One of the recurring pleasures of my summer in Sunset Park has been going to the Saturday farmer’s market and procuring an array of uniquely Mexican herbs and vegetables. Grown in the Catskills, the delicacies have included greens such as quilite, pipicha, alache, and popolo. The vendors, many of them Mexican-American teenagers, have been more than happy to share some cooking tips. And so this summer has brought me a pleasurable introduction into the wonders of Mexican cuisine.
This cheerful bit of cross-cultural understanding stands in sharp contrast to what’s playing in nearby theaters. Just across the Verrazano, Staten Island has seen an alarming number of attacks on Mexican immigrants by black teenagers; further out into Long Island, white teenagers continue to create an equally hostile nativist environment. In North Jersey high schools, calling someone “Mexican” is the ultimate insult. To borrow from Chuck D., perhaps it’s time we start worrying about the time that Arizona gets to us.
Yet, while the hostilities of dispossessed youth are certainly a cause for concern, the animosities vented by the legions of not-so-dispossessed adults rallying around a certain spot in Lower Manhattan have set off a five-alarm fire. (Yes, it took me 2.5 paragraphs to get to Ground Zero, and I apologize for the delay.) Amidst the deafening noise, Mayor Bloomberg has indeed voiced the most principled positions of his political career, distinguishing himself from Harry Reid, Howard Dean, and all others who would appease the Gingrich-Murdoch-Palin axis.
But we should not lose sight of certain other views that Bloomberg voiced earlier in the summer—in support of Tony Howard and BP, against derivatives regulation, and in favor of extending the Bush tax cuts. Such positions are perfectly aligned with the Boehner wing of the party that seeks to capitalize on anti-“mosque” hysteria in order to repossess the House. Even if we grant that Bloomberg’s motives are pure in defending the Islamic cultural center, his maximalism is helping force the Democrats into a no-win position—i.e. defending the losing side in a public opinion war that Fox and others on the very far right would be happy to keep fighting.
So in the timeless words of a certain Russian atheist, the question once again becomes, “What is to be done?” Caving in to the far right for the sake of political expediency is not an option. As Mark Jacobson noted in a recent New York piece, the Stop Islamization of America rally planned for 9/11 will feature the Dutch exclusionist politician Geert Wilders—“whom even Glenn Beck has implied is a fascist,” Jacobson says. Moving the cultural center elsewhere would provide a victory for hatemongers everywhere.
Which is why now is the time for real spiritual leaders (i.e. not Beck) of all faiths to intervene. There is no reason why instead of an Islamic cultural center, the former Burlington Coat Factory at 45-51 Park Place could not become an interfaith cultural center. The basement already has a functioning mosque, and different floors could house prayer rooms for different faiths. Since the current proposed plan calls for a community center (and not exclusively a mosque), it really should not be any great stretch for the center to open its doors to believers of all stripes.
Since my pal Fran Sears first suggested this idea to me, I am tempted to call it the Sears Plan for the Burlington Coat Factory—or one great big department store of faith. If the Sears Plan is viewed as unworkable, the onus would be on the opponents of it to explain why, especially since there are harmonious interfaith community centers on college campuses across the land. In any event, all I can say is, “Lord, please put this issue to rest.” I’d really rather go back to figuring out how to make the perfect guacamole.