GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: The debate continues about a planned Islamic site in Lower Manhattan.
Jeffrey Brown has that.
JEFFREY BROWN: It is a mosque or a community center. It's on hallowed ground or several blocks away amid a busy city. It's a matter of constitutional rights or a question of the right thing to do.
As the national debate continues, the governor of New York signaled today he may propose a swap of state-owned land to move the proposed building to a new site. Groups for and against announced marches to be held in downtown Manhattan. And President Obama said he had -- quote -- "no regrets" over comments he made on two occasions last weekend, weighing into the controversy.
In the past week on this program, we have heard pro and con views from family members of 9/11 victims, activists, politicians and other interested parties.
Tonight, we hear from two columnists who have taken a wider view of the issues raised: Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post, Ross Douthat of The New York Times.
Ross, you wrote the other day that this whole thing revealed yet again a tension between what you call two Americas, one constitutional, one cultural. Explain.
ROSS DOUTHAT, The New York Times: Well, I think what you see happening in this debate is much like what you mentioned in the opening just now. There's people who frame it exclusively through the lens of constitutional rights, where what we have here is the free exercise of religion. Muslims have as much a right to exercise their religion as anyone else, and that's the only debate that matters, the constitutional debate.
And then, I think, on the other side, you have people who instinctively or not, or, you know, intuitively or intellectually, conceive of America in cultural, as well as constitutional, terms. And, so, in a sense, in that America, it isn't clear that Islam has completely arrived yet. There's a sense of suspicion, uncertainty that you have seen in the past with religious groups like my own church, the Catholic Church, in the 19th century, even with homegrown faiths like the Mormons in the same period, where groups are sort of asked to prove their American bona fides.
And I think a lot of the reaction that we're seeing, the negative reaction, to the mosque is the sense that this is kind of presumptuous by a religion that's sort of new to the American scene and is sort of stepping on what's considered American hallowed ground.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Eugene Robinson, your recent column would seem to place you firmly in that first group. Or do you accept the idea of two Americas? How do you respond to that?
EUGENE ROBINSON, Assistant Managing Editor, The Washington Post: Oh, I think that's true, but I'm not sure that really explains what's going on here.
I think if, for example, it were, you know, Hare Krishnas or someone who wants to build a temple at that site, there wouldn't be this sort of reaction. And I think it -- so, I think the question, the dichotomy is, we're at war against terrorism. Is it a war against terrorism or a war against Islam?
And I think that specific question is the important dividing line in this debate. And George W. Bush, when he was president, and Barack Obama, now that he is president, both have tried to make as clear as possible that -- that our war against terrorism is not a war against Islam. I think there are people in the country who don't buy that, who are suspicious of Islam specifically, not just suspicious of the new.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Ross -- well, Ross...
ROSS DOUTHAT: No, I mean, I think that's -- that's absolutely true. I think that it is -- it's -- it's a combination of the fact that Islam is new-seeming and alien-seeming and so on, and then, obviously, the particular association of this spot with Islamist terrorism.
JEFFREY BROWN: Right, but you're suggesting -- and -- and your -- the brunt of your argument led you to believe -- leads you to believe, I guess, that this should be moved to a different site.
ROSS DOUTHAT: Well, I think it's a case where the location of the project is defeating the purpose of the project, right, because when this project was announced, it was announced as a kind of outreach, a kind of bridge-building effort between Muslim Americans and the very Americans who are most likely to be suspicious of Islam.
JEFFREY BROWN: But to get back to your -- but to move that into your argument, you're suggesting that the -- that America that seeks a more coherent, assimilated culture may produce xenophobia of the kind that Eugene is talking about, but also produces, you think, something positive, the unum, you -- as you...
ROSS DOUTHAT: The unum. Well, I mean, where I think it is -- it's -- I mean, if you look back to the 19th century, right, and the Catholic experience, Catholic immigrants came to the U.S. and faced terrible xenophobia, terrible nativism, and so on.
