Cordoba House: In Support of American Religious Values

In the last week a conversations has popped up in the blogosphere, presenting us with a unique conversation. To begin with was the ramblings and non-sense of former Republican speaker Newt Gingrich as it relates to the proposed Cordoba House mosque near Ground Zero, New York. Mr. Gingrich is not alone in his ramblings – the Koran burning pastor of Florida comes to mind – but they alone indicate the gross disregard for American values that are required for a movement of thought as seen in Mr. Gingrich.


The statements of Newt Gingrich are especially offensive. While he of course has responsibilities to the conservative political spectrum – and of course the Republican party and FOX news – his failure as a politician is that he allowed those allegiances to overshadow his allegiances to the United States Constitution. In theological terms Newt chose ideology over truth telling, justice and mercy.

For those who are unaware the controversy centers on Park51, sometimes called Cordoba House – the proposed New York City site for a mosque, just blocks from Ground Zero. Many voices have entered the fray, several of which are convinced that a 13 story community center dedicated to interfaith engagement somehow is disrespectful to the victims of Ground Zero or represents an covert operation to convert America to Islam.

Park51/Cordoba house, though, is more than a Mosque. It will be a 13-story community center in the spirit of the Jewish Community Center and the YMCA, as well as any number of other community centers. While Park51/Cordoba will have a space for Islamic prayer it will also be a gift of resources to the wider community as well as to interfaith dialogue.

The most absurd protest has been that since the 9/11 terrorists were Muslim then it would be offensive to have a Mosque so close to Ground Zero. This would be akin to saying that Germany should have no churches, as it was people who called themselves Christians perpetrated the holocaust.

But Gingrich takes his protest even further. For the rest of this section on Newt and his words I will draw out quotes from his actual statement – available on his website – and provide commentary.

There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia

Newt performs here what I call the ‘Dawkins Fallacy’. Like Richard Dawkins Newt has set-up an argument where the minority represents the majority, thus making the test case of one group of people represent the entire faith. In this way the most extreme becomes not the example of the worst of what you are protesting but the whole of what you are protesting. While Newt does raise an important question about religious freedom in Saudi Arabia he does so in a way that misses larger context. By linking it to Cordoba House he makes it basically a form of parental punishment: if Suzy can’t play with her new toy, then neither can Billy.

By doing this Newt paints the Islamic world as intolerant while positioning his own intolerance as being protective and freedom loving. In order to maintain this position Newt must ignore the historic Jewish communities in the Islamic world in places like Iran and Egypt. Additionally he must overlook the historic Arab Christian communities in Palestine, Iraq, Egypt and throughout the Arabic world.

A final point I would ask is how Mr. Ginrich plans on arguing for a moral position of religious freedom if he is advocating for intolerance? It is now impossible for him as a politician to turn toward Saudi Arabia and say that democracy in even religious affiliation is something as Americans we pride ourselves on. There is no ‘light on the hill’ in this scenario – no forming ourselves as an alternative community to systems of oppression and injustice – if we have removed that role of alternative community from how we operate and view ourselves. We cannot protect our freedoms and values by violating the rights and freedoms of another group.

For example, most of them don’t understand that “Cordoba House” is a deliberately insulting term.  It refers to Cordoba, Spain – the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex.

Ginrick chooses to see Cordoba – the name chosen for Park51, possible future home of an Islamic cultural center – as a symbol of Islamic conquest of Chrisitans. He misses another opportunity for interpretation – of a time where a nation under Islamic rule emphasized interfaith collaboration and rights and freedoms for people of all faiths. In light of this we can see the reason the founders of Cordoba House/Park51 chose this name for a community center that will be for all – an Islamic institution with gifts and resources and inclusion for a wider community.

Gingrich also shows his historical ignorance. The Islamic rulers of Cordoba did not take over a church and turn it into a mosque to symbolize their victory. The original Chrisitan church of that location was bought from the local Christian community and then transformed into a Mosque over a two hundred year period. The location is now a Roman Catholic Cathedral.

By rejecting the possibility of a spirit of Cordoba in the heart of New York City –and blocks from Ground Zero – Gingrich rejects the possibility of interfaith engagement as a path forward. If the present world is facing interfaith conflicts then interfaith solutions must be a part of the way forward, and part of that takes means turning to the gifts of the past where such things have happened before and learning from them.

Despite what Mr. Ginrich feels Cordoba is recognized as a symbol of a time when Islam and other faiths were able to flourish side by side, learn from each other and coexist.

If the people behind the Cordoba House were serious about religious toleration, they would be imploring the Saudis, as fellow Muslims, to immediately open up Mecca to all and immediately announce their intention to allow non-Muslim houses of worship in the Kingdom.

Gingrich again returns to the one valid part of his argument – namely the issue of Human and Religious Rights. But he invalidates such a concern by his insistence that American Muslims do not have the same right as American Christians and Jews to gather and worship. He also makes the mistake – again – of conflating the few as the many. If he is to stand by a position of religious freedom as a universal right then  – and a constitutional right – to argue against the constitutional freedom of religion is to argue against the importance and validity of an American value. What gift does this value have to the rest of the world if we view it as less than ‘inalienable’?

He also assumes that the people of Cordoba House somehow have influence or connection to the way in which Saudi Arabia is run. It seems that Cordoba House is doing a much better job of protesting injustices to religious freedom by forming a community mired in an alternative way of doing things – by being a place of justice, community service and interfaith engagement – than through public statements. More than anything this way of being is a protest against religious intolerance.

His other point is a right field positioning of Mecca as a bargaining chip to allow Cordoba House to go foreword. Mecca is the most holy city in Islam. Pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the 5 pillars of Islam and as such has huge cultural and metaphorical currency in Islam. Whether Mecca should be open to non-Muslims is an internal conversation of the Islamic faith and should have no standing on whether or not Cordoba House should be allowed to exist.

America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.

Here Gingrich steps up his rhetoric to a whole other level. After having argued that New Yorkers should participate in the violation of the constitutional rights of Muslims he then accuses them of participating in an ‘cultural-political offensive’ designed to destroy America. Again he engages in a failure of imagination in his choice of interpretation – as a politician who sees the so-called cultural wars causing stress and anxiety in American culture he chooses the path of fear instead of the path of the Constitution.

The other choice he could have made – as a conservative who has vowed to protect and uphold the US Constitution – was to become a partner in the project itself and uphold and protect the American value of freedom of religion. By choosing a path rooted in fear and mistrust he has instead chosen to see a YMCA like cultural center dedicated to a) Islamic prayer and b) Interfaith engagement as a place dedicated to the destruction of the American way of life.

Instead Gingrich sees upholding the constitutional value of religious freedom and honoring American values as allowing the faith of the ‘other’ to undermine and destroy our civilization. As America has always been proud of its diverse and multicultural population Newt has named the very tradition of America as being one that allows corruption and undermining. To be clear – Newt Gingrich feels that American values undermine American values!

The future of Islam in America will be forged in places where young American Muslims can wrestle with the question of faith, identity and postmodern culture in an open and accessible way. This means centers of vitality, welcome and innovation must emerge that can allow these questions to happen. Cordoba House could be that place.

The saddest part of this is that Gingrich by accusing a community center of seeking destroy America is able to deflect attention from his disregard for American values and culture. Newt Ginrich in his blatant disregard for American values and the inalienable rights promised by the US constitution is seeking to participate in the erosion of value that has made our country special. If we cannot begin to recognize American Muslims as fellow Americans who participate in our culture as equal partners then we have lost the country already.

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