When I first learned that the Islamic center in lower Manhattan would be called Cordoba House, I saw only the beauty in it. The symbolism of the name seemed obvious.
Cordoba was a city in which Muslims, Jews and Christians lived peaceably side by side in the ninth, 10th and 11th centuries. Under Muslim rule, the city was a beacon of light and learning compared to other European cities of that era.
So for me, the name “Cordoba” evoked an image of interfaith understanding and tolerance. It evoked in my heart a feeling of hope for humankind’s ability to move beyond bloodshed so as to see our shared humanity and give thanks for our neighbors.
I saw Cordoba House as a gracious outreach effort and as an appropriate tribute to the thousands of people who died at Ground Zero. There in the melting pot of Manhattan, those who died were people from all parts of the globe, people from all walks of life, and people from all the major faith groups.
Many other Americans hold a very different perspective from mine. They oppose construction of Cordoba House, and often quite vehemently, as an endless stream of news reports and columnists have now recounted.
Pollsters say that roughly two-thirds of Americans now oppose it.
But that opposition has been fueled, at least in part, by political pandering and misinformation.
Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House and potential 2012 presidential candidate, told Americans that Cordoba House was “a deliberately insulting term.” He claimed that “Cordoba” was “a symbol of Islamic conquest.”
Gingrich is wrong and his inflammatory words serve only to foster fear. “Cordoba” is not some code word for “Islamic conquest,” and it never has been.
I suspect Gingrich probably knows this. After all, he holds a doctorate in history. But that only leads me to wonder why Gingrich doesn’t also put the Muslim rule of Cordoba in context with what came afterwards.
When Christians regained control in the Iberian Peninsula, there was great bloodshed. Then, when outbreaks of the plague came in the 14th century, people blamed the Jews, and there was still more mayhem and murder. That was followed in the 15th century by the Christian torturers of the Spanish Inquisition.
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Medieval Christendom could have surely done better if it had followed the example of interfaith tolerance that was demonstrated under Muslim rule at Cordoba.
When I hear such distortions as those of Gingrich, I get the impression that some American politicians think the way to win votes is by spewing mindless vitriol about Muslims. Maybe they’re right. Maybe their vitriol will win votes for them. But the cost for our country is steep, and I weep at such hate-mongering.
Did we learn nothing from 1930s Germany? In a country that was by and large Christian, the politicians so demonized a minority religious group that they ultimately created a climate compatible for concentration camps.
Ground Zero is hallowed ground. So there is surely room for dialogue and debate about the sensibilities of the Cordoba House project. But the legal arguments against it were untenable from the get-go. It was nearly a no-brainer. In this country, a religious group has the right to build on privately owned property, consistent with local zoning regulations.
Thank God we live in such a country. As Americans, we would betray only ourselves if we curtailed the exercise of that right through government intervention.
And if we’re going to engage a dialogue on the sensibilities of the Cordoba House project, let us at least be clear on the facts. Despite the media’s shorthand of “Ground Zero mosque,” the reality is that it’s not just a mosque and it’s not at Ground Zero.
The Cordoba House is a planned community center that includes not only a room for prayer and worship, but a fitness center, a swimming pool, a basketball court, a food court and an auditorium for performance arts. The location of the project is two dense Manhattan blocks from the northern edge of Ground Zero, and about six blocks from the site of one of the towers that was destroyed in the attacks.
Will this project be a force for healing, hope and peace? Or will it not? Which is more likely over the long run? These are the sorts of questions worthy of discussion.
But as Americans, let us not lessen ourselves by suggesting that Muslims have no “right.” They do.
And let us engage this debate based on facts, and not based on the manipulations of political pandering.
After a 25-year career as an appellate attorney, Christa Brown is now pursuing a doctorate in religious studies at Iliff Theological Seminary in Denver.