Nachman Ben Yehuda is an old friend. We were graduate students together at the University of Chicago. He, his wife Etti, my wife Naomi and I have been friends ever since. He is now a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the author of books that explore the worlds of deviance and the unsteadiness of memory about things political. Jewish assassins, the “Masada myth,” betrayal and treason, and as he puts it talking about his most recent book Theocratic Democracy, “pious perverts” are the subjects of Nachman’s sociological curiosity. On their recent visit to New York, we got together for a visit to the Museum of Modern Art, to see the exciting Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917 exhibit. While walking through the museum, I asked Nachman about the Park 51, about Cordoba House. Nachman is now back in Jerusalem, but emailed me his recollection of our discussion, which I thought would be good to share here.
A Conversation Remembered
He recalled our conversation:
The mosque. If I remember correctly our conversation, my argument was that officially and legally, there is no doubt that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the initiative to build the mosque where planned and that President Obama as defender of the American constitution did the right thing when he made his speech and supported it. My concern was as a hopeless symbologist and on the symbolic level. Hence, having said that legally Muslims are within their constitutional rights, I was concerned whether it was absolutely necessary or wise to have a Muslim mosque so close to where radical Muslims massacred thousands of innocent Americans. You put my concern there to rest.
In our discussion, I essentially made the argument I have been making in posts here, most crucially my first one considering the raw facts , but also my more recent post The tragedy of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. My key point, which convinced Nachman, was that the Cordoba House was actually a respectful initiative, made by people of good will, who sought respectful dialogue between Muslims and their fellow Americans. Yet, Nachman still was uncertain, having to do with his own expertise.
My other symbolic concern was with the name chosen for the mosque…”Cordoba House.” Now this raises another complex issue. Cordoba was a name of a Muslim battalion that won – fair and square – a battle against Christian armies. But, the emirate of Cordoba was also a showcase of Islam’s ability to promote cultural growth. This growth was under a religious-political regime of a caliphate (that is non-democratic), but that is how things worked at those times. Contemporary Christians were not democratic human rights lovers either at that time. Thus, the name Cordoba could have three historical meanings: one, a decisive Muslim military victory over Christian armies and another, a place and period of significant cultural growth and blooming. My concern was which one of these historical and symbolic meanings will be made dominant? And in whose mind? A third possibility is an implicit implication that cultural growth follows Islamic military victories, under an Islamic rule.
These potential complex meanings of the name “Cordoba House” caused me to ponder. I suspect that it is possible that these symbols will not escape radicalized Muslims and I was just wondering whether it was not a good idea to have the mosque being built some decent distance from the 9/11 site, plus, perhaps re-consider a symbolic complex tell-tale name of the mosque. I am not sure, of course, and as I wrote – there is absolutely no legal problem with either building the mosque where planned or calling it “Cordoba House.” My only symbolic concern was whether it was wise doing it in this way and whether an initiative whose aim is to promote peace and inter-religious dialogue is not rolling on a track that can be interpreted in a contradictory fashion and that raises so much negative feelings.
Nachman’s concerns are serious. Clearly Feisal Abdul Rauf, in his statements about the community center, does not use the term as Nachman fears: “Our name, Cordoba, was inspired by the city in Spain where Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed in the Middle Ages during a period of great cultural enrichment created by Muslims. Our initiative is intended to cultivate understanding among all religions and cultures,” Rauf explained in his op-ed piece.
But there is always uncertainty about the meaning of symbols, and perhaps for this reason, while Rauf continues to use Cordoba as the name of the community center. The developer behind the center prefers Park 51, so that the activities of the community will define its meaning, rather than a historical reference with possible contradictory historical meanings. This is the sort of accommodation to community sensibilities that make sense to me. And I would love to hear a discussion between Rauf and Ben Yehuda about the meaning of Cordoba, best would be at Park 51, when it opens. I hope in the not too distant future.