An Answer For Marty

by Jonathan Chait | August 18, 2010

Marty, continuing TNR's rich tradition of internal debate, lobs a question my way about the Park51 project, originally named "Cordoba House":

Have you wondered, as I have, why this project is called the Cordoba Initiative? Well, the city was conquered in 1148 by a Muslim dynasty, the Almohades, who offered the Jews a rich choice: conversion to Islam, death or exile. The family of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides was born in Cordoba and Moses ben Maimon spent his childhood there. Until, that is, the Muslims arrived. When given their options, they left. Which is what most of the Jews did then. And there started the long journey of exile from Spain until 1492 when nobody was left.
So, dear Jon Chait and dear Isaac Chotiner, does the Cordoba Initiative at least not give you the creeps?

My response is that I have no reason to believe that this period of Cordoba's long history is the inspiration for the project. After all, there are many places in the world that have a clear, uncomplicated association with the triumphs of Islam. Rather, I believe that the connotation of Cordoba House is intended to be this:

The significance of Córdoba in the world's history springs from two things. First, it is the place where, for a few centuries, Islam and Christianity coexisted relatively peacefully, in the years before the more brutal fundamentalisms of the Crusades. But second, it is where the culture of the Arabs was brought into contact with the west, where Islamic thinkers gave consideration to the works of Aristotle, where they carried the flame of these works while the rest of Europe struggled through the dark ages. Islam too has played its part in the long history of rationalism; as Richard Fletcher has put it: "Modern science begins in 13th-century Europe, based firmly on the plinth furnished by translations from Arabic and Greek."
By the 9th century, Córdoba was the largest and richest city in Europe, with a tradition of learning and discourse that overshadowed Baghdad (the city that had taken Damascus's place as heart of the Islamic empire).

I take Marty's point that Cordoba eventually became an inhospitable place for Jews. It's possible that the connotation Marty has in mind is also the connotation that Abdul Rauf, one of the Muslims selected by the Bush administration to tour the Islamic world and explain the relationship between Islam and the United States, had in mind when he started the project. But everything Rauf has said, along with the plans of the project itself, suggest the opposite to me.

If the plans for the project turn out to be some kind of ruse -- if the planned memorial to 9/11 victims turns out to be a celebration of the conquest of the WTC site -- then I promise to publicly apologize. I hope critics of the project will do the same if their predictions turn out incorrect.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/77104/answer-marty