A battle between the Republic and democracy in New York
By Swapan Dasgupta
In an essay published in 1985, Irving Kristol, the 'godfather of the Neoconservative movement', quoted a political scientist as saying that American democracy is based on one key assumption: "that the people are usually sensible, but rarely wise." The American system of government, with its elaborate checks and balances and separation of powers, he contended, was geared towards ensuring that the popular will would ultimately prevail.
The operative term was "ultimately". "Short of the ultimate", Kristol wrote, "the Founders thought it appropriate that popular sentiments should be delayed in their course, refracted in their expression, revised in their enactment, so that a more deliberate public opinion could prevail over a transient public opinion."
Kristol was addressing a debate then raging in the US over school prayer and crime and liberal fears of a rampaging populism that would brush aside the principles on which the Republic had been founded. The debate, in any case, was not new. Throughout its history, the US has led a schizoid existence. Till the defeat of the southern Confederacy in the Civil War, its lofty espousal of freedom jarred against the reality of slavery; and till President Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights legislation, some Americans could well have been said to be more equal than others.
Nor was it a case of some white bigots in the southern states violating the enlightened principles that shaped the US Constitution. Dixieland's resistance to the complete abolition of slavery was based on the principle that individual states of the Republic had a right to choose their own course of action, unhindered by Federal intrusiveness and Yankee notions of correctness. Both sides in the Civil War could fall back on both public opinion and the Constitution. The dispute was, quite predictably, settled by force—not merely in the battlefield of Gettysburg but again a hundred years later in Birmingham, Alabama, when federal forces were despatched to escort a handful of scared Black students to a de-segregated school.
The battle between the lofty embellishments of Republicanism and populist democracy has re-surfaced in the passionate controversy over the proposed construction of an Islamic Centre, better known as Ground-Zero Mosque, on a site a stone's throw from where the twin towers of New York's World Trade Centre stood till that horrible September 11 morning. Coming in the wake of the mid-term elections to the US Congress, the controversy has escalated into a clash between two Americas—one which ostensibly swears by the Constitution and one which waves the Flag.
If the editorial columns of the 'respectable' media are any indication, it is a simple battle between (pro-mosque) enlightenment and (anti-mosque) bigotry. The former has the unequivocal backing of intellectuals, the First Amendment and critical endorsements from President Barak Obama and the Mayor of New York. The latter may be burdened by the philological clumsiness of Sarah Palin, the Islamophobia of Newt Gingrich and absence from the soirées of Manhattan, but it has the endorsement (or so the polls say) of nearly two-thirds of America. This has been compelling enough, particularly in an election year, for Senate Majority leader Harry Reid and New York Governor David Paterson to call for a review of the project. The force of public indignation against Cordova House, as the Islamic Centre will be called, was also sufficient to transform Obama's categorical support at the White House iftar into evasive waffle a day later, prompting one writer to dub him a "stubborn man without conviction".
On the face of it, the pro-mosque lobby is on strong grounds. The US Constitution allows every citizen the unhindered right to both preach and practice faith, without any interference from the state. The rigid separation of state and faith, which was originally intended to forestall any partiality to or discrimination against non-conformist Christian sects, has now come to the aid of a religion that is outside the Judaeo-Christian framework. The universalism of their Constitution has now come to haunt Americans.
The only possible way the construction of the Ground-Zero Mosque can be legally prevented is by denying it planning permission. This was the route taken by a local authority in Britain to stop a Tabligi Jamaat mosque from being built at a site overlooking the main stadium for the 2012 Olympic Games. But with state control being far more tenuous in the US and New York's Mayor having given the project his blessings, a governmental veto of the project seems unlikely. This may explain the attempt by New York Governor Paterson to persuade the developers to voluntarily abandon plans to build at this particular site and, instead, opt for a more non-contentious venue.
The opposition to Cordova House isn't based on a challenge to the constitutional right of Muslims to build either a mosque or a community centre. The issue is the alleged 'insensitivity' (some would say provocation) of building it so close to a place where 3,000 people were killed by terrorists claiming to speak for Islam. Would it be proper, ask the sceptics, to build a Japanese war memorial at Pearl Harbour?
The promoters of the project have claimed that Cordova House is aimed at promoting inter-faith understanding. However, this has been greeted by scepticism on account of a history of Islamic triumphalism and the tendency of Muslim rulers in distant lands to build a mosque to commemorate a victory. Regardless of the intentions of the Imam in charge of the project, and even his reputation as an authority on Sufism, the fear is that sooner or later the building will come to symbolise a victory monument and become a hub of Islamist extremism. Sinister meaning has even been attached to the use of Cordova, a city that once symbolised Islam's inroads into the Christian world.
Curiously, one facet of the controversy appears to be troubling both the liberal, non-Muslim supporters of the mosque and their flag-waving opponents. Both fear that whatever the final outcome, the controversy will sharpen the polarisation between Islam and the West and have a negative impact on US foreign policy in the Islamic world.
The fear is justified although, ironically, the debate over Cordova House is only peripherally a tussle between Islam and America. The controversy is really another chapter in the battle between the Republic and democracy. Americans, a historian presciently observed, "Americans erected their constitutional roof before they put up their national walls…and the Constitution became a substitute for a deeper kind of national identity."
The problem was initially addressed by two filters: the first by an enforced compromise between the brash 'frontier spirit' and lofty 'aristocratic' values, and secondly, by forcing newcomers into a melting pot of Judaeo-Christian values. However, the evolution of the American 'nation' appears to have been derailed by the emergence of a new, disparate America which may in time resemble an ethnic menagerie, bound by a Constitution that was written with a relatively cohesive society in mind. The groundswell from below over the Ground Zero sacrilege constitutes the spirited protest of an older and somewhat endangered 'national identity' which appeared to have been subsumed by the Obama landslide of 2008 but is actually alive and kicking. It is basically a plea to the governing elites—where the liberal self-image counts for too much—to not allow permissiveness to override common decencies.
A mosque overlooking the scene of the 9/11 won't reinforce America's image as a haven of enlightened tolerance; it may set it apart as a country unable to distinguish between right and wrong.