A friend asked. I was almost taken aback by my answer: “I don’t really care.”
I can’t muster a great deal of concern about the proposed Islamic center in New York near Ground Zero. Maybe I’m callous. Maybe I’m out of touch with the American people. But the more I think about it, the less I care.
Few dispute that Imam Abdul Rauf has a constitutional right to build an Islamic Center on Park Place, two blocks north of Ground Zero. Yet over the last couple of weeks a growing number have joined a chorus of critics who claim that the building the planned mosque would be “insensitive,” “disrespectful,” and “unwise.” Others have pointed out that the sources of funding for the proposed Islamic Center are unsavory, or that Adul Rauf isn’t the great moderate he pretends to be.
I suggest that we step back for a moment. Lots of “insensitive,” “disrespectful,” and “unwise” things happen in New York, and a great deal is done with true motives disguised. Why, then, the furor?
No one would deny that symbolism is at the root of this controversy. Many see the project as a deliberate act of aggression, a stick in the eye of America. It’s a gesture that can be read as saying, “We took down the buildings, and we’re going to celebrate our victory.”
Those who lost family members and friends feel like they are watching someone dance on their loved ones’ grave. Those anxious about the clash of civilizations feel the building escalates the conflict. Those who fear the America is becoming a spineless nation led by an elite committed to a strategy of appeasement feel that approval of the Islamic center is a capitulation to the beginnings of an Islamic invasion.
I’m not interested in denying the specific feelings, worries, or fears, but let’s look at the context. America is an extremely powerful nation with a very robust, vibrant, and remarkably successful culture. Therefore—and this goes to the root of my indifference to the issue—an Islamic Center in New York is irrelevant. Compared to the locomotive of American society, it’s like a penny on a railroad track.
Consider how we appear to others. English seems an unstoppable linguistic virus. For good or ill, the global economy revolves around us. Our society is unique in its ability to absorb and assimilate immigrants who become profoundly loyal citizens. Our military may not be able to perform nation-building miracles, but since 9/11 it has shown itself quite capable of quickly destroying our enemies.
And there’s more. Alone among Western nations, the United States has shown itself capable of joining Christian piety with economic prosperity, modern political freedoms, and a civic culture of tolerance (the limits rather than existence of which define our current political battles over social issues). By contrast, a great deal of the Muslim world is currently in a state of crisis, in large part because of the felt internal conflict between faith and modernity.
This crisis should be obvious to anyone who contemplates the real symbolic meaning of suicide bombers. A society that has reduced itself to strapping explosives on to young men (and women as well) is a desperate society.
The same holds for what many say will be the perception among Muslims in the Middle East, whom we are told will read the symbolism as a sign of their strength and our craven weakness and capitulation. Could there be a more absurd and deluded interpretation of the significance of a small building in New York? Or of our culture of tolerance? Or of our capacity for swift, vigorous, and united responses to real threats?
So let me put the matter as bluntly as possible. Whatever the perceived symbolism, whatever the intended symbolism, the real world suggests otherwise. Societies dominated by Islam are relatively troubled, whereas we are relatively healthy. Yes, the deranged and desperate can be dangerous. But irritating as it may be for small children to be waving a sharpened stick around our ankles (and requiring as it does firm discipline), the stick doesn’t threaten our eyes.
Last week I went down to Ground Zero, and the physical reality of the place reinforced my indifference. The planned Islamic Center will be a couple of blocks away, an invisible thirteen-story building in a sea of massive office buildings that cuts off all views. Unless a tourist seeks it out, it will not be noticed.
Instead, the presiding presence is and will remain St. Paul’s Chapel, a gracious, nearly 250-year-old Episcopal church that sits on a beautiful, tree-covered cemetery overlooking Ground Zero. And of course there will be the giant soaring skyscrapers planned for the rebuilt World Trade Center plaza, along with the requisite memorials.
The symbolism reflects the reality of New York, and of America. We’re a largely if often confusedly and half-heartedly Christian nation that builds temples to Mammon, and then liberally scatters memorial and monuments to satisfy our secular piety. America is a mixed-up national project, unlikely to satisfy the exacting ideals of a theologian, political philosopher, or cultural theorist, and yet preternaturally successful, perhaps because it is a nation and society largely in accord with basic human sensibilities that resist reduction to neat theories and pat principles.
Aristotle ranked magnanimity among the virtues that characterize a man who is at once powerful and noble. This virtue involves treating those who are weaker with a certain indulgence. When a servant breaks a vase, a magnanimous soul waves it off. If an underling owes a debt, it is forgiven as a gesture of indifference. “Don’t worry about it,” says the magnanimous person.
Although we often see its fierce side in the news, by and large Islam is weak. It’s not vying for political control or cultural dominance in America, where it’s largely irrelevant. Radical Islam is of course a global threat, but mostly as a power of disintegration rather than a force to be reckoned with. The country currently facing an existential threat from Islam is Pakistan, not America.
We should be magnanimous. Abdul Rauf’s Islamic Center on Park Place may be a good idea or a bad idea. I’m not sure myself. But this seems obvious: in comparison to the very big fact of America, it’s a small idea, and not worth worrying about.
R.R. Reno is a senior editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, to which he contributed the commentary on Genesis.