Why Howard Dean's Call for "Open Discussion" on So-Called Ground Zero Mosque Is Misguided

08/24/2010 02:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Wednesday, Howard Dean said he thought "another site would be a better idea" for the Cordoba Center slated for lower Manhattan. In response to questions from Glenn Greenwald, Dean now submits that he didn't imply as much and that he is only interested in having an "open discussion" about the center. As part of that discussion, Dean told Greenwald on Thursday, the "possibility" of the Cordoba center being moved needed "to be on the table."

Even if we take Dean at his (latest) word - that he just wants to promote a "discussion," he is wrong. Not because conversation is bad in itself, of course. But because this particular conversation is already so obviously warped by prejudice and intolerance that it cannot fail to be an exercise in forcing Muslims in general and supporters of the Cordoba center in particular to explain why they are not terrorist sympathizers. On those terms, Dean's proposed conversation has no chance of being a productive one of the sort he seems to want. In fact, Dean's own framing of the terms of the discussion leaves little room for anything else. His starting premise is that a large majority of Americans, out of fear and emotion (his words), don't like the idea of the center being sited so close to Ground Zero. And those fears and emotions need to be assuaged, presumably by the Cordoba Center's sponsors convincing recalcitrant Americans that they mean no harm and by acknowledging that they might be willing to move the center, if those fears and emotions are not adequately mollified.

If that's the starting point for the "discussion," what is to come next? Dean says he wants American Muslims, who he says have been treated badly since 9/11, to be welcomed "back into the fold" of American society. How is that to happen? Does he really think that moving the center, or opening a discussion whose only content, in Dean's proposal, is for the center sponsors to disavow that which they've already disavowed and then to consider moving, is going to reduce the level of intolerance toward Muslims in America (or people who aren't Muslim, but who seem like they might be, like the sitting President of the United States)? Dean also repeatedly used the word "compromise" to describe what he had in mind. But compromise requires concessions from two sides to a dispute. What is the compromise he would propose that current opponents of the center's siting offer? He never says, making his talk of "compromise" entirely hollow.

Jon Stewart's opening segment last night, including a litany of the most vicious charges leveled against "Islam," (in quotes because to characterize it as a singular entity is absurd), illustrates the point perfectly well. No matter how many times opponents of the project wrap their disapproval in question marks, or concern for women's rights or "sensitivity," too many simply cannot, ultimately, help themselves (Dick Morris: "a command center for terrorism, right at the site").

From the outer boroughs of New York City, to Kentucky, Tennessee and all the way out to California, angry protests are demanding that mosques not be built, or shut down. A church in Florida plans to sponsor a burning of Korans. This is blind intolerance, plain and simple.

And in this context, all Howard Dean's call for "conversation" will do is legitimize that intolerance. And he must know this. Last night, on "liberal" CNN, John King had a very lengthy, respectful conversation with Franklin Graham, who has declared Islam "wicked" and "evil," about Graham's views. Graham tried to claim that he loves Muslims, but then went on to offer a litany of ugly practices in Muslim countries. For example, he attacked the gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia (my words, not his) and a host of other objectionable practices in other Muslim countries. I share his revulsion at Saudi gender laws. But how is this relevant to a discussion of the Cordoba center? Is there any prospect at all that the Cordoba center is going to be a hub of activity attempting to strip American women of their right to drive? If it is relevant to the conversation, and Graham is so exercised about the sexist marriage and divorce laws in Saudi Arabia, would it be relevant to discuss the also highly sexist marriage and divorce laws in Israel, whenever someone wants to build a synagogue? (To be clear, I don't think such considerations are relevant. The question is why Graham does in the case of the Cordoba center, since he specifically raised the example, among others, of marriage laws in Saudi Arabia).

If a discussion of the Cordoba center seems to always end up back in the same place, with the impugning of all of Islam, how can it really be relevant where the center is? If Islam is ultimately an evil, vile religion, bent on the subjugation of women and plotting the next mass-casualty attack on the United States, what difference does it make whether a center is two blocks, or five miles or a continent away? And if that is, time and again, the default mode in our conversations about Islam, what does Dean hope to accomplish by having a "conversation" about it?

To try, I am sure in vain, to foreclose certain responses to this post, I am not, repeat not, arguing that people don't have a "right" to want to discuss this matter. Of course they do. What I am arguing is that we are not going to have a productive conversation on the terms that Dean proposes. We live in an era when one of our major political parties has cultivated a base that has strongly authoritarian impulses and where, therefore, intolerance of difference is rife. From gay marriage, to illegal immigration, to this controversy and beyond, thinly disguised (if at all) intolerance is being served up as the cure to all of what ails us - our economic problems, our changing society, our uncertain futures. And while one party gives itself over to such impulses, too many prominent figures in the other display a remarkable cowardice in the face of this ugliness. Dean's proposed conversation and compromise is flawed at its core by his blindness to a basic reality - his acceptance of the premise that a sweeping indictment of an entire religion, in the context of a larger climate of intolerance - is a reasonable starting point for a dialogue.

After 9/11, we heard constantly that we were attacked because the Bin Ladens of the world hated our freedoms. It turns out that too many Americans also hate our freedoms. If Howard Dean wants to have a conversation about the Cordoba center in the context of that depressing fact, I am all for it. But as far as I can tell, what Dean has in mind isn't a conversation or compromise. Instead, he appears to be proposing that the center's planners throw themselves on the mercy of the American people, to plead that they (the center's sponsors and, by implication, all Muslims) not be thought of as co-conspirators with Bin Laden. In this light, his proposed conversation and compromise is just putting a respectable face on the ugliest impulses behind this whole sordid "controversy."

Jonathan Weiler's most recent book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, was published last year by Cambridge University Press.