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."

Finally, a positive result of Imam Rauf's "mission" (as he often calls it) is the decision of American Muslim leaders to create a National Muslim Leadership Alliance (Washington Post/Jewish World Review, September 8). An urgent reason, says one of them, Naeem Baig, director of the Islamic Circle of North America, is: "There's a real serious threat of violence against individuals." It is already happening.

As I wrote in another syndicated piece about this alliance, further reason for its formation is explained by another member, Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council: "The story of what mainstream American Muslims stand for has not been told effectively." A clarifying footnote by Washington Post reporter Tara Bahrampour tells why: "The diversity of sects, native languages and ethnicities has made it harder for a unified voice to emerge."

Far too many Americans are convinced that all Muslims are the same, and are jihadists underneath.

I have an unsolicited suggestion for Imam Rauf about his own need for remedial education. On ABC-TV's This Week (September 12), he told Christiane Amanpour that he would never have gone forward [with the inflammatory] mosque if he had any notion it would trigger such a firestorm: "I would never have done it. I'm a man of peace."

This proudly self-described moderate Muslim might think again about another unyielding conviction he has steadily held. Though often asked, he repeatedly refuses to characterize Hamas as a terrorist organization. On September 1, soon after returning from his State Department–financed Mideast tour telling, among other things, of his interfaith efforts at home, the American and world press reported that, as the Daily News described, "Hamas gunmen slaughtered four Israeli settlers—including a pregnant woman—in an ambush yesterday in the West Bank" near Hebron.

Could that have been a coincidence just before face-to-face Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Washington? The Hamas assassinations orphaned seven children in the worst terror attack in the West Bank in four years. A Hamas spokesman praised the killings as the "heroic operations in Hebron."

There's not been a word about these murders from this "man of peace," Imam Rauf.

With regard to the hurt that I—not a man of peace—have caused Tom Robbins, I do hope, Tom, your broken heart will mend. You're far too important to Voice readers to be distracted to tears by what has turned out to be one of your extremely rare misapprehensions of what was before you.

You might get a lift from Abbey Lincoln's CD, It's Me (Verver), I recently received. Abbey looking straight at you on the cover will cheer you, and her singing—as it always does for me—will clear your head, my old comrade.

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