I'm a little late to the latest turn in the Park 51 controversy, but let me point out the flaw in the argument that Howard Dean has made explicitly, and President Obama implicitly. The argument is that Faisal Rauf has every right to build a Muslim cultural center near Ground Zero, and his intentions are probably good ones. But his goals, admirable though they may be, have failed. Rather than bringing people together, he is driving them apart. So he should build the center elsewhere.
I don't think this argument is wrong per se. The problem is that it takes the opposition to the project as a given, as a problem to be worked around, like trying to build a house on a steep hillside. I think the opposition to the project is the primary issue. It is a problem that so many Americans mistrust one of the most powerful voices of moderation in the Muslim community.
If to be a Jew means to say with all one's heart, mind and soul Shma` Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ahad; hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one, Mr. Pearl.
I know Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, and I know him to be a moderate, forward-leaning Muslim -- yes, it is true he has said things with which I disagree, but I have never expected him to function as a member of the Zionist Organization of America.
In 2003, Imam Rauf was invited to speak at a memorial service for Daniel Pearl, the journalist murdered by Islamist terrorists in Pakistan. The service was held at B'nai Jeshurun, a prominent synagogue in Manhattan, and in the audience was Judea Pearl, Daniel Pearl's father. In his remarks, Rauf identified absolutely with Pearl, and identified himself absolutely with the ethical tradition of Judaism. "I am a Jew," he said.
There are those who would argue that these represent mere words, chosen carefully to appease a potentially suspicious audience. I would argue something different: That any Muslim imam who stands before a Jewish congregation and says, "I am a Jew," is placing his life in danger. Remember, Islamists hate the people they consider apostates even more than they hate Christians and Jews. In other words, the man many commentators on the right assert is a terrorist-sympathizer placed himself in mortal peril in order to identify himself with Christians and Jews, and specifically with the most famous Jewish victim of Islamism.
It is precisely because radicalism is so pervasive and powerful within the Muslim world that it is vital to cultivate people like Rauf. Cultivating dissidents within Islam against murderous sectarianism is a primary task in our fight against al Qaeda. During the Cold War, some of the most powerful indictments of Soviet tyranny were made by Russian dissidents. Some of these dissidents were, in a manner of speaking, communists. You wouldn't want a Leon Trotsky running American economic policy. But imagine that right-wingers protested the publication of these dissidents' work. They're Russians! Maybe even communists themselves! Why should we let them spread their ideas in America?
It's obviously not a perfect analogy. But the key fact is that we are fighting a war for the hearts and minds of non-radical Muslims, and the Park 51 uproar is helping drive potential allies into the arms of the enemy. It is madness.