Nasser Rabbat

Director Islamic Architecture at MIT

I will begin with a critique of the way framed its maiden topic of discussion.  First, it bought into the inflammatory sobriquet, The Ground Zero Mosque, to designate what we all now know is neither a mosque nor will it be constructed on Ground Zero.  We should use the proper name for the project, which is the Cordoba Project, or at least the actual site’s address, Park51.  This way we will be more accurate and can maintain a neutral tone in tackling the subject.

Second, the main question posed, “Should the West welcome new mosques? Should the East welcome new churches (and other places of worship)?” suggests an expectation of reciprocity between the two sides, East and West, and reduces the issue to a question of mutual fairness of treatment, or lack thereof, or, perhaps more cunningly, to a comparison between East and West.  And we all know the answer to that question, even before we begin to consider it.

To me, the main issue is not whether the Park51 project should be allowed to be built, or whether Muslims should be allowed to build mosques, including the erection of tall minarets and domes, or be permitted to freely practice their rituals, including the loud call to prayer and separation of gender in their religious spaces.  In fact, I think all of these questions, pressing as they may be for the case at hand, are secondary to the most critical challenge that the debate has uncovered, namely, what is the message that those who oppose the building of Park51 are sending.  Many, I suspect, will say intolerance.  But what is at stake is much more than the abandonment of a cherished Christian (or Jewish, or Islamic, or religious) virtue.  What is at stake is at the core of the constitution of modern Western states, and is inscribed on the paper (or parchment) of their actual constitutions.  It is the fundamental rights of citizenship.

Let me briefly explain what I mean.  The real problem is the willingness of (some of) the people of America and other Western democracies to forgo the fundamental rights enshrined in their constitution, and underlying their sense of themselves as belonging to a free nation made up of free citizens, when it comes to allowing fellow citizens, no matter how recently naturalized they are, to practice these same rights.  What the members of the Cordoba Project are denied in the recent polls showing that 70% of all New Yorkers oppose the project is not simply the right to practice their religion, it is actually the right to enjoy their rights as citizens according to the First Amendment.  This is essentially what they are deprived of, regardless of all the noise made about the feelings of the families of 9/11 victims or the suspect sources of funding.  Call it bigotry, call it blindness, ignorance, or racism (and it is all of the above), but what it is above all is dangerous and, to use the parlance of modern-day America, anti-American, because it is anti-constitutional.

This is a slippery precipice that we have dangerously slid on many times in the past to catastrophic results.   And we have been doing it again since 9/11, naively or maliciously, in the name of security.  We have accepted the stripping of so many of our legal rights in the Patriot Act.  We have not questioned the motives of our successive administrations in throwing us in an undefined and indefinable state of war with what will end up being one fifth of humanity, the Muslims, without any clear and achievable objective.  We have tolerated the grave injustices and hideous torture being perpetrated in our names in Guantanamo, but also in secret and not-so-secret detention centers around the world.  We have allowed racism against Arabs and Muslims to pervade countless TV programs, movies, writings and blogs, and we have decided to ignore it, or even to partake in it.  And what we have proven in all of these attitudes is not our intolerance or our bigotry.  What we have proven is our fragile sense of citizenship, our warped notion of civil rights, and our unadulterated worship of might.

The Park51 entanglement is but one episode of this slow but palpable retreat from the principles of civil rights, which have been partially gained after a long and torturous struggle.  To me, who came to this country because of its freedoms and its rights of citizenship, it is a sad episode.  But to us, it is a damaging development that should be resisted not in the name of religion, but in the name of freedom of religion, or of no-religion.  It should be resisted in the name of civil rights, the exact same rights that are lacking in most of the Islamic world.  This absence has prevented the citizens of those countries from even seeing the bias embedded in their treatment of their fellow citizens who belong to minority religions, and who are sometimes denied some of their basic religious rights.  Addressing either issue from the angle of citizens’ rights will elevate the debate over the building of mosques in the West or churches in the East from the level of tolerance versus intolerance, whose reversal is essentially a function of gracious charity, to that of rights, universal, unalienable, and not granted by the powerful side only.

Nasser Rabbat, Ph.D., is the Aga Khan Professor and the Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT.  He is an architect and a historian, with a focus on Islamic architecture, urban history, and post-colonial studies.  His books include, The Citadel of Cairo: A New Interpretation of Royal Mamluk Architecture, Thaqafat al Bina’ wa Bina’ al-Thaqafa, al-Mudun al-Mayyita, and Mamluk History Through Architecture: Building, Culture, and Politics in Mamluk Egypt and Syria.  He is the editor of Making Cairo Medieval, and The Courtyard House between Cultural Reference and Universal Relevance.  He regularly consults on design projects and lectures extensively in the US and abroad.