The Cordoba House, Degrees of Separation and the Common Good

The Cordoba House, Degrees of Separation and the Common Good

By Hasan Zillur Rahim


By now almost everyone knows what Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rick Lazio, Peter King, Frank Gaffney, Brigitte Gabriel, writers at the Weekly Standard, and others of their persuasion think about the Cordoba House being planned near Ground Zero in New York. The essence of their outrage can be summarized as follows: “How dare you Muslims insult America by building a mosque in so sensitive a place? After all, didn’t your brethren bring down the twin towers, symbol of American power and prosperity, and kill almost 3,000 Americans?”

That the purpose of the house of worship is to defeat extremists in the war of ideas is absent from the equation of these zealots. That its design includes a community center, recreational and banquet facilities, meeting rooms, an auditorium and prayer facilities for people of all faiths goes unmentioned. That on that dark September day many Muslims were also killed by monsters acting on a distorted interpretation of Islam is an inconsistency that does not cloud their mind.

Until I read their words of outrage and condemnation, I would never have guessed that these public figures were such firm believers in the “six degrees of separation” theory of Frigyes Karinthy and Stanley Milgram.

Known also as the “Small World Problem,” the theory asks a simple question: How many intermediaries (friends, relatives, acquaintances), where each intermediary represents a degree of separation, are necessary to connect any two randomly selected people on earth?

The answer is: six or less. In other words, if you follow the friend of a friend of a friend type of chain, you can connect any two people on earth with no more than six links in that chain.

Here is an example. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is the founder of the Cordoba Initiative (http://www.cordobainitiative.org/) and a prime mover behind the Cordoba House. The Weekly Standard has found, after meticulous research no doubt, that his wife is “the niece of Dr. Farooq Khan, formerly a leader of the Westbury Mosque on Long Island, which is a center for Islamic radicals and links on its Web site to the paramilitary Islamic Circle of North America, the front on American soil for the Pakistani jihadist Jamaat e-Islami.”

As Robert Wright, a senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, has observed ( http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/20/a-mosque-maligned/?ref=opinion ), “Rauf’s wife has an uncle who used to be “a leader” of a mosque that now has a Web site that links to the Web site of an allegedly radical organization.”

As far as Imam Rauf is concerned, (and by implication, almost any American Muslim), that’s a mere three (or perhaps four) degree of separation from a “terrorist.”

So how can you trust Rauf, asks the Weekly Standard, making the point for Gingrich, Lazio, Palin, King and others.

But “six degrees of separation” is an equal opportunity employer. If you were to pick any vile character anywhere on earth, an average researcher could link Palin, Gingrich, Gaffney or Lazio to that character in less time than it takes to explain what six degrees of separation means.

By their shrill denunciations, the right-wingers are playing into the hands of Muslim extremists who would like nothing more than to portray America as anti-Muslim. It is perhaps the supreme irony of our time that what benefits Muslim radicals equally benefit anti-Muslim militants.

However, as an American Muslim, I find it perfectly reasonable that many of my fellow Americans, who have nothing against Islam and Muslims and who do not share the ideas circulating the right-wing blogosphere, may yet find the idea of a Muslim place of worship near Ground Zero provocative and disturbing.

I want to engage them in a frank discussion. “Look,” I would say, “this mosque, if it ever sees the light of day, will probably be the most visible and scrutinized mosque in all of America. It’s an opportunity for you to track what goes on inside this mosque, and by extension, inside all our mosques. Monitor its activities, its funding, its outreach programs. If you like what you see and hear, with only facts as foundation, perhaps you can help us defeat the radicals, because that is one of our primary goals. If not, tell us what you don’t like. Advise us. We will heed your advice and work together to make the Cordoba House a beacon for moderation and peace in America.”

I don’t know how this will eventually play out, even though the community board in lower Manhattan has endorsed the construction of the Cordoba House by a 29-to-1 vote. But with history as guide, my faith in America grows stronger every day. Only one example will suffice.

On Sept. 1, 2001, the U.S. postal service issued a stamp in celebration of the two major religious holidays of the Muslim calendar, Eid al-Fitr (feast of fasting) and Eid al-Adha (feast of sacrifice), designed by the renowned American calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya.

Ten days later, the terrorists struck. Passion ran high among many Americans against the use of the stamp. (Frank Gaffney was among the most vocal opponents).

But the stamp was neither withdrawn nor redesigned and it sold well, mostly through word-of-mouth advertisement. On June 30, 2002, the cost of a first-class stamp increased to 37 cents. Would the 34-cent Eid stamp be reissued at the new rate?

Again, opposition was fierce. But on Oct. 10, 2002, the Postal Service announced that the stamp would be re-issued. Since then, first class postage rate increased to 39 to 42 to the current 44 cents, and each time the Eid stamp was re-issued with the latest rate.

Like any other nation, America sometimes veers from its founding principles. But the corrective force of most of its citizens sets it right again, helping to transcend divisions secular and sacred, and inspiring us to come together in our common humanity as Americans. Cordoba House may or may not be built but surely in the clash of opinions and the removal of misgivings, we will have grown as a nation for the common good of all.


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