Why I Oppose the Downtown Mosque

How I questioned an imam's motives and broke Tom Robbins's heart

In the old days, reporters, in the pages of the Voice, went after one another. Readers enjoyed taking sides in these civil wars, and we ourselves sometimes discovered what we should have known before we so confidently wrote. I'm glad to see the return of this tradition—even though I'm the target.

My old friend, colleague, and former shop steward, Tom Robbins—in an August 30 blog item, "Nat Hentoff's Best and Worst, All in One Month"—charged me with having become the Benedict Arnold of the First Amendment, having betrayed my previous "unrelenting defense of tolerance and freedom of speech."

His traumatic discovery of my disgrace, he sighed, "kind of breaks your heart, or, as Abbey Lincoln once said, 'I'll Drown in My Own Tears.' " I was at my best on that fateful month, Tom said in his threnody, because when I ran Candid Records, I recorded Abbey in Max Roach's "Freedom Now Suite."

If you have ever heard and seen Abbey, how could I have not recorded her? Abbey recently left us, but her penetrating integrity remains—not only on her many recordings but also in the jazz musicians she impelled to keep discovering more of their true voices, as she continually did.

But how did I break Tom's heart? He cited one of my syndicated United Media columns that also appeared in the Jewish World Review, Cato Institute, Realpolitics, and a range of daily newspapers. According to tearful Tom, "Here's Hentoff, who has now found a little corner of the world where his prized Bill of Rights does not apply, a No-Muslim Zone in Lower Manhattan. He fails to tell us how many blocks it should extend."

Though not in tears, I feel sorry for Tom. As often happens, passionate indignation leads to blinding distortion of what actually triggered the shock. In the column he cited—the first of several I've written on Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf—dig, word for word, what I wrote in the very second paragraph: ". . . Of course, all American Muslims have their First Amendment right to exercise their freedom of religion in their place of worship. There have been other mosques in New York City without opposition. That freedom is not at stake here" (emphasis added).

What I have been questioning—as have a number of Muslims here and abroad—is why Rauf insists on building this mosque two blocks north of Ground Zero.

As I wrote in my next syndicated column, "The resulting national furor that has anguished and enraged opponents of the mosque [has also] alarmingly increased hostility toward American Muslims in general—including those who reject violent jihadism. . . . As someone affected for years—most threateningly as a boy in a Boston Jewish ghetto by anti-Semitism in this country, I can understand the anxiety of a considerable number of Muslims."

Around this country, the exploding furor over Imam Rauf's choice of location has now ignited fierce and bigoted opposition to existing mosques.

An August 23 Washington Post report on unexpected resistance to a proposed Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee—a community where "Muslims had worshipped quietly" for more than 30 years—led reporter Annie Gowen to make the (by then) obvious and menacing judgment that beyond Murfreesboro, "the intense feelings driving that [New York] debate have surfaced in communities from California to Florida in recent months."

Imam Rauf may well have been surprised at the conflagration his location had started. But why does he stay fixated on that location? An August 23 Wall Street Journal news story by Jonathan Weisman cited angry, threatening reactions on radical Islam websites around the world. But more significantly, that report quoted Jarret Brachman, director of a security consulting firm, Cronus Global, who pointed out that "these violent website postings 'are not just al-Qaida linked but [also] on prominent mainstream Muslim chat forums.' " Added Evan Kohlmann, "an independent terrorism consultant" at Flashpoint Partners, where he monitors jihadist websites: "We are handing al-Qaida a propaganda coup, an absolute propaganda coup."

As Dana Milbank has recognized (Washington Post, September 13): "It is difficult to think of somebody who has done more harm to the causes he purports to represent than Faisal Abdul Rauf—the so-called Ground Zero Imam. He claims he wishes to improve the standing of Muslims in the United States, to build understanding among religions, and to enhance the reputation of America in the Muslim world. . . . He has set back all three of his goals" (emphasis added).

A growing number of American Muslims agree with Muslim Abed Z. Bhuyan (August 18, Washington Post), saying of the explosion over the Rauf mosque: "This is not a fight that ever really needed fighting."

And Tom, think about this question Bhuyan asks: "If they [Rauf and his wife] didn't expect this fallout, just how connected are [Daisy] Khan and Imam Abdul Rauf to the American Muslim community? There is a difference between building a building and building a community. . . . If we [Muslims] are to grow as a community, we must demand strong leadership."

He cites—and agrees with—Anne Bernard's complaint in the New York Times that Rauf and Khan "did not [first] seek the advice of established Muslim organizations experienced in volatile post-9/11 passions and politics."

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