Nicholas Kristof’s column on the proposed mosque near Ground Zero caused more than a little controversy when it was published last week.
On Monday I interviewed him about it. Here’s the transcript:
HH: Pleased to welcome back to the program New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof. Nick, welcome back, good to talk to you.
NK: My pleasure.
HH: Last week’s column, “Taking bin Laden’s Side,” has, how much response have you gotten to that column, Nick?
NK: A ton of it, most of it, or much of it suggesting that I’m completely nuts. But that’s always a sign that you’ve kind of rattled people a little bit.
HH: Well, I spent a good part of last week with E.J. Dionne talking about his take on the Mosque, so I wanted to follow up with you as another one of the center-left columnists out there that people on my side of the aisle read and take seriously. I think your argument was three-fold – it’s not really a mosque, it’s not really at Ground Zero, and the imam and his wife are “the real deal.” Is that a fair summary?
NK: Yeah, yeah, to some degree. I mean, not so much that it’s not a Mosque, but that it’s not really Ground Zero.
HH: Let’s start. If it was just a mosque, and not a community center, not like a YMCA as you argue in the column, would that make a difference to you if it was just a large mosque? Would you change your position?
NK: No, that would not.
HH: And if it was closer to Ground Zero, would it change your position?
NK: It, I mean, if it were, you know, a little bit closer, I’m not sure that would. If it were actually at Ground Zero, I mean, I think that whatever is at Ground Zero really should be closely scrutinized, and you know, I’d have to think about what really should be at Ground Zero. So I would draw the distinction as what is at Ground Zero, and then what is, you know, a couple of blocks away. [# More #]
HH: How do you define Ground Zero, because this is in the debris field of, you know, the landing gear hit it, as I’m sure you know.
NK: Right, right. No, but I mean, in other words, the area that was at the site of the World Trade Center, and that is now being rebuilt.
HH: And any of the buildings that collapsed, would they be included, or where anyone died?
NK: Well, certainly any building that collapsed, I would count as Ground Zero.
HH: All right, now, last part, if they were in fact professed radicals, and they were two blocks away, would that make a difference to you as opposed to the people you know and are confident about?
NK: Yeah, I mean, I think that that’s a, I mean, that’s a really hard problem for me, frankly, what one does in the case of, you know, radicals who want to build a mosque, or for that matter, radicals in any religion who want to build a religious organization that I think is going to seed hate and this kind of thing. And that, you know, on the one hand, obviously, we want to emphasize freedom of religion, and on the other hand, that can have real consequences for society. So that would indeed be a real consideration for me.
HH: Now this raises the trickiest question. I have got a different position. I don’t think you can take into account anyone’s belief under the Constitution. I don’t think you can say this guy is too radical, that guy is not radical enough, because that takes the government into the actual scrutiny of belief. I think that they can ban all churches whatsoever, but since you’ve got that sliding scale, I bring to your attention just about three years ago,the Times of London, the Sunday Times, did a story on the hard-line takeover of British mosques. And Nicholas, it begins, “almost half of Britain’s mosques are under the control of a hard-line Islamic sect, whose leading preacher loathes Western values, and has called on Muslims to shed blood for Allah, an investigation by the Times has found.” And it’s an article by Andrew Norfolk, it goes on at great length. Taking at your word that the imam and his wife are fine, what about the problem that they will not always be there, and that this mosque could indeed be taken over by radicals? What do you do about that?
NK: Well, I think that’s a pretty modest risk. I mean, in general, whether it’s mosques or churches, they tend to, you know, they tend to attract like-minded congregations, and they tend to continue along that vein. I also, I mean, Britain, as you say, it does have a real problem with radicals taking over mosques. But in my mind, that would be, you know, it would be much less than half in Britain. But I mean, I guess the other point I would say is that while I can’t exclude the possibility that you would have radicals take over this community center in Manhattan, and use it to preach hatred, and to undermine everything that we value, I mean, the very fact of blocking it, I think, has a similar, very immediate effect of ending up supporting radical clerics. And I mean, we’re already beginning to see some signs of the Taliban using this whole episode as a way of recruiting people. So you know, while there may be some somewhat theoretical risk of the construction of this center being used down the road at some point to promote radical Islam, there is, you know, an immediate, and I think much greater risk of the blocking of it being used for those same ends.
HH: Let me ask you, I’m not aware of how often it has happened, but I am aware it has happened. How often does radical Islamists take over of American mosques occur?
NK: I don’t think it happens very often at all. The, I mean, what typically has happened is you get some radical imam who then gathers, you know, radicals around that person who is spreading messages…I mean, traditionally, it was on cassette tapes, things like that. These days, it’s more likely to be on the internet, and that that person, as a result, attracts similar-minded radicals. And often, existing mosques tend to be very wary of such a person, and what that person is going to do to their reputation, so they’re more likely to start some kind of new facility.
HH: Now if in fact you are wrong about that, and it occurred fairly frequently…
HH: Would that change your assessment of the risk here, even though you know the imam and his wife are not that? I want to keep emphasizing your position…
HH: And I just don’t know them.
HH: I don’t know them. Have you heard some of the more radical statements attributed to him out there?
NK: Yeah, I mean, I’ve seen the criticisms of him, the things that have been taken about him and Hamas, for example. I’ve seen those. Those, to me, are very unrepresentative of what he says.
HH: Do they trouble you?
NK: You know, this is somebody I’ve, I know and have seen speaking, and so no, I would not say that I’m troubled by them.
HH: And the speech he gave at South Australia University wherein he said, well, let me play you a little clip of it. I played this for E.J. as well, he hadn’t heard it, so we’ll let the audience here it.
HH: Here’s a little clip of him in Australia.
FAR: 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. You may remember that the U.S.-led sanction against Iraq led to the death of over half a million Iraqi children. This has been documented by the United Nations.
HH: So Nicholas Kristof, what do you think of that statement?
NK: Well, I mean, I disagree with it, but I think that Imam Feisal has often tended to get in trouble, if you will, or to attract, to raise eyebrows, because he is this kind of bridge figure. And you know, these kinds of statements are kind of taken for granted in much of the Islamic community, and I think you know, he and a lot of people think that sanctions against Iraq had a huge human toll. And so I think that he, you know, he believes that. I think he’s, you know, I think he’s wrong. I think we didn’t really have very much we could do in the case of those sanctions, and we were trying to punish Saddam. But I think that in this effort to be a bridge figure, he says some things that unite him with a Muslim audience, and it comes out very, very strongly against terror attacks against anti-Christian behavior. And it’s this bridge behavior that tends to lead him to attract suspicion kind of from both camps.
HH: Is it Islamophobic to be concerned about statements like that?
NK: I don’t think that, I don’t think it’s Islamophobic to be concerned about statements like that, and I think it’s useful to hold, you know, Imam Feisal to account, and to hold everybody to account. So I think that’s quite useful. I do think, though, that there is an element of Islamophobia in some of the attacks on the mosque, and in the way Islam is presented more broadly. And…
HH: But with a minute left, is it possible, like Mayor Bloomberg finally admitted, for people to oppose the Mosque and not to be Islamophobic, but to do so for many of the same reasons that people opposed the Disney development outside of Manassas, and the…
NK: Yes, yes.
HH: And did you communicate that in the column, do you think?
NK: No, probably not. No, probably not. And that’s a fair thing. Maybe I should have…you know, the reality is that in 800 words, you’re trying very hard to get your point across, and the tendency is for us to bang the tables. Now maybe a little less banging, and a little more acknowledgment in that case would have been useful.
HH: I appreciate it. Nicholas Kristof, always a pleasure talking with you, I appreciate you taking the time.