We Are America
Like you, I initially opposed the construction of a community center and mosque near Ground Zero. However, critical thinkers mold their thoughts to fit the facts and hacks mold the facts to fit their thoughts. As a critical thinker, I had to retract any opposition I ever expressed toward the center being built two blocks from the World Trade Center. It wasn’t my place to join the chorus of demagogues trying to deny a religious minority their First Amendment rights, and it isn’t yours either. Muslims are equally entitled to build a place of worship where it fits zoning restrictions and local ordinances, just as Jews are permitted to construct synagogues and Christians are allowed to erect churches.
Rather than a victory mosque, the Muslim center is a tribute to American liberty, and the ideals the heroes of 9/11 died defending. Indeed, Sharif el-Gamal, the project’s developer, who is being painted as an Islamist by right-wing media, was one person who rose to the occasion of that horrible day, volunteering for days in Lower Manhattan, and exposing himself to the toxic dust that permeated the air. As a person of faith, an observant Catholic, I look forward to the opening of his community center, which will not be a place to celebrate that miserable event, but a place where bridges are built, where interfaith connections are forged, and where constructive dialogue about Islam and its role in America can occur.
Most New Yorkers currently oppose the mosque due to misperceptions about its proximity to the World Trade Center, — two blocks in Manhattan is like two miles anywhere else — preconceived notions about Islam, and because the memories of 9/11 are still seared in their souls. While their opposition to the mosque and community center is certainly understandable it is unwarranted and has no standing. We live in a land of representative democracy, not in the world of Rousseau, where the will of the majority can prejudice the rights of the minority. In America and in any just nation, there can be no right to violate the rights of others — and freedom of worship is the most sacrosanct privilege with which God endows man. Just as the howls of segregationists couldn’t stop busing, and the clamor of the religious right couldn’t uphold Proposition 8, mobs of ignoramuses cannot halt the mosque.
Many on the right, like Newt Gingrich, have engaged in moral relativism. Mr. Gingrich, who has pretensions to the intelligentsia, recently said that as “long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia” there should be no mosque near the World Trade Center. But we are not Saudi Arabia. We are not an absolute monarchy that still beheads people, forbids women from driving, and prohibits religious minorities from practicing their faith. We are America – the land of the free and the home of the brave. We don’t emulate evil dictatorships, we remove them. An appropriate response to Saudi persecution of religious minorities is not to follow their example, but to apply pressure on that government to do right by Jews and Christians.
As Edward R. Murrow once said, “we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.” These words may sound like they were uttered recently, but he spoke them over fifty years ago, at the height of the Red Scare, when Joseph McCarthy stalked the halls of Congress. Then as now, loudmouth leaders stoked fears of a fifth column that had infiltrated American society – Communists, who had to be destroyed by any means; blacklists, wiretaps, and extrajudicial justice. It was an ugly chapter of our history and one we do not want to revisit, which should give us pause before we succumb to the bromides of modern-day McCarthyites.