Wise Words from Professor Ajami

By FOUAD AJAMI

Wall Street Journal Op-Ed 9/20/2010

From his recent travels to the Persian Gulf—sponsored and paid for by the State Department—Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf returned with a none-too-subtle threat. His project, the Ground Zero Mosque, would have to go on. Its cancellation would risk putting “our soldiers, our troops, our embassies and citizens under attack in the Muslim world.”

Leave aside the attempt to make this project a matter of national security. The self-appointed bridge between America and the Arab-Islamic world is a false witness to the sentiments in Islamic lands.

The truth is that the trajectory of Islam in America (and Europe for that matter) is at variance with the play of things in Islam’s main habitat. A survey by Elaph, the most respected electronic daily in the Arab world, gave a decided edge to those who objected to the building of this mosque—58% saw it as a project of folly.

Elaph was at it again in the aftermath of Pastor Terry Jones’s threat to burn copies of the Quran: It queried its readers as to whether America was a “tolerant” or a “bigoted” society. The split was 63% to 37% in favor of those who accepted the good faith and pluralism of this country.

This is remarkable. The ground burned in the Arab-Islamic world over the last three decades. Sly preachers and their foot soldiers “weaponized” the faith and all but devoured what modernists had tried to build in the face of difficult odds. The fury has not burned out. Self-styled imams continue to issue fatwas that have made it all but impossible for Arabs and Muslims to partake of the modern world. But from this ruinous history, there has settled upon countless Muslims and Arabs the recognition that the wells are poisoned in their midst, that the faith has to be reined in or that the faith will kill, and that the economic and cultural prospects of modern Islam hang in the balance.

To this kind of sobriety, Muslim activists and preachers in the diaspora—in Patterson, N.J., and Minneapolis, in Copenhagen and Amsterdam—appear to be largely indifferent. They are forever on the look-out for the smallest slight.

Islam in America is of recent vintage. This country can’t be “Islamic.” Its foundations are deep in the Puritan religious tradition. The waves of immigrants who came to these shores understood the need for discretion, and for patience.

It wasn’t belligerence that carried the Catholics and the Jews into the great American mainstream. It was the swarm of daily life—the grocery store, the assembly line, the garment industry, the public schools, and the big wars that knit the American communities together—and tore down the religious and ethnic barriers.

There is no gain to be had, no hearts and minds to be won, in Imam Rauf insisting that Ground Zero can’t be hallowed ground because there is a strip joint and an off-track betting office nearby. This may be true, but it is irrelevant.

A terrible deed took place on that ground nine years ago. Nineteen young Arabs brought death and ruin onto American soil, and discretion has a place of pride in the way the aftermath is handled. “Islam” didn’t commit these crimes, but young Arabs and Muslims did.

There is no use for the incantation that Islam is a religion of peace. The incantation is false; Islam, like other religions, is theologically a religion of war and a religion of peace. In our time, it is a religion in distress, fought over, hijacked at times, by a militant breed at war with the modern world.

Again, from Elaph, here are the thoughts of an Arab writer, Ahmed Abu Mattar, who sees through the militancy of the religious radicals. He dismisses outright the anger over the “foolish and deranged” Pastor Terry Jones who threatened to burn copies of the Quran. “Where is the anger in the face of dictatorships which dominate the lives of Arabs from the cradle to the grave? Would the Prophet Muhammad look with favor on the prisons in our midst which outnumber the universities and hospitals? Would he take comfort in the rate of illiteracy among the Arabs which exceeds 60%? Would he be satisfied with the backwardness that renders us a burden on other nations?”

The first Arabs who came to America arrived during the time of the Great Migration (1880-1920). Their story is told by Gregory Orfalea in his book, “The Arab Americans: A History” (2006). The pioneers were mostly Christians on the run from the hunger and the privations of a dying Ottoman empire. One such pioneer who fled Lebanon for America said he wanted to leave his homeland and “go to the land of justice.” Ellis Island was fondly named bayt al-hurriya (the house of freedom). It was New York, in the larger neighborhood of Wall Street, that was the first home of the immigrants.

Restrictive quotas and the Great Depression reduced the migration to a trickle. This would change drastically in the 1950s and ’60s. The time of Islam in America had begun.

It was in 1965, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf tells us, that he made his way to America as a young man. He and a vast migration would be here as American identity would undergo a drastic metamorphosis.

The prudence of days past was now a distant memory. These activists who came in the 1990s—the time of multiculturalism and of what the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called the “disuniting of America”—would insist on a full-scale revision of the American creed. American liberalism had broken with American patriotism, and the self-styled activists would give themselves over to a militancy that would have shocked their forerunners. It is out of that larger history that this project at Ground Zero is born.

There is a great Arab and Islamic tale. It happened in the early years of Islam, but it speaks to this controversy. It took place in A.D. 638, the time of Islam’s triumphs.

The second successor to the Prophet, the Caliph Omar—to orthodox Muslims the most revered of the four Guided Caliphs for the great conquests that took place during his reign—had come to Jerusalem to accept the city’s surrender. Patriarch Sophronius, the city’s chief magistrate, is by his side for the ceremony of surrender. Prayer time comes for Omar while the patriarch is showing him the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The conqueror asks where he could spread out his prayer rug. Sophronius tells him that he could stay where he was. Omar refuses, because his followers, he said, might then claim for Islam the holy shrine of the Christians. Omar stepped outside for his prayer.

We don’t always assert all the “rights” that we can get away with. The faith is honored when the faith bends to necessity and discretion.

Mr. Ajami is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.