In the ancient Spanish city of Córdoba, Islam had built a European pluralism that anticipated cherished American values. Faisal Abdul Rauf he considered it a place that the United States would embrace. Lessons from an ancient city, the New York imam thought, could help resolve the post-9/11 crisis that afflicts both America and Islam.
Founded in the 8th century, Córdoba was the intellectual center of Europe, a haven of tolerance, education, and achievement. The wealthy city, the centerpiece of a breakaway Umayyad emirate, attracted and nurtured Christian, Jewish and Islamic scholars and cosmopolitans. Founding ruler Abdel Rahman I, who had fled the ruling Abbasid caliphate, wrote melancholic poetry about being a refugee. A city-wide summer festival celebrated John the Baptist.
But over the centuries, under the stresses of internal political fracture and external warfare, Córdoba’s multiculturalism collapsed. In his 2004 book, What’s right with Islam is what’s right with America, Rauf hailed his native son Moses Maimonides, the titan of Jewish philosophy and theology. Maimonides, however, fled Cordoba when the conquering Almohad dynasty revoked protections for the dhimmi (Jewish and Christian minorities) and persecuted Spanish Jews, even separating children from their parents.
Rauf viewed American history as a narrative of progressive triumph over such prejudices. After the Pakistani jihadists assassinated the Wall street journal to reporter Daniel Pearl for being Jewish, Rauf delivered a moving address to the Upper West Side B’nai Jeshurun congregation. He told Pearl’s grieving father, Judea: “Today I am a Jew. I’ve always been one, Mr. Pearl. ”
“We strive for a ‘new Cordoba,'” Rauf wrote, “a time when Jews, Christians, Muslims and all other religious traditions live together in peace, enjoying a renewed vision of what good society can be like.”
Rauf had been preaching twelve blocks from the World Trade Center since 1985. There he located his new Córdoba. At 45 Park Place there was a mid-19th century building that was left empty after debris from the landing gear of doomed planes cracked several stories in what was then a Burlington coat factory. Helped by Sharif The-RangeI, a real estate developer and self-described “shark”, Rauf and his wife, Daisy khan, bought the property for $ 4.85 million in July 2009. They planned to restore it as the thirteen-story Casa Córdoba, which would feature a community center, swimming pool, restaurant, performance space, mosque and culinary school. Rauf conceptualized it as a Muslim version of 92nd Street Y, a Jewish space on the Upper East Side that plays a precious role in the intellectual life of New York City. The place of the new Córdoba seemed poetic to Rauf, even sublime. He said it was an opportunity to send “the statement opposing what happened on September 11.”
But to Rauf’s horror, several members of New York’s 9/11 survivor community did not believe the project was sending out a different statement. When Khan presented Cordoba House to the Manhattan Community Board Finance Committee in early May 2010, Romero Cain, mother of fallen 9/11 firefighter George Cain, saying it was “appalling that someone would even consider allowing them to build a mosque near the World Trade Center.” Khan, shocked, explained to the committee that she and her husband felt “an obligation as Muslims and Americans to be part of rebuilding downtown Manhattan.”
Fan the flames was Pamela Geller, who blogged that a “monstrous mosque” would reach Ground Zero, an “insulting and humiliating victory lap” that celebrated terrorism. A veteran of the business side of the ruling class newspaper New York Observer, Geller was radicalized by 9/11. She said New York Jewish Week that she was ashamed of not having known who it was that attacked the United States, so she turned to authors and journalists who revealed that the culprit was Islam. Geller was also a birther, though not tied to any particular theory of Barack ObamaThe origin; she once published the theory of a reader who posits that his real father was Malcolm X. His ally against Córdoba was Robert Spencer, whose books It filled the FBI library at Quantico. Spencer reclaimed Rauf was erecting a “mosque of victory”. Together, they created a pressure group called Stop Islamization of America. Asked by The Washington Post if he was being deliberately provocative, Spencer answered, “Why not? It’s fun.”
Soon the New York Post published columns on the “mosque craze” that drew the ire of “fed up New Yorkers.” Fox News made a crusade against him. In late May, protesters held signs that read SHOW RESPECT FOR 9/11. NO MOSQUE! filled a four-hour public hearing at Casa Córdoba. “It is humiliating that you are building a sanctuary to the ideology that inspired the 9/11 attacks!” Geller he lectured. Rauf, who had the support of the New York power structure, was left claiming that they had “condemned terrorism in the most unequivocal terms.” El-Gamal described the anger at the meeting as “the scariest thing I have ever seen in my life.”