Politics & Media
Aug 06, 2010, 07:57AM

Thomas Friedman Misses the Point of the Mosque Controversy

The New York Times columnist is correct that cultural diversity enriches America, but glosses over why some people are opposed to a mosque approved for construction so close to the WTC site.

“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.

  • Sigh. I wonder if he'd call a YMCA a "church"?

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  • What's the "sigh" for? Are you expressing bewilderment? Condescension? Exasperation? Confusion?

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  • E. All of the above.

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  • What I don't understand is how insensitive/clueless the people who are trying to get the mosque built are. Of course they have the right to build a mosque there, and they shouldn't be stopped, but all I can think of is...Dude. you couldn't have picked a better spot?? battery park maybe? chelsea?? why throw a rock at the hornet's nest and build a mosque where you know you're gonna get shit for it. I really don't understand their reasoning for it, unless they were intentionally trying to stir up controversy and promote tolerance, which would be just stupid. I'm not upset that the mosque is getting built - not every Muslim is insane (their religion sure is though - hoo boy...) - but I think they were totally asking for it when they decided on Ground Zero. totally deserve all the shit they got/are getting for it. just a completely tone deaf move.

  • Jesus, eureka, if the Cordoba Institute is so insensitive and clueless, then why did the various commission boards and local levels of government (you know, the people who actually live there and are accountable to the people who live there -- not you, not me, the people of New York) approve of construction nearly unanimously? That's not tone deafness of their part; it's lazy thinking on yours (also, it's not a mosque...). The hornets nest is being stirred by xenophobic and bigoted psychopaths like Palin, Guiliani and Hannity. Good for you for knowing not all Muslims are insane; it almost makes up for your inane and bigoted comment. The Founding Fathers were thinking of you when they enshrined freedom of religion and association in the Constitution, just not in the way you'd like...

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  • Eureka, what is the appropiate distance from ground zero for mosque building (keeping in mind I agree with Andrew that it is a cummunity center which includes a mosque)? 3 blocks, six blocks, 20 blocks? I'm just wondering at what point, would today's xenophobia tolerate a mosque being built? Considering that mosques are being protested against from Cali to N.Y., it is hard for me to believe that distance is the issue.

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  • Maybe the ADL's statement might be helpful here: http://bit.ly/b2ozFJ . Here's the most relevant part: "The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong. But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right."

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  • Who would have thought the ADL had it in them? Terrible stuff. They're already backtracking from their original statement, as the backlash mounts.

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