Mark Potok: Religious Freedom at Stake in Ground Zero Controversy
Nine days after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, President George W. Bush addressed the nation to say, in part, that while the murder of nearly 3,000 people came at the hands of radical Muslims, Islam was not to blame.
“We respect your faith,” Bush told Muslims. “It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans, and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. It is a radical network of terrorists.”
Despite that important speech, in the weeks and months after the tragedy, there was a hateful backlash against people perceived to be Muslim or Arab. At least three people were killed, and hundreds were assaulted. Still, it seems clear that the toll would likely have gone much higher had the president not called for religious tolerance. Bush’s speech, and his collegial appearance around the same time with a leading Muslim cleric at the National Cathedral, were high points in his presidency.
How times have changed.
In the last two weeks or so, the siting of a major Islamic center about two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City has exploded into an ugly national debate freighted with tones of intolerance. Many Americans, especially those on the political right, have condemned the plans for a 13-story, $100 million building with the mission of promoting “interfaith tolerance and respect.” The project’s chairman, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, has criticized Islamic extremism but is still being attacked for not denouncing Hamas, the militant Muslim organization in Palestine, and for not identifying his source of funding.
One-time vice presidential contender Sarah Palin described the plans as a “stab … in the heart” and called on Muslims to “refudiate” them. The National Republican Trust Political Action Committee said in television ads that the “monstrous” building was intended “to celebrate [the] murder of 3,000 Americans.” And then there was the comment from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who said, “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.”
Excuse me? Gingrich may have a doctorate in history, but the former college professor doesn’t seem to understand the principles of American democracy at all. As Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen pointed out, his logic suggests that because Saudi Arabia does not allow women to drive, we should forbid Muslim women to drive in the United States — what Cohen characterized as “the schoolyard doctrine of tit for tat.” More importantly, the fact that Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian regime does not mean that we need to become one, too. Instead, we should uphold the finest traditions of American democracy: freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and an open and generous attitude toward all of our citizens.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has supported the project along with many other municipal officials, spoke yesterday after the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission rejected a cynical attempt to get the existing building at the project site declared a landmark — a transparent ploy by enemies of the project to throw up yet another roadblock. The mayor got it exactly right.
“Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish,” he said.
The government has no right whatsoever to deny that right — and if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Whatever you think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should the government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here. … In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists — and we should not stand for that.
Muslims were among the victims of the murderous attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as were people of virtually every political and religious stripe — something we should not forget when we move so easily toward suggesting limiting the rights of minorities that may be momentarily unpopular. As the Very Rev. Nathan Baxter, dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, put it succinctly in a talk shortly after the 9/11 slaughter: “Evil does not wear a turban, a tunic, a yarmulke, or a cross. Evil wears the garment of a human heart, a garment woven from the threads of hate and fear.”