The real issue behind the controversy that has erupted over plans to build a 15-story cultural center, mosque and madrassa a few yards from Ground Zero is not only about the mysterious funding behind the Cordoba Center initiative, or whether or not its founders and backers have malign intentions. It is primarily about understanding how Muslims across the world, in particular Islamists, would view the conversion of the site of the greatest Muslim attack on U.S. soil into a Muslim house of worship. Given the long history of mosque-building following Muslim military victories, the building of the Cordoba House on Ground Zero will be seen in the same light as the Muslim conquests of Mecca, Jerusalem, and Constantinople. Whereas Americans hope that the attacks on New York City and Washington are seen as the clarion's call for aggressive American action to counter Islamist ideology, the construction of the Ground Zero Mosque will be seen by the same Islamists as its first step towards the decline of America.
Bin Laden and his Islamists would love nothing better to plant the flag of Islam in the cultural capital of the West. This would not be read in the Muslim world as a sign of the West's tolerance, but of its weakness. In its long history of conquest, Islam has habitually converted the sacred shrines of its enemies into mosques and madrasas. A cursory look at the world's most famous mosques lays bare the fact that many were former houses of worships of defeated enemies.
Islam's most sacred site, al-Kaaba, in Mecca was a pagan shrine that predated Islam by hundreds of years. Mohammed himself, after his army's conquest of Mecca in 630, destroyed hundreds of idols, proclaiming the truth of his new religion, and, since, it has become the hub of the annual Muslim pilgrimage, hajj, and a core pillar of Islam. Following the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, the Ummayad Caliphate proceeded to build the Dome of the Rock, the Masjid Qubat al-Sakhra, on top of the Jewish Temple Mount in 689. Inscribed on the inner walls of the shrine are clear warnings to Christianity, professing Islamic supremacy. Sprawled on the inner octagonal arcade, flowing counterclockwise, the dedication warns Christians and Jews to "not exaggerate in your religion nor utter aught concerning God save the truth" and threatens the Christian Trinity by insisting that "The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a Messenger of God, and His Word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers, and say not 'Three' - Cease! (it is) better for you! - God is only One God." Whoever believes that God had a son, "whoso disbelieveth the revelations of God (will find that) lo! God is swift at reckoning!" Having defeated their Christian enemies, the Umayyads built a grand mosque on top of Judaism's most sacred site that contained a clear declaration of Muslim supremacy over their brother Abrahamic religions.
Similar conversions were ordered as the Muslim conquests expanded across Africa and Europe. The Grand Mosque of Damascus, also known as the Umayyad Mosque, was converted from a church dedicated to John the Baptist in 705. The world-renown Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was a thousand year-old Christian church before being transformed into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. It was only converted into a museum in 1935 by ultra-secularist and Turkish founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Over the long history of Muslim territorial advance, thousands of mosques, from Spain to India, were built on sites of important religious or political value to their defeated foes.
Supporters of the project might argue that the actions of invading Muslim armies over a millennia ago are irrelevant to the issue at hand in lower Manhattan. However, it is impossible to separate the recent decline of such a trend with the parallel decline and territorial recession of Muslim lands in the second half of the second millennium. Moreover, recent territories that have returned to Muslim rule following decolonization have seen the return of the conversions of religious sites into mosques. Muammar Qaddafi, the ruler of Libya, converted 78 synagogues into mosques in the 1970s. In 1975, the Great Synagogue of Oran was confiscated by the Algerian government and similarly transformed.
Proponents like to cite the namesake of the Cordoba House complex as evidence of its goal of tolerance and pluralism, referring to the relative tolerant attitude of Muslim Spain to its Jewish and Christian minorities. Those proponents, however, should recall that the Great Mosque, or Mezquita, of Cordoba was itself a Visigoth Church that was converted and rebuilt as a mosque following Muslim conquest in 784, lasting nearly 500 years before it was recaptured and converted back into a Catholic cathedral.
Both survivors and the families of the victims of the September 11 attacks, as well as most prideful New Yorkers, have strongly objected to what they see at best as an insensitive project to, at worst, a malicious broadside against those who suffered tremendously on that day and since.
It has even divided the organized Jewish community, pitting a vehemently supportive J Street against a nuancedly opposed Anti-Defamation League. The mosque, run by the Cordoba House, claims to be promoting the project not only for functional reasons, but also for civilizational ones. Its supporters say that its aim is to use the 9/11 tragedy and the location of the Ground Zero Mosque as a message of tolerance and compromise in America. By hoping that Americans would never buy into the "Us against Them" rhetoric espoused by Islamists, supporters are seeking to demonstrate the superiority of Western culture and liberalism. The fact that this is even a debate in America demonstrates American tolerance; it is illegal to build a church or synagogue anywhere in Saudi Arabia.
American government officials have been divided over the plan, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Governor Deval Patrick, and, most recently, President Obama himself in support and many local and national politicians, including Senators John McCain, Joseph Lieberman, and Olympia Snowe, Congressman Peter King, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and former Governors Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin, in opposition.
But the symbolism could not be clearer: If the Cordoba's House supporters seek to emulate the tolerance of al-Andalus, the Arabic term for Muslim Spain, they are unwittingly declaring their possible acceptance of Muslim rule.