The proposal to build a mosque and Islamic community center a few blocks away from Ground Zero in New York City has gained an increasing amount of media attention in the last few weeks. The mayor supports it vehemently, and now even the President does. The fervent opposition to the idea is happening within the context of a larger, nation-wide opposition to the building of mosques, which itself is largely associated with conservative Republicans and Tea Party associates.
I personally find it amazing that there are Americans in this day and age that are opposed to the building of religious structures – to me it’s sort of like being opposed to the building of schools, or hospitals, or libraries, or parks, or YMCAs, or other such highly useful social facilities, and instead being in favor of mandatory house arrest for all God-fearing citizens.
I can grasp intellectually, though, why this opposition exists. Namely, it rests on a foundational belief that Islam is inherently violent and breeds terrorism. A slippery slope is then hastily constructed that allows the building of a mosque will lead directly (maybe not now, but eventually) to another September 11th. Now, following this logic ad absurdum, we can link the building of Catholic churches to future Crusades, but I don’t really want to attack that line of reasoning as much as present a different context for thinking about the issue.
First, as many blogs and news organizations familiar with the area have been attesting, the three blocks around Ground Zero haven’t exactly been paved by angels since the towers fell, given that the area still hosts two strip clubs and an off-track betting bureau. That doesn’t really sound like something that’s been considered hallowed ground for ten years to me, unless you consider the commercialized objectification of women and gambling to be more sacrosanct than the freedom to practice religion. Additionally, there are several churches in the immediate vicinity – St. Paul’s Chapel (Episcopal), St. Peter’s (Roman Catholic), and John Street (United Methodist), as well as a yet-to-be restored Greek Orthodox church, St. Nicolas, that was completely destroyed on 9/11 and is yet to be restored due to Port Authority snafus. While the fact that St. Nicolas hasn’t been rebuilt is a shame, I don’t see any calls to not repair it or to tear down the other three as sacrilege to hallowed ground. That would make as much sense as tearing down the churches near the FBI building in Oklahoma City because Timothy McVeigh was Catholic.
The proposed site for the mosque and community center is alsoÂ not mingled with the ashes of thousands of innocent victims, but consists a long-empty former Burlington Coat Factory – again, not exactly most people’s idea of sacred turf. There’s a restaurant next to it called the Dakota Roadhouse (its reviews call it an ‘urban redneck bar,’ and I somehow doubt it, or the parking garage across the street, is filled with saints. I try to reserve that status for cemeteries, battlegrounds, and bona fide historical landmarks – all places where any religious group would have zero chance of building anything.
It also pains me to point this out, but there would not be a fuss if a Protestant evangelical organization was proposing a similar project. This leads very quickly to a charge of religious intolerance, which in turn leads to a charge of denying First Amendment rights. To me this is the most serious objection to not allowing construction. If you wish to defend the Constitution against an idea of evil, terrorist-breeding Islam, denying religious freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution (the very thing you’re concerned about protecting) to citizens and legal immigrants that practice Islam peacefully is a really strange way to go about it.
In fact, such a strategy invites the charge that you don’t understand the document you’re trying to defend, or that you have a version of it in your head that bears little relation to the actual document. Admittedly, it is not an easy read, written as it is in what I sometimes call ‘full contact English,’ in a time when it was permissible and even expected, usage-wise, to stuff seven clauses into a typical sentence. Putting on my English professor hat for the moment, I’d say, safely, that it demands a level of reading skill beyond most undergraduate students I’ve encountered. But even then, the First Amendment is only one sentence:
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.
The most overlooked aspect of this sentence is the double-edged sword quality of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause working together. The most common misinterpretation is that all they do is preventÂ religion – namely, Protestant Christianity – from being the only religion of the land (or in the text’s original context, the Church of England) – and as such, it denies those mythic ‘Judeo-Christian values’ from being asserted freely. Equally important, though, is how the ‘or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’ part is a shield that protects religious groups from the government. Your religion will never get government endorsement as the One True Path, but it can’t have laws passed against it, either. Rather, it is on equal footing with all other faiths. Engel vs. Vitale is one of the more accessible (and important) Supreme Court decisions that does a good job of outlining how two powerful little clauses work together.
I can’t see any real legal challenges to the construction of the mosque – the property is privately owned and the zoning seems in order. What I can see is this becoming an election year issue that allows the GOP to rally around religion again with those that value their religious beliefs about Islam over what is a remarkably cut and dry constitutional value of freedom of religion. I can also see the opening of this mosque becoming highly politicized and even dangerous. So, all in all, this is an inconvenient incident for a certain brand of liberal. Then again, the insistence on basic freedoms is always dangerous and inconvenient until they become fashionable enough.
I don’t think the Democrats are up for this kind of public fight right now; in an off year with a tanked economy, this is a open-and-shut seeming non-issue that can gain traction. I wish the President’s short speech on it had been more publicized, as well as more abstract, linking the controversy to a larger call for religious tolerance and pluralism that is in turn linked to our military actions. He could have pointed out, for example, that it hardly makes sense to defend the largely Muslim citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan from terrorist attack yet get upset over a mosque in New York; if anything, we should be celebrating an alliance with peace-loving Muslims willing to co-exist in a democratic state. He could also have challenged that particularly American brand of hospitality and indifference; how many opponents of the mosque know Muslims, have any meaningful interaction with someone that practices Islam, or even know where the closest mosque to them is?Â My guess is very little. Also, where are Americans getting their information on Islam? You’re going to get a vastly different take on Islam from a post-9/11 book written in a month by an alarmist right-wing author or from a random website, than from an actual Muslim or a book by an Arabic-fluent scholar in a department of religion. Furthermore, even given for the sake of argument that two blocks away from Ground Zero is too close, what isn’t? Three blocks? Five? Ten? Fifty? The imam of the proposed mosque currently heads a mosque that meets a mere twelve blocks from Ground Zero. Another mosque is a mere four blocks away. What’s the spiritual and political difference between three and twelve blocks? What about three and four?
In short, it seems to me that there was an opportunity here to make something useful and good and powerful out of this issue, to recast the debate and promote actual dialogue. Maybe, even, some kind of compromise would have been worked out – a different site, a smaller development, or even better, a multifaith organization.Â But that moment has largely passed, and now it will become just another powder keg for talking heads to riff on.