Monday, August 23
"They came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up." Pastor Martin Niemoller's words are well known but their context is not well understood. Niemoller was not speaking abstractly. He witnessed persecution, he acquiesced to it, he ultimately fell victim to it. He had been a German World War 1 hero, then a conservative who welcomed the fall of German democracy and the rise of Hitler and had few qualms the beginning of the Holocaust until he himself was arrested for supporting it insufficiently. Niemoller's confessional warning came in a speech in Frankfurt in January, 1946, eight months after he was liberated by American troops. He had been detained at Tyrol, Sachsen-Hausen and Dachau for seven years. Niemoller survived the death camps. In quoting him, I make no direct comparison between the attempts to suppress the building of a Muslim religious center in downtown Manhattan and the unimaginable nightmare of the Holocaust. Such a comparison is ludicrous. At least it is, now. But Niemoller was not warning of the Holocaust. He was warning of the willingness of a seemingly rational society to condone the gradual stoking of enmity towards an ethnic or religious group warning of the building-up of a collective pool of national fear and hate, warning of the moment in which the need to purge outstrips even the parameters of the original scape-goating, when new victims are needed because a country has begun to run on a horrible fuel of hatred, magnified, amplified, multiplied by politicians and zealots, within government and without. Niemoller was not warning of the Holocaust. He was warning of the thousand steps before a Holocaust became inevitable. If we are at just the first of those steps again today, here, it is one step too close. Yet, in a country dedicated to freedom, forces have gathered to blow out of all proportion the construction of a minor community center; to transform it into a training ground for terrorists and an insult to the victims of 9/11 and a tribute to medieval Muslim subjugation of the West. There is no training ground for terrorists. There is no insult to the victims of 9/11. There is no tribute to medieval Muslim subjugation of the West. There is, in fact, no " Ground Zero mosque." It isn't a mosque. A mosque, technically, is a Muslim holy place in which only worship can be conducted. What is planned for 45 Park Place, New York City, is a Community Center. It's supposed to include a basketball court and a culinary school. It's to be thirteen stories tall and the top two stories will be a Muslim prayer space.
What a cauldron of terrorism that will be: terrorist chefs and terrorist point guards. And truly those will use the center have more to fear from us than us from them. For there has been terrorism connected to a mosque in this country this year. May 10th., Jacksonville, Florida; a pipe bomb at the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida. The FBI thinks the man in this surveillance video could be the bomber. It went off during evening prayers, and it was powerful enough to send shrapnel flying 100 yards. Fortunately, the bomber didn't know where to place it, so the 60 Muslim worshipers were uninjured. If he'd put it inside and not outside, they'd have been dead. And you probably would've heard about it on the news. Or maybe not.
Maybe those exploiting 45 Park Place would still shake their fists and decry terrorism by extremists who happen to be Muslim, and never face the shameful truth about our country: as the Jacksonville mosque bombing shows, since Sept. 11, Muslims have been at far greater risk of being victims of terrorism in the United States than have non- Muslims. But back to this Islamic Center. Its name, Cordoba House, is not a tribute to medieval Muslim subjugation of Spain. Newt Gingrich has been pushing that nonsense that " Cordoba" is a Muslim dog-whistle for "triumphalism." "It refers to Cordoba, Spain, the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world's third-largest mosque complex. Today, some of the mosque's backers insist this term is being used to 'symbolize interfaith co-operation' when, in fact, every Islamist in the world recognizes Cordoba as a symbol of Islamic conquest." Those "Muslim conquerors" are a figment of Mr. Gingrich's lurid imagination. In Spain, in Cordoba, though the Muslims established multi- cultural, non-denominational institutions of learning, they were under constant attack from Christians, and from a series of internal all- Muslim Civil Wars. The Muslims lost Cordoba, and the Christian church they transformed into the "world's third-largest mosque complex?" It was turned back into a Christian Cathedral in the 13th Century. And it has been that, ever since. And is there not a logical extension to Mr. Gingrich's conclusions about Cordoba and "triumphalism?" Virtually every church, every synagogue, indeed every mosque built on this continent stands where a Native American lived, or died, or was buried, or saw his world, his religions included, wiped out, by us. What are we then, Mr. Gingrich? And by the way, a point Mr. Gingrich has not even whispered as he has shouted fire in a crowded theater: when the historical implications of Cordoba were made clear to the backers of this project, the property developer, Sharif Gamal, changed the name. They already compromised. "We are calling it Park 51 because of the backlash to the name Cordoba House," he told the " Financial Times." "It will be a place open to all New Yorkers and that is a very New York name." A very New York name. Like " Ground Zero." Except this place, Park 51, is not even at Ground Zero, not even 'right across the street.' Even the description of it being "two blocks away" is generous. It is two blocks away from the northeast corner of the World Trade Center site. From the planned location of the 9/11 memorial, it is more like four or even five blocks. You know what is right across the street? I went there yesterday to refresh my sense of the World Trade Center, in which I worked nearly 30 years ago. At Church and