“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
These are the marvelously prescient words of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution, and they cannot be more relevant than today’s headline news. President Barack Obama made the mistake of appearing to support the erection of a mosque two blocks from “ground zero” in New York City. On Friday, August 13, at a White House dinner breaking the sunup-to-sundown fast during Ramadan, Obama spoke on the right of Muslims freely to practice their religion and to build a mosque on private property, even if it is in lower Manhattan. He did not advocate or endorse the building of the proposed worship and community center at the specific location near ground zero, but his hopeful remarks to Muslims a\from home and abroad in the State Dining Room was elevated to a political debate during an intensely contentious mid-term election cycle.
The current location where the Park 51 Islamic Cultural Center would be constructed, 45-47 Park Place, is already in use by the Cordoba Initiative, a Muslim outreach group, for Friday prayers. Muslims are already there! And they have been there since late last year. The mission of the CI is, in part, to foster interfaith dialogue and mutual respect for all religions. The head of CI has been commended for his advocacy of religious tolerance and cultural acceptance, and many are aware of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s indefatigable efforts—including a number of Jewish civic leaders and scholars.
Countless politicians seem to think that supporting such a project a couple blocks from Ground Zero is tantamount to forfeiting their election bids. They assume that the issue is too touchy for U.S. citizens, and they denounce the venture because opinion polls signal that many are adamantly opposed to such an establishment.
When Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke out against the Vietnam War and was roundly criticized by a diversity of people, he responded that he was not a “consensus leader” and did not make his decisions based upon public or popular opinion. Rather, he stated, it was better to be a “molder of consensus” than a “searcher for consensus.” Thus, he continued his opposition to the war and his support of the War on Poverty until his death by an assassin’s bullet. Such ethical decision-making is rarely seen or heard of today!
What appears to be infecting rejecters of the Muslim community center is xenophobia about the Islamic faith as well as ignorant misconstruction of the Muslim majority. This fear and misinterpretation calculatedly associate perpetrators of the attack on the World Trade Center with all Muslims. The history of racism in this country, if it teaches anything, is the story of repeatedly prejudging and making assumptions about people without any empirical evidence. It’s like the white lady who runs in and locks her door of her house at dusk because a swarthy man is about to walk pass. That lady should not project her perspective, based on anecdotal material garnered from media and personal experience, onto that man because the perpetrators of evil in those stories and individual encounters were of darker hue. Christians, because they authored the Crusades and were unconscionably lax in responding to Hitler’s genocidal remonstrations, cannot be characterized as violent marauders and anti-Semites based on such historical witnesses. Likewise, the Cordoba Initiative cannot be gainsaid because the planners are of the same faith as the murderers on 9/11!
Denying the Cordoba Initiative its fundamental right to the free exercise of their religious expression by building a vital and vibrant community center is wrong. In this instance, New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg is right on target when he stated characterized Obama’s words as a “clarion defense of the freedom of religion.” His words are, indeed, patriotic and aligned well with the U.S. Constitution, unlike Rick Tyler, spokesman for Newt Gingrich, who declared that putting a mosque near Ground Zero would be like “putting a statue of Mussolini or Marx (or Lenin) at Arlington National Cemetery.” Gingrich himself stated something very similar, that the location of a mosque near the World Trade Center should be opposed: “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington” and “we would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor.” These statements are ludicrous, a subtle form of hate speech, and antithetical to the principles of human decency, respect for the facts, and intelligent analysis. Sadly, the Anti-Defamation League, which I highly appreciate, has made Gingrich a strange bedfellow.
It’s nice to see Pres. Obama being a hammer rather than an anvil, a thermostat rather than a thermometer. It’s about time!