Freedom on Park Place

The New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat penned a characteristically nuanced contribution on the question of the Park Place center 10 days ago. In "Islam in Two Americas," he suggested that "Nativist concerns about Catholicism's illiberal tendencies inspired American Catholics to prod their church toward a recognition of the virtues of democracy, making it possible for generations of immigrants to feel unambiguously Catholic and American."

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There are at least two ways in which this is not the whole story. First, "Nativist concerns" were expressed in mob violence against Irish Catholics through much the first half of the 19th century. At the end of this period, during the Mexican-American war, Catholic soldiers who were not getting due respect from their superior officers formed the St. Patrick's Battalion and defected to the enemy. Eighty years later, and 150 years after the Declaration of Independence, the Klan's burning crosses greeted the presidential campaign of Al Smith. In that year, 1928, a few intellectuals argued that a Catholic could not and should not be president.

Secondly, the Echo's Terry Golway, Mayor Bloomberg speechwriter Frank Barry and other Irish-American scholars have been arguing that Catholics brought democratic values and practices with them to America, and created mass democracy in cities here much to the chagrin of the established elites.

However, it is true that minorities adapt to the predominant culture over time. We would suggest that pragmatism dictates, rather than the "steady pressure to conform to American norms, exerted through fair means and foul," as Douthat would have it. Language disappears after a couple of generations, customs fade; only religion survives, but in highly compartmentalized forms.

No immigrant group compartmentalized quite so fast as the Muslims in the late 20th century. They were well-educated, conservative and middle class. A reported 80 percent voted for George Bush in the 2000 election. Then came the calamity of 9/11, putting a community that is not much above 1 percent of the population on the defensive.

The imam behind Park51, with his ties to both the Washington establishment and the Arab world, is someone who can help his coreligionists fully assimilate. Feisal Abdul Rauf, a Sufi Muslim, is a voice of moderation and reason compared not just to people of his own religion, but also to some Christians who've sought and hold elective office in our society. He would appear to have a more consistent moral worldview than some of his attackers. If then he is to be judged to a different standard, how can we but conclude that Muslims are to be second-class citizens?

Our soldiers are battling for the hearts and minds of the peoples of two Islamic countries, and yet the word "mosque" is treated as an epithet in sections of our media and society. Our nation has close political, military and business alliances with the world's many Muslim nations and yet Islamophobia is exploited by some of our politicians.

There are American Muslim soldiers and American Muslim politicians, and people who adhere to the Islamic faith can be found in all walks of life. They are American, but they must not, it seems, be identified in any way with an American shrine. People even object to a cultural center or mosque out of sight of Ground Zero, next to bars, a strip club and an off-track betting outlet.

The number of Muslim murder victims on 9/11 was, at the very minimum, proportionate to the faith's share of the national population. They included analyst Abdul K. Chowdbury (one of several Cantor Fitzgerald employees of his faith who died), Touri Bolourchi, a retired nurse on Flight 175, and police cadet Mohammad Salman Hamdani, who died assisting fellow New Yorkers. But the opponents of the Park Place center seem rather more comfortable with the idea of suicide killer Mohamed Atta, their murderer, being the face of their religion.

That's called group blame, or collective guilt. The Jewish people experienced some of that over two millennia. Little wonder, then, that former Mayor Ed Koch, a proud Jew and uncompromising supporter of Israel, has said that our nation will look back on this episode with embarrassment.