The controversy over the mosque brings to mind a New York story from the Second World War.
In 1942, not long after the internment camps had been set up, the War Relocation Authority (W.R.A.) announced plans to grant “leaves” to detained Nisei (Japanese born in the U.S.) if they passed a loyalty check and had the promise of a job in an area of the country where they were not banned and where the reaction to them would not be overly hostile.
In September 1943, a “New York Church Committee for Japanese Work” – headquartered at 150 Fifth Avenue – issued an appeal to the city’s Christian churches to support this W.R.A. program by arranging jobs, housing and church affiliations. The Federal Council of Churches created a similar entity, a “Committee on Resettlement of Japanese-Americans,” and other faith-based groups stepped forward.
The prominent Brooklyn clergy and laymen supporting it were not surprised by the grumbling of some local property owners and tenants. But they and many others were startled by an unexpected eruption from Mayor La Guardia, who issued a feverish protest, saying it was unfair to “turn these people loose” and “force them on New York City.” The Japanese-Americans, he said, constituted a potential danger to the city’s military installations, war plants and shipping facilities.
Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, shocked, publicly rebuked the mayor -– a man who “has fought long and vigorously for racial equality and justice” -– for backing racial discrimination. Ickes explained these were entirely innocent U.S. citizens, who were entitled to all its rights and privileges. The response, he said, would “seem ominously out of tune in a nation that is fighting for the principles of democracy and freedom.”
The faculty of Columbia’s School of Social Work asked La Guardia to reconsider. The Citizen’s Union noted that “several hundred” Japanese had been living in New York during the war, whose “presence has been accepted without excitement in a liberal cosmopolitan city,” and said the evacuees should be allowed to relocate. The A.C.L.U. similarly protested the mayor’s position.
The New York Japanese American Hostel opened on May 10, 1944, housing an Arizona family of three – the father a gardener, the daughter a social worker, and the son about to be inducted into the army – without incident.
The W.R.A. cautiously pressed ahead, sending people from states – Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington – that refused to take them back. In the first two weeks, 497 of the 22,000 Japanese-Americans who had left the camps had moved to New York City, where most found jobs in personal service.
By the end of June New York City hotels had begun hiring them, for menial tasks, about 100 a month. Positions in gardening and agriculture began opening up, even positions for professionals like admen, draftsmen, engineers. By the end of the war, there were 35 people in the Clinton Street hostel, and perhaps 2,000 evacuees had been incorporated in the five boroughs, a Japanese newspaper was in the works, and the storm had blown over.
Mike Wallace is co-author of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, and Distinguished Professor of History at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. His article first appeared in the August 6th edition of the New York Times.
At least New York’s Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, on wading into the controversy over a proposed Islamic Cultural Center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero, got it wrong in the traditional way.
Deploying the M.O. that his predecessor Cardinal O’Connor used in bungling his response to a murderous fatwa on Salman Rushdie, Archbishop Dolan botched a chance to speak with moral clarity on Islam. And like Cardinal O’Connor, he did it by missing the main point of a debate in choosing the lesser of two virtues.
On Wednesday, Archbishop Dolan offered to mediate between those who support and oppose the center–a service that required him to set himself up as a neutral party by conveying to The New York Times that “while he had no strong feelings about the project, he might support finding a new location for the center.”
In the unlikely event that both sides would agree to such mediation, there are others who could act as honest broker. Governor Paterson, for one, keeps volunteering for the job.
What Archbishop Dolan could better do–what he’s uniquely qualified to do–is promote understanding and help tamp down an incendiary issue by telling the story of Irish Catholics in America. In particular, he could draw parallels between the hard road to acceptance traveled by his forebears and the path that American Muslims are now on.
Irish Catholics took a lot of bad raps during America’s nativist era, which lasted most of the 19th century. You know the list: drunkenness, idolatry and the singing of cheesy ballads. Nowadays, we may smile at such ethnic stereotyping. But the Irish were once seriously viewed as a pathological underclass bent on taking down the country. And they were flooding into New York. By 1835, over 30,000 “low Irishmen,” described by diarist George Templeton Strong as “the most obstinate and ignorant white men in the world,” arrived in the city each year.
Nativists loathed Irish Catholics for more than their immigrant crudeness. “The sudden spurt of Irish Catholic immigration seemed menacing too, in the light of Vatican support for various reactionary European governments,” reminds Gotham, the classic history of New York. “Some believed it signaled an attempt by monarchists and despots to establish a beachhead in New York City, as a step toward infiltrating and overthrowing the republic.”
This was no joke.
The Anglo-Protestant establishment accused Irish Catholics of the serious charge of Popery–loyalty to a religious authority at odds with the people and government of the United States. It is this same slur that has been updated by those who contend that American Muslims yearn to impose Sharia law on our soil, or that American Muslims are indistinguishable from any Muslim anywhere who takes that as a goal. In both cases, a majority brands a minority as not just incapable of assimilation but actively hostile to it. The real agenda of these aliens, says the nativist, is to destroy America.
If that’s your perception, of course you’ll be offended by a mosque built near Ground Zero. Or anywhere in the fifty states. Opposition to new mosques has sprung up from California to Staten Island at locations that are obviously outside the boundaries of the sacred ground created by 9/11, no matter how broadly you draw them.
Similarly, Old Saint Patrick’s Church on Mulberry Street in Manhattan was seen by nativists in the 1830s as a flagrant and ongoing insult or, worse, a theocratic bulwark against the hard-won independence of American politics. (This was the era in which cartoonist Thomas Nast depicted Roman Catholic bishops as an invading wave of crocodiles, their miters drawn as gaping jaws.)
More importantly, Archbishop Dolan could quote Hughes’ famous rejoinder to John Breckenridge at a debate during which the Protestant clergyman declared Catholicism an enemy of democracy because of the Church’s support for the Inquisition in Spain and tyranny in Italy and France. Hughes replied that it was wrong to tar American Catholics with the misdeeds of Catholics elsewhere, just as he did not hold Breckenridge responsible for “the scourge of Protestant persecution” that Hughes grew up under as a boy in Ireland.
Then the man from County Tryone got to the point: I am an American by choice, not by chance, he said. I know the value of that civil and religious liberty which our happy government secures for all.
Since I’m scripting Archbishop Dolan’s press conference, I would have him look into the cameras and say solemnly: “I’m confident that those principles espoused by Bishop Hughes are today held by an overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans. And that is why, when this cultural center and house of worship is built, I will travel downtown to pay my respects to my fellow Americans, Imam Faisel Rauf and Daisy Kahn.”
That would be leadership–a contribution to the controversy far more valuable than mediation.
Toward the end of his life, Cardinal O’Connor regretted criticizing The Satanic Verses without having read the book first. Maybe doing so would have given him time to see that what was needed was not to emphasize his sympathy for aggrieved Muslim sensitivities but to criticize a death threat by an organized religion.
That would’ve gotten to the heart of the matter. Archbishop Dolan can do the same if he will stand up and talk about Muslim Americans, and their mosques, in the troubled yet hopeful light of the Irish Catholic experience. Now is the time for it.
Jim O’Grady writes about history and religion and is an eight-time winner of The Moth’s storytelling slam. He is the author of two biographies: Disarmed and Dangerous: The Radical Lives and Times of Daniel and Philip Berrigan, and Dorothy Day: With Love for the Poor. His article first appeared on August 23, 2010 at www.huffingtonpost.com