The Ground Zero Mosque
Let’s first of all point out that the popular title I adopted for this piece, usually reserved for the feverish demagogues and their pigheaded followers, is itself misleading. The proposed mosque will be built two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center,but the title suggests the mosque will be built on top of the ashes. And were that the case, I’ll concede that it would be insensitive and bizarrely prejudiced toward the Muslim community affected by 9/11. But this Islamic community center and mosque will be at some distance and represents a beautiful opportunity for the United States to rise above prejudice and recommit to a legacy of tolerance and acceptance.
The debate on this proposal has been raging for some time, the petty and ignorant crawling our from beneath their fundamentalist rocks to assault the very foundations of American liberty. That foundation being religious freedom. There are legitimate reasons to be opposed, to at first be insulted and contest that hey, maybe there’s no good reason to invite controversy so close to such a recent tragedy. I understand that the Islamic community in general had its image tarnished in the minds of many Americans in the wake of 9/11, people making the unfortunate and perhaps involuntary mistake of allowing Al-Qaeda to represent an entire religion. It happens often in history that the loudest and most radical groups define public image, but the era of mass media should no longer permit that. Somehow, the fact that the GOP’s domestic agenda flagrantly favors only the wealthiest Americans and disregards the needs of the poor isn’t enough to throw them out of favor and out of office.
The point here is that there is considerable popular misconception about Muslims and an unfortunate mental association for many with Islam and 9/11. And that is precisely why the Cordoba Center’s construction near Ground Zero could be a great thing. Perhaps once the bruised egos heal and the pronounced ignorance loses steam the courage to build a mosque in such proximity will challenge misconceptions about Islam.
Last night, at the White House celebration of Ramadan, President Obama finally weighed in on the debate. This from the New York Times:
“I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. Ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground,” the president said in remarks prepared for the annual White House iftar, the sunset meal breaking the day’s fast.
But, he continued: “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.”
I hope that Obama becomes a genuine beacon for tolerance and liberty in this moment and gives no ground to the opposition. This is a polarizing debate and it would be nice to see the president take strong stance.
Bloomberg set the tone on August 3rd with an absolutely unequivocal speech endorsing the mosque. His central argument was that this is a question about the fundamental reality of separation of Church and State, of the rights to worship, and the rights to private property. He leaned heavily on the Constitution, which is just fine since every politician should hold it close. And he’s right about all that. I was more interested in his opening, though, as opponents of the mosque are less concerned with the Constitution and more obsessed with symbols:
“Our doors are open to everyone. Everyone with a dream and a willingness to work hard and play by the rules. New York City was built by immigrants, and it’s sustained by immigrants — by people from more than 100 different countries speaking more than 200 different languages and professing every faith. And whether your parents were born here or you came here yesterday, you are a New Yorker.
“We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors. That’s life. And it’s part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11, 2001.”
That’s what it comes down to. If Americans want to perpetuate and recommit to a ‘spirit of openness and acceptance’ then this is the time, this is the moment to be courageous and enlightened. If the streets of New York are filled with protesters denying inalienable rights based upon the gross activities of a radical group, then the perpetrators of 9/11 will have won some ground.
I spent some time this morning trying to come up with an appropriate analogue for this scenario, specifically for the folly of letting pronounced ignorance and misdirected ire dictate policy. I came up with one that almost works, but I know there’s a better one out there to help the opposition see past their own pain or misunderstanding. Anyway, I’m reminded of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, when 400-500 unarmed civilians were brutally murdered by US soldiers in 1968. If you’ve never read about it or looked at the photographs, please do so. It’s one of our darkest chapters and everyone should know it well. The parallel here is that the incident became, for some, emblematic of the entire Vietnam War. Some veterans met great hate when they returned because of the crimes of a few. Imagine, though, the nightmare of our servicemen returning if we let that isolated and insane tragedy represent every soldier? One radical event representing an entire organization. It’s painful to imagine that. But it isn’t all that unlike letting 9/11 represent all Muslims and letting the tragedy of a moment define the legacy of a culture.