my correspondents and I can clarify where the decent people who are for and the decent people who are opposed to the proposed Islamic center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero differ, we will have engaged in a public service.

First, let’s clear up a major misunderstanding among proponents of Cordoba House (that is the proposed name; it is no longer “Park51”).

In the words of Craig T. Byrnes: “The hypothesis Mr. Prager misses is the American Hypothesis. America has a First Amendment, which guarantees all of us freedom of religion.”

In the words of Rabbi Haim Beliak: “We are loyal to the American principles of mutual respect and religious freedom.”

The issue of religious freedom is entirely unrelated to the objections of the 9/11 families and others who oppose the building of the Islamic center. It is a classic non sequitur. Not one public opponent I know of argues that Muslims have no legal right to build a Muslim center two blocks from Ground Zero. Not Glenn Beck, not Charles Krauthammer, not Sarah Palin, to cite three examples.

Those of us who oppose the center oppose it on grounds of human sensitivity, not on legal grounds and because we have little reason to trust Imam Rauf, the man behind the Cordoba Initiative. We readily acknowledge the legal right of Muslims to build a mosque near Ground Zero. We think it is inappropriate.

Arguing that America has freedom of religion and that Poland in 1984 did not in no way responds to my original argument. I argued that liberal Jews and others opposed the convent at Auschwitz on grounds of it being hallowed ground to Jews and, therefore, inappropriate. That is precisely the argument against the Islamic center near Ground Zero. I wish my correspondents had explained how these examples differ. Repeating over and over that America has freedom of religion is not an answer because no one is questioning that freedom.

Life is filled with examples of actions that are legal but not appropriate. God help us if the only way in which we judge our own actions and those of others is whether those actions are legal.

Most Americans believe that a $100 million Islamic center two blocks from the place thousands of Americans were incinerated by 19 Muslims acting in the name of Islam is not right. Proponents make three arguments against this:

1. Religious freedom demands support for Cordoba House.
2. Islamic terror has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam.
3. The imam involved, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, is a moderate Muslim, and moderate Muslims need to be supported.

As explained above, reason No. 1 is irrelevant because no legal issue of religious freedom is involved.

Reason No. 2:

Given that about 100,000 innocents (mostly Muslims — in Sudan, Algeria and Iraq) have been murdered by Muslims in the name of Islam; given that whole countries are governed by Muslim totalitarians in the name of Islam (Saudi Arabia, Iran and, previously, Afghanistan); given that popular Islamist movements threaten to take over countries such as Somalia and Yemen; given that Christians are frequently killed in Muslim countries such as Egypt and Indonesia; given that Palestinian Muslims voted for the terrorists of Hamas and Lebanese Muslims for the terrorists of Hezbollah; given that murderous Muslim demonstrations took place around the Muslim world after the publication in Denmark of cartoons depicting Muhammad; given that we are unaware of any sizable demonstration of more than a few dozen Muslims anywhere on earth against Muslim violence; given all these things, the question of whether Islamic violence has anything at all to do with Islam is not necessarily foolish or prejudiced. Moreover, for many Muslims today (at least 100 million according to polls), their understanding is that Islam does preach violence.

In any event, this is not a matter of opinion: Muslims representing at least 100 million Muslims around the world slaughtered 3,000 Americans on 9/11, and putting up an Islamic center and mosque two blocks away seems to most Americans inappropriate. Furthermore, to those Muslims who do hate us and who do celebrate 9/11, this would represent a victory for Islam.

Reason No. 3:

I entirely agree that Muslim moderates need to be supported. The great battle against Islamist violence and against Sharia-run states must be waged by other Muslims.

The question is whether Imam Rauf is such a man.

I don’t believe so for many reasons:

First, an American Muslim leader, upon learning of the pain he was inflicting, and who cared about Muslim-American relations would have immediately abandoned plans to build his Muslim center near Ground Zero. Rauf is almost solely responsible for the outpouring of American anger at his center and to whatever extent the anger is expressed at Islam generally.

Second, if Jews in the name of Judaism or Christians in the name of Christ had slaughtered 3,000 innocent Muslims in, let us say, Jakarta, Indonesia, it is hard to believe that either group would insist on building a $100 million synagogue or $100 million church two blocks from the carnage, just nine years later.

Rauf should have developed a fund to change Muslim schools’ textbooks that have anti-Jewish and anti-Christian themes, or built a $100 million Muslim hospital for New Yorkers. Those would have been meaningful gestures.

Third, Rauf may have impressed the State Department with his moderate credentials. But the State Department’s record on Middle East and Muslim affairs is farcical.

Recently, on WABC Radio in New York, Rauf was asked three times if he considered Hamas a terrorist organization. Each time, he refused to say it was. That is not a moderate.

Rauf, as posted on his own Cordoba Initiative Web site, defended the recent fraudulent election in Iran, and commended President Obama for not commenting on it or on the vast outpouring of democratic Iranian opposition to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That is no moderate.

