The New York Times's letters columns on 14 August 2010 were devoted to the controversial plan to build a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero. The arguments ranged across the usual spectrum—from upholding religious tolerance and freedom to the potential insult or hurt to the sensibilities of the 9/11 and their families,
But they failed completely to address what to me seems the crucial point: How is the planned project understood in the Muslim and Arab worlds? What will Arab politicians and the Muslim man in the street think? Will they admire the tolerance of the American Republic? Or, rather, will they smile broadly in contempt and view this as yet another display of American weakness and appeasement? And how will this affect their behavior toward America and the West in general?
As religious tolerance, and admiration for religious tolerance, are far from characteristic of the Muslim Arab world (no churches or synagogues are allowed in the vastness of Saudi Arabia, no visit by infidels in the sacred precincts of Mecca and Medina; no Jew can be a citizen of Jordan), my guess is that the message received will be one of weakness and appeasement.
And it will have been powerfully reinforced by President Obama's endorsement of the mosque construction in his speech, welcoming the Ramadan festivities, on Friday the 13th (August). Obama declared that Muslim Americans "have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country." But this is hardly the issue. Obama may sincerely believe that Arabs and Muslims around the world will rejoice at this latest expression of American openness and tolerance. But I suspect that pollsters will discover that the rejoicing in the Arab street will be over this further manifestation of the weakness (and stupidity) of the West (much as the Taliban interpreted Obama's announcement of American withdrawal from Afghanistan within the year: "All we need to do is hold out for another year. Then Afghanistan (and perhaps Pakistan) will be ours. These Americans just don't get it.").
Another message the prospective mosque broadcasts is that Americans—the West?—suffers from shortness of memory, a type of mindlessness. The aerial bombers of 9/11 not only harmed America: they spat on it. Building a mosque two blocks away is merely more of the same.
I wonder what Obama would have said had the Muslim entrepreneurs striven to build, and the municipality endorsed, a mosque on the actual site of 9/11 rather than two blocks away? Actually, why not? If one wants to demonstrate tolerance, why not go the whole hog? Who cares what the foreign policy implications will be to America's position in the world, and to the Muslim masses who believe they are engaged in a battle to fend off the encroachments, and values, of the West.