THE BLOG
08/17/2010 01:36 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The "Mosque Affair," or, Far and Away the Country's Most Ridiculous Controversy

This morning Newt Gingrich compared the construction of a proposed Islamic community center two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center to posting a Nazi billboard next to the Holocaust Museum or building a Shinto shrine near Pearl Harbor. While the construction of the proposed community center is far less like posting a Nazi billboard next to a Holocaust Museum than it is to, say, constructing a cultural center on the ever-so-slightly-less-than-hallowed ground of an old Burlington Coat Factory, the Shinto shrine plan actually sounded like something approaching an apt metaphor. Except for an extreme disparity of scale and the actual existential threat of WWII, it's all there: an attack on American soil costing thousands of lives by an enemy professing to be working actively in the name of God. Not only that -- and maybe this is just my own rootless cosmopolitanism speaking here -- but it seemed like a fairly decent idea. After all is this not the very kind of freedom that 'they' supposedly hate 'us' for?

And then it dawned on me. "Why, Ajay," I thought to myself, "that is such a decent idea that surely someone else must have already thought of it." So I sat down and put my three advanced degrees to work in the best way I know how and conducted a cursory 30 second Google search. And lo and behold! I discovered that in fact there is a Shinto shrine near Pearl Harbor, just a few miles out. As Professor James Whitehurst of Illinois Wesleyan University wrote in an article back in 1984, this shrine and others like it in Hawaii were not in fact part of a Japanese-Shinto triumphal march over the former battleground; this was no metaphysical victory dance in the American spiritual end-zone. Quite the contrary, Professor Whitehurst noted that despite the fiercely racialist and national-religious spirit that had informed much of early 20th century Shinto belief, Shinto practice had in fact taken on a remarkably accommodationalist and assimilationist character in post-war American society. As Professor Whitehurst exclaimed at the end of his article, "An American flag flying beside a Shinto shrine on the freeway to Pearl Harbor! An incredible sight one can encounter only in America." All this, by the way, written about the former official national religion of an entire major power - with a God Emperor no less - that had been at war with the United States, a far cry from a tiny minority among over a billion diverse practitioners of a major world religion. When reading Professor Whitehurst's conclusion, one can quite easily imagine a comparably stirring only-in-America sight of peoples of all creeds embracing a liberal minded Islamic community center in the heart of our greatest metropolis. One can certainly imagine that, but if you turn on the television you will see the slightly-less-stirring vision of a Godwin's Law-defying race to xenophobia and demonization.

Now to someone unfamiliar with the spatially-challenged nature of New York City geography, the comparison of a couple of blocks and a couple of miles might seem like just a bit too much but remember this: two blocks is all it takes to turn a Williamsburg loft into an East Williamsburg rat-trap. And to someone unfamiliar with rudimentary facts about the world, one might think that the USS Arizona was sunk by one of the many arms of Vishnu. Such a person might even think it was in any way a remotely bad idea to have a mosque in the Pentagon. You know, like the one that's already there. To punish the 100 or so Muslims who work every day at the Pentagon. Or something. Surely, that would be the height of madness.

There is simply no actual controversy here. The proposed Islamic community center, officially dubbed the "Cordoba House," is now and will be in the future no more controversial than the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side or the 92nd Street Y. Its proposal and existence are as American as apple pie or at least as American as the First Amendment. The most radical thing that it is likely to produce is some kind of free jazz performance featuring Zakir Hussein and John Zorn. And actually, now that I think about it, that sounds awesome. I can't wait.

When a handful of misguided souls who clearly have never read the American Constitution or spent much time here in the American heartland (I am currently writing from Brooklyn, NY) started making a fuss about the Islamic community center, it was silly enough but I had assumed it was just a passing fad. But the persistence of the issue among prominent media figures and politicians has become a national embarrassment and precisely the kind of hypocrisy that fuels anti-American propaganda. It's time to move on to more pressing concerns.