ADL and Downtown Islamic Center: What about the Pentagon?

The debate over the Islamic Center being planned for Lower Manhattan is unfortunately heating up. Islamophobes from neoconservative corners of the web, right wing politicians and Fox News have continued to drive a debate that should have died long ago with the unequivocal support of the local New York City community board (neighborhood council), and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s assertion that no one would raise objections if it was a church or a synagogue, and that “Muslims have a right to do it, too.”

But I was shocked that an organization dedicated to combating bigotry — Abraham Foxman’s Anti-Defamation League (ADL) — chimed in to ask that the location of the Islamic center, which will house a mosque, be moved. Well, maybe not shocked, but surprised that the ADL — which claims that it fights “all forms of bigotry, defends democratic ideals and protects civil rights for all” — would lay bare its myopic right-wing focus by publicly taking such a stand.

The ADL even admitted that much of the opposition to the Islamic center is based on bigotry and condemned those views! As Alex Pareene wryly quipped on Salon’s War Room blog: “Hah, I don’t think you guys know what “categorically reject” and “condemn” mean! For future reference: ‘condemn’ does not mean ‘join.'” If you can’t beat ’em, I guess.

I have little to add, as Jim, cribbing Paul Krugman’s argument, already captured nicely the hypocrisy of an organization ostensibly aimed at curbing defamation lending a de facto endorsement of a defamatory view of Muslims — and the implications that this has for other minority groups, like, say, for instance, Jews (the ADL’s original mandate, when it was formed nearly 100 years ago, was exclusively for this demographic). But there are two points I wanted to make.

The first is to do a little thought experiment. The proposed Islamic center is slated to be built two Manhattan blocks from Ground Zero. Now, the Pentagon, which, you’ll remember, was also attacked by radical Muslims on 9/11, is a mere stone’s throw away from Arlington National Cemetery. Say, hypothetically, of course, that family members of the 125 people who perished in the Pentagon that day raised objections to Muslim soldiers from U.S. armed forces being buried at the historic cemetery on Robert E. Lee’s old Arlington plantation. Or it could be the families of the 59 people who were aboard American flight 77 when it hit the Defense Department headquarters. What if it brought those family members pain to see the Islamic symbol — a star and crescent moon — atop the gravestones of these soldiers?

Would Sarah Palin, Rick Lazio, Newt Gingrich and their new friend, Abe Foxman, be asking that these Muslim soldiers not be buried there, or perhaps that their headstones not bear the insignia of their faith because it causes pain that the attackers shared their faith (albeit a twisted and delusional version of it)?

Furthermore, what if the families of Christian, Jewish and atheist soldiers objected that their kids were killed by Muslims in Muslim lands (invaded by the U.S., of course) and were pained by the fact that the next grave over bears Islamic symbols? Would right-wing anti-Islam politicians and figures like Foxman be asking that Muslims be barred from burial in Arlington? Now, after all, we’re talking a matter of feet, not even a stone’s throw, let alone two city blocks.

Oh, and about those city blocks: I fell in love with New York about seven years ago, spending spells of time there and visiting frequently. Last summer, I moved to Manhattan. I’m still exploring the city and would not yet consider myself a New Yorker. But even I understand that building something in New York two blocks away from a particular site is not building on top of said site. Tourists always comment that everything in Manhattan is right on top of everything else. For people living there, I’ve found, two blocks away is two blocks away. Consider, for example, that two blocks north of Columbia University (in Morningside Heights) is Harlem, as is two blocks East.

Conservative blogger Charles Johnson picks up on this distinction, including a nifty map (scroll down to updates) and noting that the center would “[have] no view of the area; there are two very big buildings in between the proposed community center and Ground Zero.”

In his “NYC” column in the New York Times last week, Clyde Haberman also took issue with the language used by opponents of the Islamic center to describe its location:

The center is routinely referred to by some opponents as the “mosque at ground zero.” […] There’s that “at.” For a two-letter word, it packs quite a wallop. It has been tossed around in a manner both cavalier and disingenuous, with an intention by some to inflame passions. Nobody, regardless of political leanings, would tolerate a mosque at ground zero. “Near” is not the same, as anyone who paid attention back in the fourth grade should know.

(The line about prepositions is valid, but I’m not quite sure why “nobody would tolerate a mosque at ground zero.” What if a Muslim developer bought the lot? I’ll just assume that Haberman sees Ground Zero as some sort of national symbol and therefore unfit for any sort of religious site.)

Joshua Holland, at Alternet, takes up the same issue with stronger language (less of a grammar lesson) and points to the absurdity of a New York-based organization like the ADL being unable to grasp this New York fact of life:

Only brain-dead out-of-towners could possibly confuse a building two whole blocks away from Ground Zero as one constructed on the 9/11 site. People who have been to New York understand just how small Manhattan is.

Holland, a native New Yorker raised just north of the former World Trade Towers, notes that he, too, lost friends on 9/11, and that what pains him is “the casual, socially acceptable and utterly despicable racism against Muslims that those attacks unleashed in the United States.”

But these assaults on Islam as a faith are exactly what the ADL is now in the business of peddling. When you condemn bigots, then join them, then they write glowing endorsements of your position (as Jim has Gingrich doing), what does that make you?

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. Isn’t this like accusing the Presbyterians of wanting to build a crackpot creationist museum in Charles Darwin Park?

  2. “But these assaults on Islam as a faith are exactly what the ADL is now in the business of peddling.”

    Have been hearing Bill Kristol, Krauthammer, Ledeen, Cheney, Reuel Marc Gerecht, the Wurmsers, spew Islamaphobic statements on the air, radio and net waves for years now.

    Sounds like Bloomberg is being reasonable.

  3. DFW airport is larger than the Island of Manhattan. I have no appreciation for the geography of a place where Dylan proclaims, “if you want to see the sunrise, baby I know where”

    A friend from Ed Couch, TX; a Rio Grande Valley town of 3000 got signed to a big literature contract and spent a month in Manhattan. He said he never saw the sun that whole time.

    The guy sent 13 short stories to submit for an anthology, and they not only put one in the anthology, he got a whole book himself.

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