Rauf even spoke positively of Iran’s totalitarian Islamic foundations:

“[Obama] should say his administration respects many of the guiding principles of the 1979 revolution — to establish a government that expresses the will of the people; a just government, based on the idea of Vilayet-i-faqih, that establishes the rule of law.”

And what is “Vilayet-i-faqih?”

As explained by Christopher Hitchens, who supports Rauf’s Islamic center: “It is the justification for a clerical supreme leader, whose rule is impervious to elections and who can pick and choose the candidates and, if it comes to that, the results.”

A real moderate condemns the Iranian regime, its theological tyranny and its fraudulent elections.

Rauf in 2005 in Australia: “We tend to forget, in the West, that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al-Qaeda has on its hands of innocent non-Muslims. … You may remember that the U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq led to the death of over half a million Iraqi children.”

Such a statement may gain Rauf admirers among the world’s left, but most Americans do not regard as a “moderate” an American who lies about America abroad.

And in 1977 in The New York Times, Rauf wrote this about Israel: “In a true peace it is impossible that a purely Jewish state of Palestine can endure. … In a true peace, Israel will, in our lifetimes, become one more Arab country, with a Jewish minority.”

This “moderate” has not disavowed that sentiment.

And Rauf’s book, published in the West as “What’s Right With Islam Is What’s Right With America,” had a very different title abroad: “A Call to Prayer From the World Trade Center Rubble: Islamic Dawa in the Heart of America Post-9/11.”

“Dawa” means Islamic proselytizing or missionizing.

There are many real Muslim moderates in America. Rauf is not one of them. And they oppose the Islamic center near Ground Zero. Two examples:

Rima Fakih, the first Muslim Miss USA: “I totally agree with President Obama with the statement on Constitutional rights of freedom of religion,” Fakih tells the show. “I also agree that it shouldn’t be so close to the World Trade Center.”

Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, a physician, and president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy: “To put it bluntly, Ground Zero is the one place in America where Muslims should think less about teaching Islam and ‘our good side’ and more about being American and fulfilling our responsibilities to confront the ideology of our enemies. … This is not about the building of a mosque or a religious facility. It is not about religious freedom. This is about a deep, soulful understanding of what happened to our country on 9/11.”

As Jasser, a religious Muslim, son of Muslim immigrants from Syria, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Imam Rauf may not appear to the untrained eye to be an Islamist, but by making Ground Zero an Islamic rather than an American issue, and by failing to firmly condemn terrorist groups like Hamas, he shows his true allegiance.”

And Jewish moderates like Judea Pearl, founder of the Daniel Pearl Dialogue for Muslim-Jewish Understanding, a man who knows more about contemporary Islam than, I suspect, just about any Jewish supporter of the mosque, wrote: “If I were Mayor Bloomberg I would reassert their right to build the mosque, but I would expend the same energy trying to convince them to put it somewhere else.”

I want to thank Michael Berenbaum for his informative and respectful letter on Auschwitz and the convent. He sees far more goodwill in Imam Rauf and his Islamic center than I do. I can only say that I hope he is right. Neither Judea Pearl nor the Anti-Defamation League nor I think he is. And where there is doubt, I will side with the 9/11 victims’ families, the majority of whom oppose the center, and with the majority of New Yorkers, not heretofore known as religious bigots.

Most Jews who trust the imam and regularly defend Islam are also those Jews who most distrust evangelical Christians. Given the Jew hatred that pervades much of the Muslim world and the love of Jews that pervades evangelical Christianity, this is a phenomenon that demands some explanation.

Finally, letter writer Ann Bourman asks a fair question about my putting “progressive” in quotation marks. I normally use the words liberal or left, and I never put them in quotation marks. But as previous Jewish Journal articles referred to “progressives’” support for the Islamic center near Ground Zero, I used that term. I find the term, to use Ms. Bourman’s phrase, “condescending.” Are all those who oppose “progressives” against moral or technological or scientific progress? If conservatives decided to abandon “conservative,” and call themselves “morally serious,” would Ms. Bourman use the term “morally serious” when describing conservatives? Or would she put it in quotation marks?

On that issue we simply differ. But her final ad hominem attack leaves no room for honest difference. She simply lied about me. For 28 years on the radio I have earned a reputation for treating with great respect those who differ with me. I never speak “derisively to listeners who have dared to express opinions that differ from” mine.

First, it takes no “dare” to differ with me on the radio. Calls that differ with me are taken first and treated with great respect. And second, some years ago, the then-media critic for the Los Angeles Times, Howard Rosenberg, a liberal, wrote: “There is the small minority of radio hosts (Dennis Prager comes prominently to mind, regardless of whether you share his views) who present ideas rather than banal flaming rhetoric.”

As noted above, almost every day I announce on my national radio show that there are good people on the left and good people on the right. I wish that those on the left agreed and would stop labeling that great majority of their fellow Americans who oppose the Islamic center at Ground Zero “Islamophobic,” “bigoted” or, as Berenbaum did, “anti-American.” They aren’t.

Between two-thirds of the American people and Imam Rauf, I trust the former much more than the latter.

