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 Christian 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, 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 means turning to the gifts of the past where such things have happened before and learning from them.
Despite what Mr. Gingrich 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, and a constitutional right, then 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 focused on 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 forward. Mecca is the most holy city in Islam. Pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five 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 a ‘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 U.S. 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 Islamic prayer and 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, Gingrich 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 to destroy America, is able to deflect attention from his disregard for American values and culture. Newt Gingrich in his blatant disregard for American values and the inalienable rights promised by the U.S. 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.
Jason Derr has an MA from the Vancouver School of Theology. He is an independent and a theologian-in-affiliation with the Progressive Christian Alliance. His writing has appeared on PopTheology.com, ginkworld.net, Patheos.com, and in Relief. He lives in Vancouver, BC with his wife.