Yes, when I first read about plans for a mosque "at Ground Zero" my initial reaction was to wonder why, whatever the merits of an Islamic Cultural Centre in Lower Manhattan, such a project had to be built in such a location. It seemed likely to cause offense even if none were intended.
The reaction to the Cordoba House initiative, however, has changed my mind: I now think not only is there no reason not to carry on with the project but that, contra its critics, it now must be built a couple of blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center.
The people responsible for changing my mind are those Republicans and cultural conservatives most opposed to the plan. Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich are merely the more high-profile "campaigners" protesting that the proposed centre is offensive or that it "stabs the heart" or represents an American capitulation to "radical Islam". Rudy Giuliani's reaction was equally typical:
"This is a desecration," he added. "Nobody would allow something like that at Pearl Harbor. Let's have some respect for who died there and why they died there. Let's not put this off on some kind of politically correct theory.
"I mean, they died there because of Islamic extremist terrorism. They are our enemy, we can say that, the world will not end when we say that. And the reality is, it will not and should not insult any decent Muslim because decent Muslims should be as opposed to Islamic extremism as you and I are."
If any of this was true then, yes, the objections would have some merit and might even be persuasive. But it's not. First, the cultural and community centre - which will, yes, include a prayer room - is not actually being built at Ground Zero but two blocks away (which, as anyone who knows NYC knows means it is not next door or on the same site at all) and that, moreover, Park Place is hardly connected to the former WTC site at all. And in any case, muslims have been using the site as an overflow prayer room for a Tribeca mosque for some time anyway without anyone being upset.
More to the point, "decent Muslims" might find the idea that they cannot pray in lower Manhattan without giving a victory to Islamic extremism offensive themselves.
He represents what Bin Laden fears most: a Muslim who believes that it is possible to remain true to the values of Islam and, at the same time, to be a loyal citizen of a Western, non-Muslim country. Bin Laden wants a clash of civilizations; the opponents of the mosque project are giving him what he wants.
And that's one of the points that counts. The Cordoba Initiative wants to build a kind of Islamic version of the Jewish Community Centre. That will, yes, involve a prayer room but there won't be minarets visible from Ground Zero and nor, I suspect, will the muezzin call the faithful to prayer.
But so what if it was? If words like "un-American" must be bandied about (as they too often are) then it's the mosque's opponents who seem to fall into that category. Which leaves one in the unaccustomed position of saluting Michael Bloomberg for his speech today in which he reminded his audience of the fundamental values of property rights and the freedom of religious expression:
The simple fact is, this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship, and the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right. And if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.
This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan.
[...] The attack was an act of war, and our first responders defended not only our city, but our country and our constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.
[...] Muslims are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith. And they are as welcome to worship in lower Manhattan as any other group. In fact, they have been worshipping at the site for better, the better part of a year, as is their right. The local community board in lower Manhattan voted overwhelmingly to support the proposal. And if it moves forward, I expect the community center and mosque will add to the life and vitality of the neighborhood and the entire city.
Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off-limits to God's love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us can attest.
Those campaigning against this project are, as Isaac Chotiner pointed out, akin to those who argued Salman Rushdie should have thought of how people might have been offended before publishing The Satanic Verses. Equally, arguing that the World Trade Center site must be surrounded by some kind of cordon sanitaire (of unsaid extent) within which it is impermissable for Muslims to worship is, in a not so small fashion, to declare those Americans second-class citizens purely on the basis of their religious preferences.
Some of the opposition to Cordoba House may be genuinely rooted in fears that it will cause some relatives of the dead some pain; much of it, however, seems to be rooted in a typically cheap form of populist demagoguery that, sometimes implicitly but often explicitly, demands that one group of Americans know their place while warning the rest of the country that American muslims aren't as American as "regular folks" and, consequently, that the difference between moderate Islam and Wahhabist terrorism is only one of degree, not kind.
So now that this entire controversy has commanded the attentions of national politicians, it seems to me that the calculation has changed. I might not have chosen Park Place for this kind of centre but the nature of the opposition to the plans has made a minor matter into something else and something that, in the end, says something about the kind of United States you happen to believe in. Which in turn means that Cordoba House should be built.
UPDATE: As a friend - and former New Yorker - points out, "Ground Zero Mosque" is a misnomer but "Burlington Coat Factory Mosque" wouldn't have quite the same impact would it?
UPDATE 2: Hopi Sen has a good suggestion for what the Cordoba House prayer room could be called.