Monday, August 16, 2010

My Take on the “Ground Zero Mosque” Controversy

Over the weekend, I found myself listening to President Obama’s comments regarding the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” (more on that in a minute) and later discussing the issue with some friends. Thus, I find my thoughts on the subject finally beginning to coalesce. However, before getting to what I think about the issue, there are several preliminary points that are, I believe, critical to a fair understanding or discussion of the subject matter.

First, it is absolutely essential to recognize that, despite how many times we’ve heard the phrase “Ground Zero Mosque”, the building in question is not at Ground Zero. Yes it is close (about two blocks away). But it isn’t at Ground Zero. Thus, the analogy to the crosses erected by Carmelite nuns at Auschwitz, is not on point. Does it matter that the mosque is near but not at Ground Zero? Not directly. But the different emotional responses to “at Ground Zero” as opposed to “near Ground Zero” or “two blocks from Ground Zero” are different. To say it a slightly different way, if it didn’t matter, why would those who oppose the mosque continue to say that it is “at” (instead of “near”) Ground Zero?

Second, the “Ground Zero Mosque” (actually the Park 51 Center) it is not precisely a mosque. Yes, it will have a prayer room. But it will also have a swimming pool and restaurants and even a memorial to the victims of 9/11. And, as I understand it (though I’m willing to listen to evidence to the contrary), the building will be more like a neighborhood community center that will serve the general lower Manhattan populace, not just Muslims. So, instead of thinking of a giant towering cathedral, think instead of a local Jewish community center or YMCA that approaches its mission from an Islamic, rather than Jewish or Christian perspective (and that also has a room set aside for prayer). Somehow, that creates a significantly different impression than does the word “mosque”.

Next, it is also critically important to understand that there are actually two underlying issues: The first question is whether the Muslim community should be allowed to build the Park 51 Center. The second question is whether building it at that location is a good idea. The first question impacts the First Amendment and general concepts of involvement by either the government or the community in inherently religious decisions. The second question goes, not to the question of what is allowed by the government or the neighborhood, but to what the particular religious community thinks wise. The difference in those questions may be subtle (or not), but it is central to the issue.

Thus, when listening to people and pundits pontificate about what they think about the “Ground Zero Mosque”, listen carefully to the language that they choose and which question they are actually discussing.

So, then, with that in mind, here’s my take: The New York Muslim community should be allowed to build a community center or mosque at the location that they’ve chosen. It goes against everything for which this country stands for people to stand up and urge the government to prohibit people to worship (or to erect a place at which to worship). When people argue that the government, in one form or another, should tell the New York Muslim community that it cannot build the community center, then we should all worry. Should the government tell Jews where we can build a synagogue or tell Catholics where they can build a cathedral or monastery? Of course not.

And note that Manhattan is not the only place in America that people (many of whom, I suspect, would quickly say that President Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Sen. Harry Reid are somehow violating the Constitution) are protesting Mosques. People in Tennessee, Wisconsin, and California have been protesting against the erection or expansion of mosques. Some on the right have even argued that no mosques should be allowed in the US. Or think about Newt Gingrich’s claim that no new mosque should be allowed in the US until Saudi Arabia allows churches and synagogues. Is he really suggesting that we should look to how Saudi Arabia behaves as a model for how America should behave? And if his standard is correct, doesn’t that mean that we shouldn’t allow the construction of Catholic churches until Vatican City allows synagogues and mosques? Somehow the idea that we should discriminate against a particular religious group because another country also discriminates doesn’t quite seem to conform to the Constitution. And what happened to the concern that the government was too big and too involved?

And consider this: If two blocks away is “too close” to Ground Zero, how far away is acceptable? Three blocks? Five? Must it be a mile away? Can it even be in Manhattan? And do we really want to get into the business of drawing exclusion zones around parts of our country in which certain religions are not welcome? (By the way, if you answer yes to that question, you really do need to go back and read some more history about the founding of our country.) What kinds of religious exclusion zones should be erected around the site of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City or are we only looking for places from which to exclude Muslims?

Is hate (or is it fear?) of Islam so strong, that we’re willing to wipe away a basic foundational principle of our country in the name of that hate or fear?

But whether the Muslim community should be allowed to build at the site is, as I mentioned, a different question from whether the Muslim community should decide to build at the site. That is a question for the Muslim community — and the Muslim community alone — to address and answer. That community is well within its rights to build on the site. But it is also a responsibility of that community to decide if the decision is wise. Will the good that comes from the community center outweigh the obvious sensitivities that have been stirred up? Will the learning and education and community involvement and interaction counterbalance the Islamophobia that exists and is being exacerbated by this debate? And what is the mission and purpose of the center? If it is cultural or religious outreach, will this site serve that purpose or will the purpose be hindered because of the raw emotions? I can’t answer any of these questions and I suspect that few outside the lower Manhattan Muslim community can even begin to give truly informed responses.

For my part, based on what little I know, I think that if the Park 51 Center is, as advertised, an open community center serving the broader, non-Muslim community, then, in the long run, it will probably be beneficial. Perhaps it will help people, both within lower Manhattan and the country as a whole, to learn that not every Muslim is a terrorist (though I do think that the Muslim community needs to do a much, much better job of acknowledging and coming to terms with the fact that though every Muslim is not a terrorist, the vast majority of terrorists are Muslims). I’m a Jew, but that doesn’t stop me from befriending Germans (or Arabs or Muslims). We as Americans befriend and work with Germans and Japanese and now Russians and many others with whom we’ve fought in the past. We must continue our efforts to stop terrorism and defend our way of life, but we can’t do either by sacrificing who we are. To do so let’s the terrorists win.

That being said, if the Park 51 Center turns out to be a place from which radical, Islamist, anti-American messages are preached, then I do think that the proximity to Ground Zero will cause the anger and suspicion to be magnified, probably to a frightening level.

Thus I’m more than willing to listen to people explain why they think that the Park 51 Center will or will not be beneficial to the community, New York City, or even the rest of America. I’m not willing to listen to people who want to argue that we should prohibit the building, let alone the construction of mosques elsewhere in the US. But I would respectfully hope that those in charge of the project have given due consideration to whether the choice of site was the best possible choice. I don’t know. But in the end, the decision of whether to proceed is a decision up to them, not me, not you, and not the government. I do hope that this whole situation can, with time, become one of those proverbial teaching moments where Americans can learn more about the rights of religious minorities and Muslims can learn better ways to deal with the anger, frustration, fear, and hate that Islamist terrorism has caused.

One last thing: Apparently a New York City firefighter has sued to stop the Park 51 project from going forward because Muslim terrorists killed many of his colleagues on 9/11. By that rationale, should I be able to sue to stop erection of a German cultural center because other Germans killed Jews in the Holocaust? Should I be able to sue to stop erection of a Catholic church because other Catholics killed Jews in the Inquisition? Should I be able to sue to stop erection of a Cracker Barrel because other Hoosiers were killed in the Civil War? This guy needs to chill out, go grab a beer with Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber, and then crawl back into his cave.

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