We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition. In this enlightened Age and in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws. . . . – President George Washington, January 27, 1793.
America was founded on the principle of religious liberty and has become a sanctuary to millions who have fled religious persecution. The Statue of Liberty proudly bearing its torch in New York Harbor, we remain a symbol to the world of religious freedom for all. From our humble beginnings, we embodied a multiplicity of religious beliefs and divergent sects. The varied religious backgrounds of the original colonists helped to ensure that religious diversity, church-state separation, and the free exercise of religious worship would be a part of our national identity. Although the vast majority of American citizens are Christians, it is no accident that the Constitution makes no mention of Jesus Christ, contains no references to God, and discusses religion only in the context of prohibiting governmental intrusion. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” declares our Constitution, and “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” References to “our Creator” and “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence were specifically formulated to apply to the followers of all religions, not just Christian ones. The men most important to this nation’s founding – Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin, and Hamilton – each were products of the Enlightenment, skeptical of organized religion, and disdainful of religious fundamentalists.
It is thus with deep sadness that I have watched the vitriolic ignorance and bigotry unfolding against the proposed Islamic Center and mosque two blocks from where the World Trade Centers were decimated on 9/11. Intended as a symbol of the resilience of the American melting pot, the 15-story structure is to house an Islamic Community Center with a board comprised of members of different faiths. The center’s visionary and leader, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, has worked for decades to promote understanding and tolerance among people of different faith traditions, and has done much to promote interfaith relations. Originally named the Cordoba House, according to The New York Times, after the city in Spain, where "Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together centuries ago in the midst of religious foment," the project faces opposition from a variety of sources. There are the usual suspects – Sarah Palin, Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, and other right-wing Republicans – who have repeatedly proved willing to exploit ignorance and fear. Most of their opposition is unabashedly on religious grounds, with little attempt made to disguise their collective disdain for Islam. More disturbing, however, is the public position of the Anti-Defamation League, which under Abraham Foxman has perhaps, finally, lost its soul.
Some opposition comes from the likes of extremists and blowhards, such as the former head of the Tea Party Express, Mark Williams, who referred to Allah as a “monkey God” (he later apologized), and Ed Rodgers, author of Islam and the Last Days, who hallucinates that President Obama is a Muslim who secretly supports Islam’s goal of world domination. Rodgers absurdly argues that those who support building a mosque near the site of Ground Zero are committing treason. As far as I can tell, Rodgers’ religious illiteracy, unfortunately, is shared by millions of Americans and this ignorance is exploited for political gain by the likes of Palin, Gingrich, and Tennessee’s lieutenant governor, Ron Ramsey, who has suggested that Muslim Americans do not have a constitutionally protected right to worship in the United States, because Islam, in his view, is a cult, not a religion.
That most of the opposition to the proposed Islamic Center is based on Islamophobia -- namely, hostility and fear of Muslims generally -- is confirmed by protests in other parts of the United States. In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for example, hundreds of protesters, urged on by Ramsey and other Republican candidates, are fighting plans for a large Muslim center near a residential subdivision, not exactly the “sacred ground” of the 9/11 attacks. In Temecula, California, a local Tea Party group picketed Friday prayers at a mosque that plans to build a new worship center on a vacant lot nearby. In an attempt to offend the prayerful worshipers, some protestors brought dogs with them, because Islam considers dogs ritually unclean. And in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, some so-called “Christian” ministers have been leading a fight to prevent a mosque from opening in a former health food store that had been purchased by a Muslim doctor.
This does not sound like the America I know and love, the one that preaches acceptance of all religions and that respects the rights of its citizens to worship wherever they find spiritual fulfillment and sustenance. The America revealed in the comments and opposition to the mosques throughout the country is an America of intolerance and religious bigotry. To oppose the Cordoba House, or Park51 as it is now being called (from its address), because it would house an Islamic Community Center and a mosque two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks is not only mean spirited and wrong, it’s un-American.
