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Making the US Look Small to the World

By Alvaro Vargas Llosa
August 17, 2010

Editor’s Note: Republican politicians and neocon commentators apparently see political gain in whipping up American anger over an Islamic mosque and community center only two blocks from 9/11’s Ground Zero – and politically they may be right.

But the furor also has put American soldiers and diplomats in greater danger by making the United States look small-minded and intolerant to the world’s Muslims – not to mention hypocritical about its founding principles, as the Independent Institute’s Alvaro Largas Llosa notes in this guest essay:

New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission was right not to designate the building at 45 Park Place, two blocks from Ground Zero, a historical landmark.

The decision paves the way for the Cordoba House, the controversial Muslim-led interfaith cultural and community center that the owners intend to erect in lieu of the edifice targeted for demolition. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others who defended the plan were right to do so.

The campaign against it is the negation of what America should be about: tolerance, private property and pluralism. Many of those criticizing the plan betrayed prejudice and hatred. But others made thoughtful arguments that need to be confronted in the context of the debate about the relationship between liberal democracy and Islam.

The sensitivities of the relatives of the victims were frequently invoked. They deserve the utmost consideration. But invoking them to block the plans of the building’s owners misses three points.

First, a few dozen Muslims died at the World Trade Center on 9/11 too. Second, among the victims’ relatives there are those who favor and those who oppose Park51, as the center will be called. Last but not least, as Mayor Bloomberg has said, you cannot override someone’s property rights because of other people’s perceptions without undermining private property — and the courts were bound to safeguard that principle.

Apart from the victims’ sensitivities, the main argument against the center is that placing it near Ground Zero will hand a symbolic victory to al-Qaeda.
John Tabin wrote on The American Spectator’s Web site, “To people raised in a culture dominated by strong horse politics, a large Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero is likely to be interpreted just as (Osama) bin-Laden interpreted American interest in Islam: As a sign that the radicals have a point, and the interests of Islam are advanced when a lot of Americans die.”

Similarly, Dan Senor, a former George W. Bush appointee who served under the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, argued in The Wall Street Journal that the center “will be celebrated as a Muslim monument erected on the site of a great Muslim ‘military’ victory.”

One should not judge the merits of something primarily on the basis of whether the wrong people also support it. Many a good cause is honestly defended by the right people and, for tactical reasons, dishonestly backed by the wrong ones.

Was it wrong for freedom-loving Spaniards to oppose General Franco simply because the Soviets also opposed him? Is it wrong to combat Fidel Castro simply because some Cuban and Venezuelan anti-communists were behind the attack on a Cuban airliner that killed 73 passengers over Barbados in 1976?

But in this case, the premise that the wrong people will find cause for celebration rings hollow. Bin Laden and company hate any strand of Islam that stands for peaceful coexistence and liberal values — including the symbolism of Cordoba, a Spanish city fabled for its religious tolerance in the 10th and 11th centuries under Muslim rule.

If the people attached to the center, with many of whose views I disagree, have anything to fear, it is not that Park51 will be self-servingly misconstrued by terrorists. It is the opposite — that terrorists will want to kill them for trying to strengthen the forces of tolerance within Islam against those who want to despotically monopolize the faith.

In the United States, there are about 700 Hindu and 2,000 Buddhist temples — a higher figure than the total number of mosques. The population of Muslims is inconclusively debated, with Muslim organizations offering high figures (between 8 million and 12 million) and scholarly studies speaking of no more than 2 million.

But one seldom hears that these minorities represent a major social, political or security threat.

Islam was associated with radicalism in the wake of the civil rights push and the ensuing “black power” movement decades ago. But the effect waned and the United States was largely spared the kind of homegrown Islamic radicalism experienced by other Western societies.

Which is not to say that in certain circles disaffected youth have not been impacted by preachers connected to foreign circles, or that a more radical teaching has not been present around some mosques.

These people claim that American freedoms are a fig leaf for discrimination and abuse of power. The decision to allow the center proves them wrong yet again.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is Senior Fellow of The Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute.

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