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By Barry Rubin

As someone interested in the non-political aspects of the Ground Zero Mosque (business plan, zoning, financing, etc) I’m reaching the conclusion that what’s most important is not to oppose or support construction of the mosque but to understand it. In other words, there can be people who passionately  favor this project but who can still learn a lot from the whole affair.

Let me summarize the two key lessons that get pushed aside in the “build-or-no-build” debate:

–The main problem in such matters is not discrimination against such promoters–certainly not from government and mass media–but special privileges for them. Even if someone favors building the project, he should be able to see that the government and media have done everything possible to support it and kill off any serious debate on the issues.

–Radical Islamists constantly hide as moderates, depending in large part on the disinterest of government, media, or academia in investigating their background and credentials. Even if he feels this should have nothing to do with building the mosque project, an observer should understand that point. Every time the imam and his wife–who is a key leader of the project–have had the chance to build bridges, express moderation, and persuade critics, they have inflamed the situation and taken a hard line.

As I said a moment ago, you can understand these two points–and draw appropriate conclusions–even if you favor building the project.

To a great extent, this whole controversy did not arise as some Muslim triumphalist project but rather as the result of a sleazy, rather erratic developer seeking respectability and fame who sold it to an ambitious, Islamist-oriented imam as something that would make him a big star with incredible money and power. And of course that power and fame might then be used to promote his Islamist agenda.

So let’s forget for the moment about favoring or opposing construction of this massive project and merely evaluate it without taking any position on the issue. Here’s what we see: rather than being the victim of discrimination, the mosque project was the beneficiary of special privilege that would not have been accorded to someone else, all other things being equal.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t larger implications regarding the site of the mosque and what reactions to the project might show about Islamist goals, American attitudes toward Islam or political Islamism, and constitutional guarantees regarding freedom of religion. Those points, however, has been discussed by many. Here is what hasn’t:

If it had not been for the special privileges accorded to it, the project would never have gotten off the ground. It doesn’t own all the property that it proposes to build on and had not even consulted the owner, Consolidated Edison electric company; it doesn’t have the financing nor indeed any clear prospect of obtaining it;, and the developer has an extremely poor record of legal problems.

The imam himself is rather shady or at least shadowy. Among other things he got a tax exemption for a mosque of allegedly 500 members supposedly located in a small apartment owned by his wife. (Hint: When a purported religious institution gives its address as “Apartment 10E” that might suggest it isn’t a large ongoing institution.)  Does that mean that all Christian ministers are lilly-pure? No, but whatever their moral standing or theological views if they want to build a huge church project they better meet the requirements of the jurisdiction or they shouldn’t be allowed to pour concrete.

No, contrary to popular belief you cannot build whatever you want wherever you want, even if that building is religious. There are city ordinances, zoning, and lots of other regulations. And there are good reasons for these rules.

In this context, with everything else remaining the same, no church or synagogue  project would have been approved for this site, under these conditions, and with the group running the project. We should note that nine years after the September 11 attacks, the city authorities have been so picky that there has been virtually no progress made on building anything in the World Trade Center area! A Greek Orthodox Church nearby has not been allowed to rebuild at all, while watching the fast-tracking of the mosque project.

Now that’s a total failure due to paralyzing bureaucracy and lack of vision, isn’t it? Yet in the case of this project everything was greenlighted with no questions asked. The authorities went from insanely restrictive to insanely permissive because they wanted to be tolerant, or feared be called bigots. Both such extremes of behavior are deeply wrong. They are supposed to make decisions on the merits of the case.

The problem with all this is neither Islamist subversive efforts nor Islamophobia but the mistakes resulting from when a society throws out all of its own normal, routine rules (equal justice under law) to give privileges to a group out of fear, manipulation, and misplaced guilt. 
By saying this, I’m not ignoring the sanctity of the site, the Constitution, or other issues but merely focusing on something else that is indeed worth discussing outside of such considerations.

Up until now, 242 mosques have been built in New York State without any serious opposition or protest. No problem. But in this particular case, even if the sponsors had wanted to build this particular mosque uptown, it should have been blocked on normal grounds. If the project had gone ahead without any political opposition it is likely that it would not have been able to get financing (or had to resort to such unsavory sources as to discredit itself), would have gone into bankruptcy, and left behind a tangled business mess.

