Ground Zero and the Freedom of Religion

The controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” comes down to one thing: no one should be denied the right to build a house of worship solely on the basis of their religion. Blocking construction of a mosque there would go against the principles of religious tolerance on which this country is founded.

In a letter to the New York Times, the parents of several of the victims of the attacks wrote that the Cordoba House project “has the trappings of a victory mosque, given its location and talk about dedicating it on the 10th anniversary of the crime.” Some have questioned where the money to build the mosque came from, vaguely insinuating—without any evidence—that it must be from the same people who financed the September 11 attacks. And Newt Gingrich argued that we shouldn’t allow any mosques near Ground Zero as long as there are no churches in Saudi Arabia. Gingrich also claimed the name of the center was “deliberately insulting” on the grounds that Cordoba—the capital of the Islamic caliphate that ruled Spain some time after the defeat of the Christian Visigoths—“is a symbol of Islamic conquest.”

But Gingrich has his history wrong. If Cordoba is famous for anything it is for being a place of religious tolerance, where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together for centuries in relative harmony. It's this spirit of religious understanding that the Cordoba Initiative, whose mission is to “cultivate multi-faith and multi-cultural understanding across minds and borders,” explicitly tries to invoke. Saudi Arabia’s intolerance of Christians is certainly no reason to be equally intolerant of American Muslims who do not make Saudi laws. And far from celebrating the terrorist attacks, the Islamic community center is meant to represent the other, more peaceful side of Islam, and show that many Muslims stand with Americans of other faiths to condemn the attacks.

Nevertheless, Sarah Palin called the proposed Cordoba House Islamic community center, which would include a mosque, “an unnecessary provocation.” Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty—who like Palin and Gingrich may be a presidential candidate in 2012—says he strongly opposes putting a mosque anywhere near Ground Zero, on the grounds that we shouldn’t allow any activities that would “degrade or disrespect” what has become hallowed ground. Governor Pawlenty’s spokesman clarified the Governor’s remarks by saying that New York is a big place and that they should find a different location for the mosque.

Just how is the mosque a provocation, and just how does it disrespect the victims of the the attacks on the World Trade Center? As Andrew Sullivan writes, the clear implication of is “that American Muslims bear some collective responsibility for the mass murder on 9/11—that there is no essential difference between American Muslims eager for interfaith dialogue and the mass murderers of 9/11.” But while the people who attacked the World Trade Center were Muslims who justified their crime on religious grounds, as I’ve argued before, we shouldn’t confuse a group of radical jihadists with Muslims as a whole. And, as I’ve written, their views are hardly the views of all Muslims. In fact, the dominant theological tradition in Islam strongly condemns attacks on civilians. Moreover, some of the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center were Muslim Americans. Muslims are certainly not all to blame for the actions of a handful of fanatics who acted in the name of their religion.

It certainly may be that building an Islamic community center near Ground Zero is the wrong way to promote religious understanding in America. Polls show that the most New Yorkers and most Americans don’t like the idea. But blocking the construction of the community center to spare the feelings of people who hold Muslims in general responsible for the September 11 attacks would be like not allowing minorities to move into white neighborhoods on the grounds that it makes some white residents uncomfortable. Ultimately, as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said,

Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question—should 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. This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions, or favor one over another.

And, as Andrew Sullivan asks at the end of his article, if Muslims aren’t welcome to practice their religion near Ground Zero, where does it end? Will we decide they aren’t welcome at Ground Zero at all? Will they still even be welcome in America?

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