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COERCIVE ASSIMILATION - The lessons of Cordoba House and Babri Masjid

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By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 17.08.10

For an Indian, the controversy about the proposal to build a mosque and cultural centre two blocks from Ground Zero is instructive. When polled, the plan, cleared by municipal authorities in New York, was opposed by a broad majority in America as a whole and by more than half of New York’s famously liberal citizens. Sarah Palin asked its Muslim sponsors to give it up: “Ground Zero Mosque supporters,” she tweeted, “doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.”

With the exception of Mayor Bloomberg, who has strongly supported the mosque project, Republicans have lined up behind Palin, driven both by their personal convictions as well as popular feeling, since the mid-term elections due later this year are an opportunity to snatch one house of Congress, possibly both, from the Democrats. President Obama in a Ramazan meeting with American Muslims seemed to endorse the mosque, then ‘clarified’ later that he was merely supporting the right of Muslims to build a place of worship wherever it was allowed by local regulations, and not expressing an opinion on the merits or otherwise of building the mosque in question.

The mosque’s opponents have argued that while there may well be a constitutional right to build, good sense and consideration demand that the right not be exercised. Charles Krauthammer argued that just as the Japanese hadn’t tried to build a Japanese Cultural Centre at Pearl Harbour, Muslim Americans should respect American public opinion enough to walk this proposal back. It wasn’t a freedom of religion issue: Muslims were welcome to build mosques elsewhere — just not next to Ground Zero.

There’s a plausibility to the anti-mosque position. Indians have lived with thin-skinned sensibilities for so long, that we are the world’s champions at airing and understanding hurt feelings. We ban books, criminalize paintings, lean on authors and bully artists because some group’s feelings have been or might be hurt. It’s likely that some desis think that the plan to build the Cordoba House (as the mosque and cultural centre project is called) two blocks away from a site that has come to embody Muslim extremism is offensive and provocative.

Sadanand Dhume, journalist and commentator on fundamentalist Islam, said as much in a television discussion about the proposed mosque. He said that if the mosque’s sponsors were seeking to promote understanding and reconciliation, the mosque near Ground Zero was amongst the stupidest ways of setting about it because the proposal had clearly alienated non-Muslim Americans. Dhume recognized the constitutional right of American Muslims to build the mosque, but made it clear that the people who opposed the exercise of that right were neither bigoted nor unreasonable and the sponsors of the mosque ought to be properly mindful of their feelings.

Barkha Dutt, the anchor for the programme in which Dhume spoke on the controversy, said at the end that a willingness to break out of the straitjacket of political correctness (that is, being open to the idea that the letter of a constitutional right to worship ought not always trump the spirit of sensible accommodation) was a good thing. Put that way, surely Palin and Krauthammer and Dhume are right?

No, they aren’t. They are neither right nor reasonable. Arguments like this always, without exception, represent the thin end of an intolerant, majoritarian wedge.

Dhume, for example, has written elsewhere in praise of Sarkozy’s determination to ban the burqa in France. It’s worth following his arguments in some detail because on the matter of Muslims and the West, Dhume reliably represents the new majoritarianism. In his article for YaleGlobal, a Yale University website, Dhume contrasts Sarkozy’s opposition to the burqa with Obama’s unwillingness to make laws against individual costume, to the latter’s disadvantage. The French parliamentary commission’s report recommending that the burqa be banned in public facilities like buses, the Metro and hospitals, constitutes, according to Dhume, a proper recognition of the ideological threat posed by radical Islam.

The same man who would, for the sake of a majority’s sensibilities, have American Muslims back off from the Cordoba House project, thinks it’s a good thing that France has moved to ban the burqa because the 2,000 women who wear the burqa in that country represent, according to Dhume (and here he approvingly quotes a French legislator), “the tip [of] a black tide of fundamentalism”. Dhume argues that every time a woman in a burqa boards a bus in Paris or enters a public hospital in Lyon, Muslim fundamentalists think they’ve won. Ergo, he concludes grandly, “[r]olling back the burqa contradicts this triumphalist narrative”.

The costume choices of 2,000 women from France’s poorest minority become an existential threat to the West in Dhume’s lurid narrative. And France’s move to partially ban the burqa is not just good in itself, it’s also a sign of other good things to come. Dhume explicitly sees France as the necessary vanguard in the West’s struggle to contain Muslims and Islam: “As a birthplace of the Enlightenment, and the principal political architect of a unified Europe, the French example is a bellwether for other countries on the continent struggling to assimilate large communities of recent Muslim immigrants. The Swiss recently voted to disallow minarets on mosques; and Geert Wilders, Holland’s most popular politician and the maker of the polemical anti-Islam film Fitna, faces a trial over his outspoken criticism of the faith. Newspapers report that Italy, Germany and Denmark, among others, are already considering similar anti-burqa laws.”

Notice, in this passage, the mention of the Swiss prohibition of minarets on mosques. Dhume sees the banning of the burqa in France (and possibly in Italy, Germany and Denmark) and the denial of minarets in Switzerland as part of the same effort in ‘assimilation’. In this world view, Cordoba House near Ground Zero is a bad idea because of the majority thinks it is, in the same way as minarets are a bad idea because a majority of Swiss people think they are. This isn’t a defence of republican virtue; it’s a little paean to to coercive assimilation.

Dhume’s instinctive majoritarianism is explicitly on display when, in the same essay, he argues that France’s aggressive engagement with the burqa is superior to America’s hands-off approach because France’s position “strikes a balance between individual rights and the concerns of the larger community. (According to a poll published in the magazine Le Point, nearly six out of ten French citizens support the ban.)”

So that’s all right then. Armed with this rudimentary compass, Sadanand Dhume sets out to find the West’s moral North and, to no one’s surprise, he consistently reaches a place where — regardless of law, principle or right — minorities properly defer to majority feeling. The same writer who would defend Geert Wilders right to robustly criticize Islam as also the right of Danish cartoonists to lampoon Islam’s prophet, doesn’t expect Western majorities to acknowledge or respect the rights of Muslims to wear what they want or worship where they please. In fact, he sees Western moves to curb those rights as a virtuous defence of republican values.

As I follow the Cordoba House controversy, I know that I’ve been here before. After the Babri Masjid was razed in 1992, a majoritarian common sense evolved about the resolution of the dispute. ‘Reasonable’, ‘moderate’ public men and women argued that Muslims, regardless of the historical merits of the Ramjanmabhoomi case, ought to defer to the Hindu majority’s sensibilities in this one case. To concede the site as a gesture of goodwill would, they argued, earn Muslims enormous credit and disarm militant Hindus. To persist in laying claim to Ayodhya would merely aggravate the dispute, consolidate Hindu militancy and marginalize Muslims.

A decade later, with the Bharatiya Janata Party defeated and out of office, the realpolitik force of that argument is a little dissipated. Not to concede Ayodhya to a violent majoritarian mobilization was clearly the right thing to do at the time for anyone who took republican and constitutional principle seriously. If there’s a lesson to be learnt from the Cordoba House and the Babri Masjid controversies, it is this: if you want to be principled about not ‘appeasing’ minorities, it’s useful not to spend your polemical energies pandering to majorities.