This story is also a tale of the limits of moderation for any Muslim leader who wants to be well-funded and popular. At best, Rauf is someone who fears saying anything that would make Islamists unhappy; at worst, he’s himself a radical Islamist. It’s true that his letters to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times are 30 years old. Yet the imam of the Ground Zero mosque today evades answering whether his views have changed since then and there is no evidence of a break with that past.

In one letter, he endorses Iran’s revolution. There is a significant point here that has gone unnoticed. Rauf’s public cheering of the revolution came at the precise moment when its extremism had become clear: the total takeover of the state by radical Islamists, the expulsion of even moderate Muslims from power, the suppression of the secular left. He wasn’t endorsing the overthrow of the shah or the emergence of democracy but the triumph of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and everything that entailed.

In another letter, he suggests that peace plus Muslim patience will result in Israel becoming just another Arab-dominated country. Here, too, his precise approach is revealing. One could argue that he was trying to assure Muslims that they should make peace with Israel since, after all, that would more effectively produce total victory for them. But by presenting peace as a trick to destroy Israel, he was proclaiming an uncomfortable parallel for what radical Islamists do secretly in the West, using pretenses of compromise and moderation to seize power. The different versions of his book also raises suspicions of his true beliefs and intentions, as do many of his other actions.

The imam could have replied to these and other issues with an approach fitting the moderation and bridge-building approach he and his wife claim to represent. He could have said:  Yes, I endorsed the Iranian revolution at first but then on seeing how extreme and repressive the regime became, I concluded that it wasn’t my view of what Islam is, nor do I favor an Islamist theocratic form of government.

But he didn’t say that.  Does he really endorse the Iranian regime as an exemplification of his type of Islam, or does he just hope to raise money from it for the project, or is he merely wary of criticizing anything Islamist or Islamic? If he had done so, it would have undermined the criticism and won plaudits from many Americans. Yet that is not his priority.

Similarly, he could have said about Israel that he once favored its destruction, albeit by political means, but now some years later sees this isn’t a realizable idea and favors a genuine two-state solution. He could argue that peace and a quick compromise solution is in the Palestinians’ interest.

But he didn’t say that. Instead, he dodged the question. So does he endorse Israel’s destruction, simply know that favoring a real and lasting peace would antagonize radical Islamists, or fear that the type of people or regime from whom he wants to raise money will be turned off? Again, it amounts to the same thing in practice.

His main concern, then, is not to reassure Americans or to build bridges but to say nothing that would definitively show he isn’t a radical or an Islamist. Of course, he could argue that he can get away with this since those supporting his project don’t pay any attention to such issues and that those who oppose it are demonized by the government and in the media.

Yet such phony (or limited) moderation was sufficient to make him the toast of New York for many in the elite. Meanwhile, real and courageous moderate Muslims, a number of whom oppose the mosque, are largely shunned in the West.

Faced with criticism, the imam’s wife, one of the project’s leaders, lashed out to bash America and Americans in general. She could just as easily have taken the approach: look at all the wonderful people supporting us. Isn’t America great? There are people opposing us? That’s what democratic debate is about. And it’s my job to convince them, answer their concerns and by transparency soothe their worries. Isn’t that what bridge-building is all about?

Instead, he and his wife played the Islamophobia card about how terrible America is. By escalating the conflict and condemning, rather than trying to persuade, their critics they have damaged America’s image among Muslims and deepened divisions within the United States. They also refused to consider a change of location. One could argue they shouldn’t have been required to make such a concession but wouldn’t that choice have better served their purported goals?

If you are going to undertake the controversial and delicate task of building a Muslim center right next to Ground Zero shouldn’t you be extra careful to make this a positive rather than divisive experience? Indeed, if those behind the project had truly been oriented toward moderation and mutual tolerance the project probably would have succeeded despite the opposition. After all, they had everyone who counted on their side–the city government and mass media. Complaints could easily be disregarded with the hope that success would prove they were misguided.

Instead, we are locked into a debate between the Building-on-This-Site-is-Offensive camp and Not- Letting-Them-Build-is-Islamophobic-Bigotry camp. As usual, partisanship obscures facts.

Should the mosque from being built? That’s an issue for others to debate. It doesn’t interest me as an analyst. After all, the argument over construction gets in the way of understanding the real issues involved. Whether or not it is built, or should be, there are important lessons to be learned here.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle Eastand editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).

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