Readers’ responses to Dennis Prager’s column

I can’t claim to represent progressive Jews, but I can offer my progressive Jewish answer to Dennis Prager’s question. He asked, why do Progressive Jews support the Islamic Center when we opposed a proposed Catholic convent near Auschwitz in 1984? The answer is simple: We love America and we love the First Amendment. Poland isn’t America, and it doesn’t have a First Amendment.

The hypothesis Mr. Prager misses is the American hypothesis. America has a First Amendment, which guarantees all of us freedom of religion. Sensitivities cannot be considered, unlike in Poland. Our First Amendment guarantees these freedoms to you, to me, and to those Muslims who want to build an Islamic Center, replete with a gym, childcare center and even a place of worship, right in the heart of a sizable Muslim community that pre-dated the attacks of Sept. 11. There is no counter-argument, no rebuttal, no compromise of the American hypothesis. The First Amendment guarantees that we are all equal in this nation’s eyes, and free to worship God as we see fit. That’s what we progressive Jews have defended, at peril of our reputations, our freedom, and sometimes of our lives, since this nation began.

Craig T. Byrnes
Manhattan Beach

We hope that Dennis Prager will be happy to learn that some progressives have considered the analogy that he suggests in his Sept. 8 article, “A Question for ‘Progressive’ Jews Who Support the Ground Zero Mosque,” between Park51 and the Carmelite convent that was once located on the grounds of Auschwitz. We don’t think the comparison is useful, for the reasons stated in our new paper, “A Muslim Community Center Near Ground Zero? Why Not? Why Should Jews Care?” (jewsonfirst.org/10a/CulCenter1.aspx).

Given that Christians and Jews are expected to serve on the board of Park51, which will be welcoming to people of all faiths; given also that among the center’s most fervent supporters are its potential Christian neighbors, we are at a loss to understand why support for Park51 would be read as a sign of “hostility” to Christianity or any other religion. On the contrary, we are not motivated by hostility, but by loyalty. We are loyal to the American principles of mutual respect and religious freedom. As Jews, we are certainly concerned when those principles come under attack, as we believe they have, because of the anti-Muslim hatred inflamed by this controversy.

Finally, we have some questions of our own. We find it interesting that Mr. Prager couches the issue in terms of the political left and right wings. We would like to know: Why do elements of the right wing insist on characterizing our Christian president as a Muslim? And why would that be a bad thing? And why, as happened before the last presidential election, are we seeing another well-funded, organized anti-Muslim campaign?

Can it be an effort to change the subject away from the mess that right-wing policies made?

Rabbi Haim Beliak for JewsOnFirst
via e-mail

I often disagree with Dennis Prager, which is fine. I cannot stand his condescension, which is not fine. “Progressive”: How many times in the Ground Zero mosque article? What is his implication? I am not really “progressive” if I disagree with him? Why isn’t “conservative” in quotes? Prager’s “explanations” are his opinions, and he is entitled to them, without quotation marks. So am I. Interesting that Prager compares the mosque situation to one in Poland, a nation that has never had freedom of religion. He also points out that 9/11 was perpetrated “in the name of Islam.” Clearly he cannot distinguish between a small number of vicious criminals and millions of adherents of the world’s second-largest religion. If Prager wants to influence his readers, he might try doing it with respect. I have heard him on the radio speaking derisively to listeners who have dared to express opinions that differ from his.

In print, he attacks with quotation marks.

I hope his “column” is more mature next time.

Ann Bourman
Los Angeles

Dennis Prager’s analysis (“A question for ‘Progressive’ Jews Who Support the Ground Zero Mosque,”  Sept. 10) of the attitude of “progressives” about the Islamic Center near Ground Zero is compelling. No doubt, Jewish “progressives” relate better to Jewish hurt than to the pain of other Americans, even though many killed at Ground Zero were Jews. Also, hatred of the right animates “progressives” more than anything else. Further: “progressives”  criticize Christians but never Muslims and “progressives” are frequently allied with the Muslim World.

True. But Prager shows excessive restraint in omitting conclusions directly flowing from his analysis: that “progressives” secretly but actually approve of the 9/11 mass murder and, just an added small step, that the perpetrators of 9/11 were no doubt “progressives”.

Two Latin sayings apply: (1) “Sapienti sat” = “the wise needs no further comment”. And (2) “Quos Deus perdere vult eos prius dementat” = “Those whom God wants to destroy, He first confounds them”.

Arthur P. Stern,
Beverly Hills, CA

In his ongoing opposition to the Muslim community center and mosque near Ground Zero, Dennis Prager invokes false patriotism, claiming (incorrectly) that “nearly 3000 innocent Americans were slaughtered” at Ground Zero.  In truth, 372 foreigners from 90 different countries, including about 60 Muslims, several of whom were first responders, died on 9/11.

Donna Marsh O’Connor, who lost her pregnant daughter Venessa on 9/11, bemoans the fact that “in the name of [her] daughter, an entire religion is being demonized for the acts of a group of heinous criminals.”

Stephen Rohde
Los Angeles, CA