“There are several reasons why I don’t object to a mosque being built near the World Trade Center site, but the key reason is my affection for Broadway show tunes.” These were the opening words of Thomas Friedman’s recent New York Times op-ed column headlined "Broadway and the Mosque.” Friedman is, by his reckoning, a very cultured, well-rounded man; and he wants the world to know it.
Friedman begins by describing a concert he attended with his wife, hosted by President Obama in the East Room of the White House, which included some of Broadway’s finest performers singing the hits that made them famous. Typically, he name-drops his favorites, and marvels over the multi-cultural blend of artists. African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans singing the timeless tunes written by immigrant composers, all in front of the nation’s first black president; what a majestic scene. And then, halfway through the essay, Friedman apparently recalls he’s a paid columnist for one of the world’s most prestigious publications, so it’s time to connect his glamorous evening to something of substance outside of the black-tie bubble of the White House.
This is where Friedman tackles the hot-button issue of the mosque approved for construction near the site of the destroyed World Trade Center, a decision that has drawn heavy fire from both Republicans and Jewish civil rights groups. He makes the argument that creativity derives from a mixture of different cultures interacting with one another, the blending of ideas in a melting pot creating what Friedman refers to as “divergent thinking.”
But what does all this have to do with the September 11th attacks? Friedman makes a loose connection to the idea that America’s cultural diversity gives its economy a creative edge in coming up with new ideas and spurring artistic, technological, and medical innovations. Yes, that is part of the American zeitgeist but it has absolutely nothing to do with 9/11. It was a day when people lost family members, husbands and wives. It was an event that sparked a modern era and a new generation. It spawned a new war and a complete shift in America’s security agenda and operation. The attacks were committed by religious extremists with twisted depictions of their faith but it was a political event.
Monuments are erected to commemorate and honor specific periods in time. The rationale behind the Ground Zero mosque is that it will make the area a monument to cultural and religious tolerance. Friedman even goes so far as to draw the comparison between religious suppression in Saudi Arabia and opposition to the mosque being built. But the period in my lifetime when intolerance was most rampant it was the few months following 9/11. This was when anti-Arab sentiment in the United States reached its highest level, when words such as “raghead” and “sand nigger” worked their way into the vernacular of bigots across the country. Even in the small Maryland town where I grew up, my father had to offer his home to a Pakistani co-worker who had been receiving threatening messages from his neighbors. The American people cried for war, not against a country or dictator at first, but against a specific type of people who became an outlet for the black lump of sorrow and inchoate rage that congealed in the pits of their stomachs when the Towers fell. Choosing “tolerance” as a monument for this period of history is like tossing a newspaper over a puddle of piss and hoping that in time, no one sees the stain.
Friedman did make some good points. The concert sounded incredible and I’m sure it was “full of life” and “pulsating energy.” I’m also sure that the thousands upon thousands of Americans who are slowly seeing their unemployment benefits run out enjoyed reading about how much he enjoyed himself at the decadent spectacle. I hope that next time Thomas Friedman attends a private concert, he saves it for the arts section.