The controversy over the so-called Ground Zero mosque in New York City in some ways demonstrates a failure of leadership. But before we identify those failures, let us review the situation more broadly.
Muslims are currently worshipping at a building that formerly housed a coat manufacturer. The facility is a couple of long blocks away from the actual Ground Zero—the site of the World Trade Center, which was destroyed on September 11, 2001. The imam who leads the worship, Feisal Abdul Rauf, plans to build an Islamic community center to replace the old facility. The center, patterned after a Jewish community center, is to contain a prayer area along with various other facilities and meeting rooms, and will be open to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The plan is that it will have an interfaith board of directors.
Imam Rauf is a Sufi. Sufism is a long-established tendency in Islam that is liberal in its outlook. One of the severe challenges Islam and the Islamic world faces is its encounter with modernity. In Muslim belief, the Koran was dictated to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel, so everything in the Koran is seen as literally true. The Sufis, however, claim that there are hidden meanings, giving them a degree of flexibility.
Rauf relies both on flexibility and on specific Koranic demands for tolerance. "Your religion for you and mine for me," says one passage. Another declares that Allah made different peoples on the earth so that they would know one another. Rauf has dedicated himself to promoting tolerance, mutual respect, and cooperation among religious communities. As well, he promotes the United States as a freedom-loving country that is worthy of appreciation. As I write this he is currently touring the Middle East, sponsored by the State Department, to deliver that message.
What exactly is the neighborhood that surrounds the proposed site? Some critics at a distance, still hurting from the shock of 9/11, call it part of "holy ground." The reality of this area some blocks from the actual site of the long-gone towers is a little more prosaic. There is a store selling knitting yarn, a delicatessen, and a bookshop specializing in mysteries. However, there is also a seedier side: an off-track betting outlet, strip clubs, bars, and an "exotic" lingerie shop.
The stated reasons for opposition to what has been pejoratively termed the Ground Zero mosque vary from the "respectable" to the openly hostile. The "respectable" opposition holds that constructing the Islamic facility so close to the site of the World Trade Center would be insensitive to the relatives of those who lost their lives in that tragedy. After all, they say, not quite accurately characterizing the political as well as religious goals of al-Qaeda, the destruction was done in the name of Islam. These "respectable" opponents would add that they have nothing against Muslims. It is just that the location is too "controversial." Muslims have the right to build there, but couldn't they find another location?
Other opponents are more extreme; for instance, the woman who showed up at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission with her placard reading "Don't glorify murders of 3,000. No 9/11 victory mosque." Despite the objections the commission voted that the site of the old factory is not a historical landmark in need of preservation. Zoning regulations have been satisfied, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act seems vindicated. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Obama both correctly cited a tradition of religious freedom and a separation of church and state in defense of the right of any group to act on such plans.
A more extensive example of the extremist vitriol that has been poured out on this issue is found on the Bad Eagle blog, in an article headed "The Bloomberg Mosque," referring to Mayor Bloomberg. Says the blogger, "New York City's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, supports the Ground Zero Mosque, the hideous monument to Muslim terror, apparently because of his business ties to the Muslim world." Then, referring to a talk show host, he adds: "Michael Savage says this is the explanation for Bloomberg's pro-terrorist Muslim position. All Bloomberg's rhetoric about religious freedom, American core values, etc., is all insincere, all superfluous, all very dangerous. And it all is a façade for his financial quests." This surely is not just misrepresentation but a type of hate speech.
Then there are those who straddle the line between the "genteel" and the gross. Rick Tyler, a spokesman for Newt Gingrich, exemplified this approach in a reply to an article in the Economist. Yes, Gingrich "recognizes the difference between moderate Muslims and radical Islamists and that the guilt of the 9/11 terrorists does not fall on all Muslims." However, while some radical Islamists use terror, "other radical Islamists also use non-violent methods to wage a cultural, economic, political, and legal jihad that seeks the same totalitarian goal of sharia supremacy even while claiming to repudiate violence." The innuendo is that Rauf is one of the latter group.
After all, didn't Rauf once say that "United States policies were an accessory" to 9/11? Indeed he did. But he said more than that. He said that the United States enabled al-Qaeda to perpetrate 9/11 because America once gave aid to Osama bin Laden. That charge would not seem to make him a "radical Islamist" or any kind of sympathizer with those who carried out the attack on the World Trade Center.
