The Mosque Controversy and Religious Freedom

Symbolism and sensitivities do matter.


While the "Ground Zero mosque"—an Islamic Center planned two blocks from the site of the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks—has been cleared for construction by the authorities in New York, the controversy is far from over. The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative group that defines itself as championing religious tolerance (the "no comment" paradox is obvious), has gone to court to block the Cordoba House project. The mosque's opponents are out in force making their case. They have some valid points, and the victory for Cordoba House is not quite the perfect occasion for three cheers for religious freedom. But at this point, the opposition is so tainted with intolerance and irrationality that to hand it a victory would be far worse.

Both supporters and proponents of Cordoba House see the issue in stark terms. To one side, this is a matter of religious freedom and equal treatment as this nation's bedrock principles, a fundamentally American project opposed only by bigots who demonize all Muslims for the acts of a few terrorists. To the other side, this is about the symbolic affront of erecting an Islamic structure near a place where fanatics claiming to fight for Islam murdered nearly 3,000 people, a politically correct folly opposed only by soft-headed wimps who care about the sensitivities of Muslims but not those of Americans affected by September 11.

Legally, constitutionally, and to a large extent philosophically, the pro-mosque side is clearly in the right. And yet it isn't quite so simple as to say that the opposition is driven solely by bigotry and fear-mongering. Symbolism and sensitivities do matter, culturally if not legally.

Let us consider a hypothetical, leaving aside for a moment the usual examples involving Germans and Auschwitz or the Japanese and Pearl Harbor. Suppose a group of Christian anti-abortion fanatics bombed the offices of Planned Parenthood in New York, killing hundreds. Suppose that, 10 years later, a conservative Christian group, strongly pro-life though repudiating violence, wanted to build a 13-story community center and church next to the site of this tragedy.

Most likely, the roles in this debate would be reversed. Quite a few liberals would denounce the planned construction of the center as a slap in the face to the victims and their families; the likes of Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin would decry anti-Christian bias and voice outrage that the actions of a handful of extremists would be used to denigrate all Christians or all abortion opponents.

In a real-life example, in the late 1980s many Jewish groups—including the Anti-Defamation League, which has caught plenty of flak for joining the Cordoba House opposition—protested when a group of Carmelite nuns set up a convent on the edge of the Auschwitz grounds to pray for the dead. To the convent's opponents, this was an attempt to erase the symbolism of Auschwitz as a death camp in which Jews were targeted for extermination. Back then, a New York Times editorial noted that "whether Auschwitz is the proper place for a convent is not easily answered" and praised efforts to have the nuns moved. A 1991 book on the dispute was titled, Memory Offended. That sums up a very real, and poignant, aspect of the objections to the Islamic Center.  

Unfortunately, the backlash is about much more than that. Anti-Muslim zealots have been in the forefront of the protests against the "Ground Zero mosque"—people such as writer and blogger Robert Spencer, who openly declares that the Islamic faith itself is a terrorist ideology and that "moderate Islam" is a deceptive myth, and often implies that every peaceful Muslim is a potential jihadist. There have been bizarre claims that the Islamic Center is intended as a "victory mosque" to celebrate the World Trade Center's destruction or honor the hijackers. Signs at anti-mosque protests have equated Islam with terrorism and the mosque with a toilet. At one rally in June, two Arabic-speaking Egyptian Coptic Christians who had come to oppose the mosque had to be whisked away by the police after being threatened and told to "Go home."

Worse, while opposition to the Cordoba House has focused on its controversial location, the proposed construction of mosques and Islamic community centers thousands of miles away has also sparked an ugly hysteria. In Temecula, California, a Baptist pastor has bluntly stated that "we really don't want to see their influence spread," while an activist named Diane Serafin has assailed the authorities for being too concerned about religious freedom: "I know it's there in the Constitution and everything, but everything I read says Islam is a political movement," she told a reporter, adding that "there's a movement going on in the United States to take over our country." In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Republican Congressional candidate Lou Ann Zelenik has campaigned on her stance against "Muslim extremists"—namely, against a proposed Muslim community center. Zelenik has stated that "until the American Muslim community find it in their hearts to separate themselves from their evil, radical counterparts, to condemn those who want to destroy our civilization and will fight against them, we are not obligated to open our society to any of them." Just how American Muslims can live up to her demands—one-by-one loyalty oaths?—is unclear.

This is bigotry, pure and simple. And none of the leading foes of the "Ground Zero mosque" have denounced it.

There are, of course, well-grounded concerns about Islamic radicalism. While every religion has its fringe elements, it is unfortunately true that, for whatever reason, militant and violent fundamentalism in Islam today occupies a much more prominent place, and is much closer to the mainstream, than in other major religions. But surely the answer to that is to promote modernization and moderation in Islam, not to demonize the entire faith.

Defenders of the Cordoba House, including The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg—a strong supporter of Israel whom no one would accuse of being soft on Islamic extremism—argue that the man behind this project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, is precisely the sort of modernizing, tolerant, pro-Western Muslim that should be encouraged in order to counteract the extremist strands. Others, including Muslim convert and proponent of "Islamic pluralism" Stephen Schwartz, caution that Rauf "has maintained links with Muslim radicals, including enablers of terror, whom he declines to disavow."   

Rauf has indeed made dubious statements, including one in which he refused to call Hamas a terrorist group—though his quoted comments sound more like the opinions of a man with a naïve belief in reaching out and building bridges than a closet extremist. The bottom line, however, is that Rauf's public career has been dedicated to promoting the idea that Islam is compatible with liberal American values. Given the spotlight on the Islamic Center in downtown Manhattan, it is doubtful that the center will be about anything else.

Some critics of Cordoba House have suggested a possible solution to the conflict: that, instead of an Islamic Center, an Interfaith Center containing houses of worship for different religions should be built on the site. This would indeed have been a powerful statement of tolerance and peaceful coexistence—and this proposal could have been the starting point for meaningful dialogue between the mosque's opponents and its backers. But before such a dialogue can happen, the critics should do what they advise the Muslims to do, and firmly repudiate hate.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at cathyyoung.wordpress.com. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.