It’s also important to note that the ideological critique of Catholic immigration wasn’t necessarily crazy. The 19th-century Vatican really did have a very public problem with liberalism and democracy, and it wasn’t unreasonable for Protestant Americans to worry about Catholicism’s ability to conform itself to democratic pluralism. The parallel to the debate over Islam today should be obvious: It’s foolish and bigoted to suggest that Muslims can’t be good Americans, but it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that American Muslim leaders, like Catholic prelates before them, have a particular obligation to embrace the separation of church and state, to distance themselves from Islamist currents overseas — rather than, say, endorsing the basic premises of the Iranian theocracy [bold mine-DL] — and so on.
On the first point, a qualification needs to be made. The Vatican had a problem with liberalism and democracy in no small part because for most of the 19th century European liberals had an obsession with attacking the Catholic Church and trying to strip it of its influence and property. The original Kulturkampf was almost entirely an exercise in liberal and nationalist hostility to Catholic institutions and Catholicism as such. The fear of a Canossarepublik was the same fear that motivated a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment in the U.S. In other words, the fear in this country was not simply that Catholics could not be both faithful Catholics and good Americans, but that the nature of Catholicism was incompatible with Americanism (for lack of a better term here) and represented a threat to American independence. If this wasn’t exactly a crazy belief, it was unreasonable and false. Even so, it was a lot more plausible than the claims of Gingrich et al. that the Cordoba Initiative’s mosque represents a celebration of Islamic conquest and an assault on American civilization.
In Ross’ original column, he distinguishes between an America understood as a political and constitutional project and America as a distinctive culture. Obviously, I am far more sympathetic with this latter, “second America” for many reasons, but what I find remarkable about this mosque controversy is how blatantly, narrowly political the opposition to this particular construction project has been. It has been an exercise in manipulating public anger and using it for the purpose of waging an ostensibly anti-Islamist political campaign by organizing against harmless Muslims and their organizations. A distinctive American culture isn’t under threat from this mosque, the Cordoba Initiative or Imam Abdul Rauf. Rauf and those like him do represent a threat to lazy conservative anti-jihadism that treats every Muslim to “the right” of Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a potential fifth columnist and would-be enforcer of creeping shari’a.
Regarding Rauf’s comments on the Iranian election last year, Ross’ mischaracterization of them is significant. Ross claims that Rauf is endorsing the premises of Iranian theocracy, when what he was actually doing was appealing to the Obama administration to seize an opportunity for rapprochement with Iran. Agree or disagree with the proposal, the only thing Rauf seems to be endorsing in his comments is the idea of reconciliation between the United States and Iran, which appears to be broadly consistent with the goals of his organization.
This mischaracterization fits into Ross’ larger point that Muslim leaders in America must not say politically controversial things or express views outside the political mainstream. Presumably, instead of making this appeal to Obama, Rauf was supposed to jump on the bandwagon denouncing the Iranian government as illegitimate and dismiss the election result as a coup. That would have demonstrated his “moderate” status all right. Likewise, Rauf must not say that American policies were accessories to the crime on 9/11, because it is still not really appropriate for any “good American,” regardless of religion, to say that. Apparently, it doesn’t matter if the statement is true or even debatable. It isn’t enough if Muslims peacefully practice their religion, reject violence and embrace their new countries, but they must also become pro-government loyalists. Perhaps if Rauf really wanted to show how moderate he was, he would provide token support for the next U.S. attack on a Muslim country.
What we’re talking about here isn’t a question of assimilation to the norms of American culture or an acceptance of the principles of constitutional government, but a question of conforming to the limits of approved political discourse. Of course, there is no way for Rauf to satisfy his critics in a way that will not destroy his credibility with most other Muslims, which I have to assume is the point. Anti-jihadists are always lamenting that moderate Muslims are too quiescent, passive and silent, but the moment that one of them says anything that they don’t like they dismiss him entirely. Little wonder that many Muslims here and around the world find anti-jihadists’ professions of common cause with them hard to take seriously.