The opposition to the Islamic center, expressed in "genteel" terms, gives a cloak of legitimacy to the more extreme bigotry. Opposition to the site was even taken up by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on the basis that, while Rauf and his associates have the right to build at the proposed site, it would not be right (correct) for them to exercise that right because of the sensitivities of the families of victims of 9/11. It is a sad reality that a number of the victims on 9/11 were Muslims, and the families of the victims find themselves on both sides of the issue.
The ADL has historically been a leading civil rights-civil liberties organization, engaged in advocacy, research, and interfaith activities. Paradoxically, it has in the past cooperated with Rauf in promoting Jewish-Muslim dialogue. With its background in the field of intergroup relations, it should have been aware of the opening that the position it took gave to people of ill will, both the "genteel" opponents of Muslims and the more openly bigoted.
Because of the stance it took, I believe the ADL made it respectable for anti-Muslim bigots to make their case, from the most genteel to the far less genteel. However, the ADL did face a barrage of criticism from within the Jewish community. One ADL board member, Tom Goldblatt, spoke out against the position of his organization. Other rabbis, including David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, also spoke out against the position.
A number of Christian leaders lined up in defense of the proposed Islamic center, including the president and the general secretary of the National Council of Churches and Jerry Campbell, president of Claremont Theological Seminary.
Faced with the vigorous opposition to the ADL position, especially in the Jewish community, Abe Foxman, the executive director, finally announced that his organization would not pursue the matter further. However, damage had already been done. Islamophobia—indeed generally antireligious views—had been encouraged. A pastor of a minuscule church in Florida took it upon himself to announce a Koran burning and further polarized opinion. A once-leading human rights organization based in the Jewish community had provided a cover for prejudice.
In a meeting with a group of Muslim Democrats, President Obama declared, "I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances." What could be clearer? But shortly after, he got cold feet. Yes, he said, they have the right to build the center there, but he would not comment on the "wisdom" of the choice of location. One could almost hear the sigh of relief from the opponents of the center. Sometimes it is better not to elaborate too much.
A recent Pew Research Center poll found that just over half of the respondents opposed building the center at the proposed site. However, 62 percent held that Muslims should have equal rights to build their houses of worship. What these mixed results tell us is that what is needed is forceful leadership in defense of religious freedom in this case. A number of politicians, especially Republicans, have made the location of the center a major electoral issue. Perhaps it is time for President Obama to use his presidency as a bully pulpit in defense of religious freedom for all. Mayor Bloomberg issued a spirited defense of the site for the Muslim center, invoking the history of religious discrimination in New York. We need more public figures to step up and defend religious freedom.
Appearing before the media, Bloomberg, who is Jewish, was accompanied by Jewish and other religious leaders; a reminder that the larger Jewish community knows how important the defense of religious rights is for all. With heartfelt emotion, he declared, "This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan."
With reference to the events of September 11, he observed that "thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, 'What God do you pray to?' 'What beliefs do you hold?'"
As for Muslims, he urged that they "are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith. And they are as welcome to worship in lower Manhattan as any other group. In fact, they have been worshipping at the site for the better part of a year, as is their right."
He ended his remarks with this flourish: "Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off-limits to God's love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us can attest."
At this writing, it is not clear if the Muslim center will go ahead with construction at the site. Yet, if they yield to pressure and move to another location there is no guarantee that they will be welcomed with open arms. Currently, opposition to building local mosques has arisen in Temecula, California; Murfreesboro, Tennessee; and Florence, Kentucky.
In Temecula a group apparently related to the Tea Party movement arranged a demonstration outside the local Islamic center because of the center's plan to build on a new location. They urged people to bring dogs to the demonstration because dogs are considered by Muslims to be unclean. This is not a polite objection.
Remember the woman with the sign at the meeting of the Landmarks Preservation Commission? It is becoming clearer that unless people of good will everywhere restate persuasively the logic and the laws of religious freedom, she and her kind will not welcome a mosque or Islamic community center anywhere.
Author: Reuel S. Amdur
Reuel Amdur writes from Val-des-Monts, Quebec, Canada.