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Córdoba House far from Córdoba

Louis Werner / 15 August 2010

The controversy over the planned Islamic community centre in New York, once known as Córdoba House and now renamed Park51 after its address at 51 Park Place two blocks north of the World Trade Centre site in downtown Manhattan, has reached a fevered pitch among Americans—and the more fevered they are, the farther they live from there.

Opinion polls show that a majority of Manhattanites approve of the centre’s location, while those in the city’s outer districts disapprove, led by conservative demagogues living even farther away, such as a failed governor from the state of Alaska (Sarah Palin), a failed presidential candidate from the state of Arizona (John McCain), and a failed congressman from the state of Georgia (Newt Gingrich). It is not surprising that the mayor of New York, the president of the Borough of Manhattan, and local neighbourhood representatives all strongly support the centre.

What some of those who disapprove of most is its invocation of the city of Córdoba, which for them symbolises the Muslim conquest of Christendom past and present.  Thus the centre’s sponsors, one of whom is president of the interfaith organisation Córdoba Initiative, have dropped that city’s name from its formal proposal, as if it were a point of shame and guilt and not hope and honour.  If only its opponents knew more about both past and present

The centre is inappropriately called a “mosque” both by opponents and news reports, even though its thirteen floors will primarily serve cultural and recreational purposes—with a restaurant, swimming pool, art gallery, bookstore, lecture hall, and child care facilities—similar to Christian and Jewish community centres all over the USA, even in Alaska, Arizona, and Georgia. 

The Golden Age of Córdoba’s keenest intellectuals would certainly feel out of place in downtown Manhattan, where today the presence of intellectualism of any sort  is absent.  Instead, there the cacophony of daily life is loudest, the pushing and shoving required to earn a living is strongest.

Córdoba’s Great Mosque was built on the site of a Visgothic church, itself built on the remains of a Roman temple, seventy years after the Muslim conquest.  Christians continued to pray in the church during those years, and upon completion it was less a symbol of Muslim victory over Christians than it was a symbol of (Umayyad) Muslim victory over other (Abbasid) Muslims.  Likewise, if Córdoba House is ever built upon the site of a former clothing store, it will symbolise not the victory of the burqa over the miniskirt, but rather something quite unexpected in New York today, a rare victory of culture and religion over commerce and fashion.

Indeed, the Córdoba mosque site’s religious palimpsest—Christian built upon Muslim built upon Visgothic built upon Roman- echoes that of downtown New York on 9/11, when the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas was destroyed not far from where the Catholic Church of St. Peter’s barely avoided destruction, on the day when more Muslims died while at work in the towers than were reflected in their percentage of the US population as a whole.  

That these three faiths were once guilty of attacking each other in the eastern Mediterranean does not mean that they should not heal together in downtown Manhattan today, all the while remembering that New York’s first Jewish cemetery, founded in 1683 at a time when conversos were still being burned to death by the Spanish Inquisition, is nearby. All things considered, Córdoba House may be just the place that is needed.

Louis Werner is a frequent contributor to Saudi Aramco World Magazine and El Legado Andalusí, the quarterly magazine published in Granada, Spain about the legacy of Al Andalus.  He lives in Manhattan

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