Transparency and the Ground Zero Mosque

By / 9.9.2010

Against the conservatives’ neo-McCarthyist onslaught of faith-baiting innuendo, the progressive position in support of the Cordoba House Islamic center has been, perhaps naturally, largely defensive. Supporters of the Center have emphasized Imam Faisal’s incontestable constitutional right to build the center where planned and warned of the risks to both our principles and national security if the center is stopped. What is missing from these positions, however, is a response that recognizes the emotional component of the continued national skepticism and answers it, while at the same time standing our ground.

Though the eye is narrow, progressives can thread this needle.  By maintaining their full-throated support for the center while at the same time respectfully calling on Imam Faisal to make good on his commitment to be transparent about his sources of funding, progressives can maintain their principled commitment to the Islamic center in lower Manhattan while addressing the concerns that many Americans have about such a center.

Polls show more than 60 percent of Americans opposing the center.  Even if one discounts the almost 30 percent of Americans who support the Tea Party movement, that is still 30 percent of Americans that progressives need to think hard about losing – Americans who do view the scattered seeds of Islamic extremism in this country with understandable concern.

One need not be a paranoid Partier to see it.  As Professor Vali Nasr explains, money from Islamic fundamentalists feeds a vast network of institutions throughout the world (including in the U.S.) dedicated to regressive interpretations of Islam. As a 2005 Freedom House report concluded, “Saudi-connected resources and publications on extremist ideology remain common reading and educational material in some of America’s main mosques.” Such trends should worry progressives no less than Palinistas.

But let there be no doubt that in the internal schism occurring within Islam today, Imam Faisal is these fundamentalists’ greatest adversary. When it comes to the particulars of social and political life—women’s rights, religious freedom and freedom of expression—Imam Faisal has far more in common with even Gingrich and Beck than he does with the likes of Mullah Omar and bin Laden. The moderate Muslim community should take Imam Faisal’s lead and speak out against the fundamentalist’s anti-enlightenment views.

Yet the estimated $100 million needed to build the center is no small sum, and it does not appear that Faisal and his partners know how they will get it. Given the convoluted network of charities that funnel questionable funds, the risk for tainted money to slip in is not negligible, even if the organizers themselves are scrupulous about such things.

For progressives to insist on transparency is the right thing to do both ethically and strategically. And  Imam Faisal, if he wants to neutralize opposition, should make good on his promise of disclosure—a costless good faith gesture that can help neutralize the concerns that many Americans do legitimately have.