Two Cheers for American Tolerance

The Ground Zero mosque controversy shows that America manages its hatreds better than others


Sarah Palin has not only revealed herself to be linguistically challenged in "refudiating" the proposed "mosque" near Ground Zero, but also emotionally overwrought. "It stabs hearts," she tweeted to her fellow mosque-bashers. But Palin notwithstanding, the way this country has comported itself during this controversy represents a damn fine moment for humanity. As a naturalized American, let me just say that if every country handled its hatreds as well as this one, this world wouldn't be a half-bad place to live in.

It is painfully obvious that opposition to the Cordoba House, as this structure would be called, is motivated less by a desire to protect the memory of 9/11 victims and more by a knee-jerk suspicion of Muslims. If it were not, mosque-bashers wouldn't have so much difficulty processing some basic but crucial facts about the structure. The "mosque," for instance, is not really a mosque but an Islamic community center–complete with a swimming pool, auditorium, bookstores and restaurants—along the lines of the many YMCAs or Jewish community centers around the country.

It will house a place of worship, but it won't blare muezzin calls summoning Muslims to pray five times a day, suggesting that it has a fairly relaxed attitude toward Quranic strictures. Nor will it be a Muslim-only place where members of other faiths are unwelcome; rather it will be open to anyone willing to pay its dues. Best (or worst) of all, it won't be "on" Ground Zero, but two blocks and a bend away at a spot not visible to World Trade Center visitors.

None of this is preventing some opponents from bizarrely suggesting that the center represents a surreptitious attempt to glorify Islamic victory on American soil. But a victory statement communicated through esoteric means negates itself because such means signal weakness, not strength. What's more, it is one odd victory statement when its alleged authors are not claiming any moral high ground for their putative side. To the contrary, the couple, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan, who are spearheading the center, have "refudiated" the 9/11 attacks in particular and Islamic terrorism in general.

They have qualms about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East that plenty of nonterrorist Americans would share. And they are Sufis, the moderate and mystical sect of Islam that is known for its refined music and art, not its militancy. In fact, by all auguries, they are modern and liberated Muslims who seem rather embarrassed by the hot-headed jihadis who speak for their religion. Their whole project was conceived in order to highlight the more benign, moderate side of Islam and build bridges with other faiths. Newsweek Editor Fareed Zakaria is absolutely right when he notes that, "if there is ever going to be a reformist movement in Islam, it is going to emerge from places like the proposed mosque."

It is possible that the center is really an elaborate ruse for some sinister anti-American agenda—just as it is possible that America's next president could be a Manchurian candidate installed by the Chinese. But to suspect such an agenda in the face of massive evidence to the contrary testifies to just how deep-seated the suspicion against Muslims is in this country.

But this is precisely why it is all the more remarkable that this resentment hasn't boiled over into active persecution—something that would hardly be possible any place else in the world. To be sure, this controversy has triggered a backlash against other proposed mosques in the country, with opponents holding protest rallies with dogs in tow to taunt Muslims who regard dogs as napaak, or impure. And Republicans in some races have turned this controversy into something of a rallying cry to energize their base.

But that's about the worst of it.

On the other hand, to this country's enormous credit, New York City's Landmark Preservation Commission unanimously rejected demands that it subvert local zoning ordinances allowing houses of worship in the area "as a right" to scuttle the project. (Mosque opponents had wanted the commission to declare the existing Burlington Coat Factory on the site a landmark so that nothing else could be built there.)

The losers have appealed the decision, although they know they have virtually no chance of prevailing. Yet so far they have resorted not to violence but persuasion to convince the couple to go elsewhere. Even Palin's silly tweets are infused with a sweet civility, asking Muslims to reconsider as a gesture of goodwill toward their fellow Americans.

Her request might be wrong-headed, but can anyone think of another country where a major national figure would resort to gentle cajoling to win over members of a vilified minority? Certainly not in continental Europe, which is busy enacting burqa bans for no other reason except that the majority wants to bend a minority to its norms. And it would never happen in India, my native country, where Hindu lynch mobs, aided and abetted by the ruling Congress Party, orchestrated a mini pogrom of Sikhs following the 1984 assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguard.

It is out of question that a Sikh gurudwara could ever be erected next to Gandhi's residence, where she was assassinated, against the will of the majority Hindu population. And Indian Muslims have yet not been allowed to rebuild the mosque that Hindus led a national march to tear down with their bare hands in 1991—not even as recompense for the bloodletting they visited upon Muslims following the mosque razing.

The point is not to pick on any country. The point is that it is not easy, even for liberal democracies, to rein in the tyranny of the majority. That in America no majority can forcibly evict the imam and his family against his will is not nothing. Nor is the fact that if anyone tried to, they would have to contend with the full force of the law, in contrast to India where the perpetrators of the Sikh and Muslim massacres have still not been brought to justice. No people anywhere has yet found a way to rationally examine its hatreds before venting them. But at least America's commitment to property rights and religious liberties runs deep enough that it can contain that hatred.

America, in short, represents not just how far humanity has yet to travel on the road to complete civility, but how far humanity has already traveled. For now, if the rest of the world just caught up with America, it would be a huge leap forward for the cause of toleration.

Shikha Dalmia is a Reason Foundation senior analyst and a columnist at Forbes. This article originally appeared at Forbes.