To disallow the Islamic Center solely on the grounds that it will house a mosque suggests unfairly and inaccurately that all Muslims are terrorists or covert supporters of terrorism; that Muslims are incapable of generosity, compassion, and universal love. If anyone opposing the center had evidence that the backers of the project are radical Muslims who support jihad against the West and wish to glorify 9/11, I will join their efforts to shut it down. I have instead heard only that it would be offensive to build a mosque near the “sacred ground” of the 9/11 attacks. By that logic, it would be offensive to allow a Christian church to stand near the memorial honoring the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing because Timothy McVeigh and his co-conspirators were self-proclaimed Christians.
The most shameful episodes of American history revolve around discrimination against groups who simply share the same race, religion or national origin – slavery, the Jim Crow South, the internment of Japanese-Americans. Since 9/11, many American Muslims have experienced discrimination and worse simply because they practice their faith. When no distinctions are made between moderate and radical religious practitioners, blame and derision are hurled upon an entire people. This is indecent, immoral, and contrary to American values, American justice, and the American way.
Abe Foxman of the ADL may be correct in declaring that family members of the 9/11 victims are entitled to irrational feelings, but promoting intolerance and caving in to popular sentiment does nothing to help us heal and it gravely betrays our values. The families of those who died on 9/11 deserve our sympathy and respect but, as the editors of The New York Times noted, “it would be a greater disservice to the memories of their loved ones to give into the very fear that the terrorists wanted to create and, thus, to abandon the principles of freedom and tolerance.” Victims’ families are entitled to their feelings, and I do not for a minute suggest how one should feel or grieve in their circumstances. But for the ADL to rationalize religious discrimination and intolerance by tying it to the pain felt by the victims’ families is shameful and inexcusable. Something is terribly wrong when the very organization that, historically, has battled discrimination of all kinds – from racist venom during the worst days of the Ku Klux Klan to more subtle forms of anti-Semitism advanced by university quota systems and the discriminatory policies of exclusive country clubs – tacitly supports prejudice against Muslims.
Even worse is the ADL’s short-sightedness. As Fareed Zakaria recently explained after returning a humanitarian award received five years ago from the ADL, “If there is going to be a reformist movement in Islam, it is going to emerge from places like the proposed institute. We should be encouraging groups like the one behind this project, not demonizing them. Were this mosque being built in a foreign city, chances are that the U.S. government would be funding it.” A two-year study of the relationship between American Muslims and terrorism, conducted by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and the University of North Carolina, found that contemporary mosques act as a deterrent to the spread of militant Islam and terrorism, and that many leaders of American mosques put great effort into countering extremism by building youth programs, sponsoring anti-violence programs, and scrutinizing teachers and texts. The Islamic Community Center and mosque planned for 51 Park Place would include a 500-seat auditorium, a swimming pool, art exhibition spaces, bookstores, restaurants, and a range of programs modeled on the YMCA and the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan. As a broad-based attempt to give voice to moderate Islam, its proximity to Ground Zero is its strength – a symbol of American religious freedom to counter the intolerant extremism that victimized Americans on 9/11.
I would expect resistance to religious diversity and displays of intolerance in places like Saudi Arabia, where it is illegal even to build a one-room church. Part of what makes the United States great is that we are a nation that could welcome a mosque near the site of 9/11, a powerfully symbolic act that resonates inclusion and openness. To resist the planned center, which is dedicated to span the divide between Muslim and non-Muslim and to create a national model of moderate Islam, is not only un-American, it is counter-productive. We need to build bridges among faiths, not widen gaps.
In 1790, President Washington attempted to ease the anxieties of a Newport, Rhode Island, synagogue by declaring that even historically persecuted religious minorities were entitled to equal protection of the law. The United States, said Washington, “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” We need to be reminded of our unique American history, for if bigotry and ignorance are allowed to prevail, the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 will have won the final battle.