Warning: political views ahead.
I just do not get the controversy about Americans building an Islamic community center on private property in New York City. I understand that certain bigoted and politically-motivated people want to stir up a frenzy about it. But objecting to building a private religious institution on private property – even if it is near Ground Zero – seems fundamentally anti-American to me. I’ve read what people have to say about it, and I’ve certainly heard a lot of commentary about it on tv and radio, but I still can’t see the objections to the mosque as anything but reflecting ignorance and religious prejudice.
I thought that, despite a lot of original misinformation, it’s pretty clear now that Al Qaeda was responsible for the bombing of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. The attacks weren’t the acts of muslims following well-accepted and mainstream tenets of their religion; they were made by radical fundamentalists who were motivated by sheer hatred and the desire to inflict damage on the US in return for American’s military actions in their corner of the world. Even George W. Bush (and lord knows I don’t agree with much from him) noted after 9/11 that it is important to distinguish between radicals committing criminal violent acts and people who happen to be Muslims practicing their faith in a peaceful way.
So why is it offensive or inappropriate or insensitive to build an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan? Don’t we preach freedom of religion, and rebuke other countries when their governments oppress minority religious groups? Don’t we want to encourage the peaceful understanding of Islamic culture and the muslim religion? Wasn’t our country founded, in part, on the desire for citizens to be able to worship when, where, and how they choose without oppression from others?
If having an Islamic community center is somehow inappropriate, then wouldn’t it be similarly inappropriate for Southern Baptist churches to exist in communities with large African-American populations? The Ku Klux Klan is largely made up of Southern Baptist extremists – so shouldn’t those same folks objecting to the Islamic cultural center in NYC also be concerned at how “insensitive” and “inappropriate” the presence of Southern Baptist churches would be to the black communities around them?
What about the religious fundamentalists who, following their religious beliefs, zealously promote their anti-abortion stance by bombing health clinics and killing doctors? Should their religious institutions be banned from communities housing doctors and health clinics?
Of course these are ridiculous arguments. The Baptist religion isn’t responsible for the offensive and often criminal acts of the KKK, just Christian churches can’t be blamed when fundamentalist zealots use their Christian beliefs and biblical interpretations as the reason to kill medical workers. There are masses of peaceful Southern Baptists, just as there are huge numbers of peaceful people who decry abortion and even based their views on their religious beliefs, but we don't shun them or run them out of communities for the actions of the few crazed criminals who use their beliefs to justify their crimes.
So why is it conceivable to target peaceful muslim Americans and followers of Islam by running them off of a piece of real estate in Manhattan? It shouldn’t be. To me it seems wrong, and ignorant, and deplorable. That bias flies in the face of the religious tolerance and liberty on which our country was based. Thomas Jefferson’s words address this: “From the dissensions among Sects themselves arise necessarily a right of choosing and necessity of deliberating to which we will conform. But if we choose for ourselves, we must allow others to choose also, and so reciprocally, this establishes religious liberty." (Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Religion, 1776. Papers 1:545).
If there’s a place where a peaceful Islamic cultural center is needed, maybe it’s precisely near the World Trade Center site, so certain people’s misunderstanding about the role of Islam in that national tragedy can be rectified, and the religious rights of peaceful muslim Americans can be respected and honored.