But they also faced, I think, reasonable questions about the 19th century's Catholic Church's views on liberalism, democracy, and so on. This was a period when the Vatican was famously railing against liberalism, against democracy and so on as terrible errors.
And I think Islam in the U.S. is in a similar position today. And you see this in the debates about the imam who is heading this mosque and his -- things he has said, positions he's taken, people he's met with, where there is a kind of burden on Muslim leaders to disentangle themselves from anything resembling sympathy for extremism, terrorism, and so on, that was similar to the burden that I think was reasonably faced by Catholic leaders in the 19th century.
And, to that extent, I do think that some of the demands that this sense of American cultural identity places on new arrivals can be reasonable.
JEFFREY BROWN: So -- well, Eugene Robinson, as we said, there is now the possibility -- there is the possibility that this will be moved, if Governor Paterson comes through with a plan that all could agree to.
Would that -- would that in principle be a bad thing? Would the Constitution lose in that sense? Is that the argument that you want to make?
EUGENE ROBINSON: Oh, I think it would be a really bad thing if it were moved at this point, actually.
I mean, look, the imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, as was written about in Ross' paper this morning, is a Sufi. He's follower, a practitioner of the Sufi strain of Islam. These are kind of like the flower children of Islam. This is as if he were a Unitarian or something, compared to the rest of Christendom.
If this imam, who has written for The Washington Post's On Faith blog and is -- has been consulted by the FBI and the State Department to help them try to try to -- try to explain to Muslims around the world what America is about, if this man cannot build this project, then I think that sends a terrible signal to Muslims in the United States and around the world.
And I think it reinforces the poisonous narrative that is the number-one recruiting tool of terrorists. And that is the United States is, in fact, at war against Islam, that it hates Islam, that it is trying to destroy Islam, and that -- that what we say about really that -- that al-Qaida is really our enemy, and not the great religion of Islam, that that's all smoke, that we're blowing smoke, that we're not telling the truth.
I think this tends to reinforce a very poisonous narrative that is -- that has been used very successfully by terrorists.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is there -- Ross, starting with you, is there a way forward that you see when you put together all of this?
ROSS DOUTHAT: I mean, look, I -- I don't honestly think that moving this project, I don't know, 30 blocks north in New York City, and having it go forward, is exactly the biggest blow to religious freedom in the history of the United States.
I mean, projects like this, religious projects in particular, run into -- run into protests and zoning issues all the time, even when they aren't being built in and around a site where 3,000 Americans lost their lives. I don't think, when we look back on the history of U.S.-Islamic relations over the last 25 years, that having a mosque -- having a mosque built in New York City, but not right in this spot, is a deep blow to America's image in the Muslim world.
And I would also say that Eugene is absolutely right about the place that Sufis hold in -- in the sort of Islamic landscape -- in the Islamic landscape. On the other hand, if you look at what the imam has done, historically, what he -- the bridges that he's tried to build -- and I believe he's done this with the best possible intentions -- they have often been bridges to factions within the Muslim world whose values he may not share that I think a lot of Americans would rightly consider beyond the pale.
If you look at the comments he made during -- during the Iranian -- the violence surrounding the Iranian election, the advice he gave to Obama was to give a speech where he recognized the foundations of rule by Islamist jurists in Iran.
I mean, again, these are not -- they're not...
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.
ROSS DOUTHAT: ... the worst things in the world to say. Arguably, you can see the geopolitical picture. But, at the same time, you can see why people would raise an eyebrow.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, a brief last word from you, Eugene Robinson. Do you see it? Do you see any way forward out of this?
EUGENE ROBINSON: I -- I don't see any really good way forward out of this. I don't -- I don't see any way out of it that won't leave some people terribly disappointed and angry.
You know, I hope -- I hope, in the end, we learn something from it,, and maybe we learn something about Islam. We learn -- we remember, for example, that there were hundreds of Muslims, innocent Muslims, who died in the attacks on 9/11.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right.
Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post, Ross Douthat of The New York Times, thank you both very much.
ROSS DOUTHAT: Thank you.
EUGENE ROBINSON: Thank you.