Veezy, so close that the barbed wire of Ground Zero obscures its spire? St Paul's Chapel. Been there since 1766, where Washington went the day he was inaugurated, where the first responders came for relief nine years ago. You know what's also closer to Ground Zero than this Muslim Community Center? Church of St. Peter, at Church and Barclay Streets. As the sign says, New York's Oldest Catholic Parish. People hear " Ground Zero Mosque" and they think Mecca in the backyard and a loud call to prayer and they take umbrage. "We got no more than a few inches of skin and a couple of pieces of bone. Ground Zero is the burial place of my son," said Joyce Boland at the public hearing about the Center. "I don't want to go there and see an overwhelming mosque looking down at me." I honor her pain, and her fear, but Mrs. Boland has nothing to worry about. Unless she walks directly to it, she'll never see it. This is what you see from where the Center will be. Another nondescript building across the street. This building and others like it will block views of the Trade Center, and views from the Trade Center. It certainly will stand out on the north side of Park Place, but amid the canyons of lower Manhattan, it'll just be a distinctive building that if you happen to wander down a side street near the Trade Center, you might see. You know what you'll see there now? This, the Burlington Coat Factory, abandoned since 2001 when the landing gear from one of the planes fell 90 stories and went through the roof. For nine years, nobody's been willing to buy that building, just to knock it down and build a new one. It sold for four million 850 thousand dollars. In New York City real estate, that is spare change. And you know why it's spare change? Because walk around Ground Zero any day of the week and it's packed, with tourists and our version of pilgrims. But walk two and three blocks away and not so packed. Not packed at all. Empty stores. Boarded-up windows. Nine years later, and two and three blocks from the action and it's a ghost town. What was that about government not getting in the way of private business? What was that about letting the private sector spur new jobs in blighted areas? Oh, and what was that about Iraq? Why did we go into Iraq, again? I don't mean the real reasons or the naked, vengeful blindness that enabled the forging of a nonexistent connection between Iraq and 9/11. I mean, the official explanation: to free the world, and especially Iraq's citizens, of the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. That's its supporters' defense of the invasion, to this hour. Well, who lives in Iraq? Muslims. I hate to reveal this to anybody on the Right who didn't know this, but when they say Iraq is 65 percent Shia and 32 percent Sunni, you do know that Shia and Sunni are both forms of the Muslim religion, right? We sacrificed 4,415 of our military personnel in Iraq to save Muslims, and there are thousands still there tonight to protect Muslims, but we don't want Muslims to open a combination culinary school and prayer space in Manhattan?
From the beginning of this nation, we have fought prejudice and religious intolerance and our greatest enemy: stupidity, exploited by rapacious politicians. It's just 50 years now since Americans publicly and urgently warned their country-men not to support a Presidential candidate because he was a Roman Catholic. He would bow to the will not of the American people, but the Pope. He would be a "Papist." He would be the agent of a foreign state. His name was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Despite the nobility of our founding and the indefatigable efforts of all our generations, there have always been those who would happily sacrifice our freedoms, our principles, to ward off the latest unprecedented threat, the latest unbeatable outsiders. Once again, at 45 Park Place, we are being told to sell our birth-right, to feed the maw of xenophobia and vengeance and mob rule. The terrorists who destroyed the buildings from which you could only see 45 Park Place as a dot on the ground wanted to force us to change our country to become more like the ones they knew. What better way could we honor the dead of the World Trade Center than to do the terrorists' heavy lifting for them? And do you think 45 Park Place is where it ends? The moment this monstrous betrayal of our America gained the slightest traction, the next goal was unveiled. 'No more building permits for any mosques in this country,' brayed a man from the euphemistically-named " American Families Association." Of course, he said, maybe the permits could be granted if the congregation, quote, "was willing to publicly renounce the Koran." "They came first for the building permits." But back to Downtown. Does the name " Masjid-Manhattan" mean anything to you? Let me take you, in conclusion, to 20 Warren Street. Not much to look at, not from across the street, not from up close. That open door is the only thing that distinguishes it from the rest of the grill-fronts of the neighborhood.
That, and the yellow sign there: "Entrance To Islamic Center." It's in the basement. It is a Muslim house of worship, Masjid-Manhattan. It lost its lease in a larger building down the street, two years ago. The new facility is so small that only about 20 percent of worshipers can use it, at a time. But " Masjid-Manhattan" opened in early 1970. Four blocks away, the World Trade Center opened, in December 1970. The actual place that is the real-life equivalent of the paranoid dream contained in the phrase " Ground Zero Mosque," has been up and running, since before there was a World Trade Center, and for nine years since there has been a World Trade Center. Running, without controversy, without incident, without terrorism, without protest. Because this is America, damn it. And in America, when somebody comes for your neighbor, or his Bible, or his Torah, or his Atheists' Manifesto, or his Koran, you and I do what our fathers did, and our grandmothers did, and our founders did; you and speak up.
Keith Olbermann. 2010.