There's a great deal of confusion about Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the founder of the Ground Zero mosque. His fiercest critics, like Andrew McCarthy of National Review Online, say he's intent on muddying the meaning of 9/11 and using it to further the goals of worldwide political Islam.
There are those who hear in his words and even see in his writings -- I'm referring to Todd Gitlin here, writing at the New Republic's site -- the mystic chords of the Declaration of Independence itself.
I hear something else, and it may help explain why secularists from Gitlin to Mayor Bloomberg -- people who might otherwise shy away from a cleric who is, after all, trying to build a gigantic religious facility -- have come to Rauf's defense.
What Rauf really sounds like, in the speeches and writings unearthed since the controversy began, is a Western leftist specializing in offering analytical defenses and sociohistorical explications of the Arab-Islamic position.
For Gitlin and others, therefore, Rauf doesn't seem like an "other." He seems far more like them than do many protesting the mosque's construction.
Rauf doesn't rant and rave like a second Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rather, he muses and theorizes like Juan Cole of the University of Michigan or John Esposito of Georgetown University.
There seems to be no knife's edge to Rauf's words as one hears them on tape. Or at least, when Rauf speaks, he acts as though he's doing so in a manner intended merely to explain the passionate and intemperate opinions of others.
Thus, when he told an audience in Australia that "We tend to forget, in the West, that the United States has more Muslim blood on its hands than al Qaeda has on its hands of innocent non-Muslims," he was invoking a shibboleth of the anti-Iraq-War left. In his pacific voice, he referred to how "US-led sanctions against Iraq led to the death of over half a million Iraqi children."
Thus, he conveniently forgot (as those who use this line of argument always do), that the sanctions resulted from a unanimous UN Security Council vote and were placed on Iraq in the 1990s as a way of avoiding military action after Saddam Hussein violated the terms under which he was allowed to remain in power after the 1991 Gulf War.
Under any moral understanding -- any clerical understanding -- of responsibility, the absolute responsibility for any and all deaths therefore rests on Hussein. It was he who violated rules to which he'd agreed, and he who could've done the things that would've ended the sanctions regime.
But that's not how the left understands the matter.
In the same speech, Rauf explained away Mideast terrorism: "After 50 years of, in many cases, oppression, of US support of authoritarian regimes that have violated human rights in the most heinous of ways, how else do people get attention?"
This, too, is familiar gruel for the American left, which has a terrible weakness for finding the root causes of the internal repressive acts of sovereign regimes in American actions.
Even the words that have most impressed people when it comes to Rauf's goodwill have a countercultural tinge to them. At a memorial for Daniel Pearl in 2003, Rauf said, "I am a Jew," and then said he was also a Christian, and that he was both because he was a Muslim, and the "Abrahamic faiths" at base believe the same thing.
This was designed to bring his Upper West Side Jewish audience to tears, and it did. But at root, Rauf was erasing necessary distinctions -- like the distinction that led to Pearl's beheading following his speaking the words "I am a Jew."
Pearl was murdered because he was a Jew. Rauf is getting kid-glove treatment from New York City's mayor because he's a "good" Muslim. There's a distinction for you.
Rauf's deployment of classic modern leftist rhetoric doesn't invalidate his would-be mosque, of course. But it does explain why someone who'd do something so astoundingly provocative in the name of religious faith has become a cause célébre among American liberals -- who usually greet the public invocation of religion with distrust, disrespect and a certain degree of horror.
And it's also why he's viewed with such disgust by those who are disgusted by the left's continuing hunger to blame America.