I’ve put this one off long enough. Too long, maybe.
In recent weeks, we’ve all been inundated with the arguments for and against the plans for Cordoba House, the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” in lower Manhattan. Many prominent politicians (mostly on the Republican side) have decried this move by Manhattan’s Muslims as an insult to the memory of those who died in the 9/11 attacks — attacks perpetrated by people who called themselves Muslims. Many other politicians (largely Democrats) have defended the right of the group to meet at their chosen site, and point out statements by the imam in charge of the project supporting tolerance and patriotism. Pols on both sides have used it as a rallying point for the upcoming elections, and the pollsters are buttonholing all and sundry to ask their opinions. Yada yada yada.
I don’t have a strong opinion on where a Muslim congregation on the East Coast should meet (and yes, that is a nice way of saying I really don’t care). But in the midst of all the sturm und drang, I’ve noticed two trends on the part of those against the proposed use of the site that I find quite alarming.
First of all, the people arguing against the Muslim congregation’s move seem to have, at best, a tenuous grasp of (and at worst, an utter disregard for) the truth.
Let’s start with the term “Ground Zero mosque.” In actual fact, it’s neither a mosque, nor is it at Ground Zero. It’s an Islamic community center, which will include (among other things) a prayer room. Actually, the current building on the site (a former Burlington Coat Factory store) has been used by Muslims for prayer for quite a while now — it’s an overflow location for the al-Farah Mosque, less than a mile north of the former/future World Trade Center site.
And the Burlington building isn’t at Ground Zero. It’s at 45-51 Park Place, two blocks northeast of Ground Zero and about five blocks away from where the towers stood. It’s about as far away from the towers’ location as the Manhattan Mosque is (and has been for years).
This is not an isolated case of playing fast and loose with the facts. Check out this quote:
“The folks who want to build this mosque … are really radical Islamists who want to triumphally prove that they can build a mosque right next to a place where 3,000 Americans were killed by radical Islamists …”
And that wasn’t said by some random passer-by — that was former Speaker of the House (and potential 2012 presidential candidate) Newt Gingrich. But it still isn’t true. The head of the project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has spent much of his career working to develop interfaith understanding with Christians, Jews and secular leaders. He’s worked with Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright (under Bill Clinton) and Condoleezza Rice (under George W. Bush) to bring a message of moderate, non-radical Islam to the Middle East. He’s repeatedly denounced terrorist attacks and suicide bombing as anti-Islamic, has criticized Muslim nationalism, and has spoken of prospects for peace between Palestinians and the Israelis. Yes, at times he’s been critical of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East; so has every member of Congress at one point or another. If he’s a radical Islamist, I’m Queen Elizabeth II.
(One hallmark of the “againsts” in this case is their willingness to treat every Muslim as some sort of collaborator with the 9/11 hijackers, when in reality there is as wide a spread of viewpoints in Islam as there is in Christianity. Timothy McVeigh was raised in a Christian home, and both McVeigh and Terry Nichols had connections to the group “Christian Identity.” Does that mean all Christians are suspect because McVeigh and Nichols blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City? Should citizens object to a pastor wanting to build a Christian church a few blocks away from the Oklahoma City National Memorial? Yet that’s the same sort of parallel being drawn by many people objecting to the Islamic center project.)
Or how about the Marist Institute poll that claimed a majority of New Yorkers didn’t want the Islamic center to be built so close to Ground Zero? That was true, to a point. But if you look more closely at the poll numbers, you find that those who actually live in Manhattan — the center’s closest neighbors — are in fact supportive of the plans. It’s the other four boroughs that are largely against it. That strikes me as being absurd, like objecting to someone across town planting a tree in their backyard. Dude, you don’t live anywhere near him and his tree — what’s your major malfunction?
Still, stretching (or disregarding) the truth is an old and venerable political pastime — hardly unusual, especially in a midterm election year. What I find really scary is some people’s willingness to disregard the Constitution.
Allow me, if you will, to throw out another quote:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Look familiar? It’s the text of the First Amendment to the Constitution, the leadoff to what we know as the “Bill of Rights.” Now, note that second clause — Congress (and by extension, governments in general) are not only not allowed to establish one religion as the official one, but are not allowed to prohibit “the free exercise” of religion. Now, if you say that a religious group can’t choose where they meet, that’s pretty much prohibiting their free exercise of religion. It’s beyond illegal; it’s unconstitutional, which is about as far as you can go in breaking the law in this country.
The First Amendment is there for a reason — to protect people from the capricious use of government power. You can’t be forced to keep your opinions to yourself, or print only what the government likes, or not get together with like-minded people, or change your choice of worship, simply because some nutjob in Washington or Sacramento doesn’t like what you’re doing. When America was still a bunch of British colonies, you could be (and often were) forced, based on whatever bout of insanity King George III had plunged into lately. That’s why the Founding Fathers made sure no one could do that to them ever again, and couldn’t do it to future generations either. You have the right to think and believe what you will, and act according to those thoughts and beliefs, so long as no one else is harmed and public life isn’t disrupted.
And don’t miss this — it works in all directions. Many of the Supreme court’s rulings that keep Christians and Christian congregations protected today came about because of lawsuits filed by Jehovah’s Witnesses. A rising tide of freedom will lift all boats. Conversely, restrictions of freedoms will affect everyone sooner or later. A successful attempt to block the chosen location of an Islamic center, on no other grounds but that it’s being used by Muslims, sets a precedent that can then be used against any religious group — including Christians who are objecting to the plans for 45-51 Park Place.
Because there are people out there who would thoroughly enjoy doing just that. Remember when some folks tried to use the federal RICO Act (created to target organized crime) to shut down organizations that protested in front of abortion clinics? It took seventeen years, but eventually the Supreme Court shot that down. Imagine what somebody could do with a precedent like forcing Imam Rauf and his congregation to find another location. Potentially, no church with its own building (or looking to get one) would be safe.
The Constitution is supposed to act in the political life of the United States the way the Bible is supposed to act in the life of a Christian — as an objective standard to follow and judge by, set apart from the whims of emotion or personal preference. Some interpretation and research may be needed to fully understand the text, but that doesn’t change the text. And if there’s a conflict between the text and someone’s opinions, for the sake of the country/church, the opinions have to fall by the wayside. Because if you have no objective standard by which to operate, you will eventually end up with chaos.
That is what I find most frightening about the objections to Cordoba House. Its opponent seem all too willing to set aside the long-term benefits of the First Amendment for a short-term political stance that may or may not be of any good to the country. For the sake of a question of appropriateness (is it in good taste to put a center for Islam so close to a place that was attacked by people claiming to follow Islam?), they blindly reject the legal foundation of our (and their own) civil rights. No good can come of that.
Because I know of a similar situation. Not that long ago, there was another powerful country in economic doldrums, with military problems and a generally low level of patriotism and national self-esteem. And in that country, there was a political leader who wanted to change things. He was anti-abortion, anti-gay rights and spoke up for the traditional family. He wanted to return his country to prosperity and build up its defenses. He had goals, in short, that would seem quite familiar to parts of the political spectrum in America today.
Eventually, this man was elected the leader of his country, and ignoring the country’s constitution, he started remaking the nation according to his plans. The people were willing to support him, and didn’t care much that the laws of the land were being abrogated, because they wanted the benefits he promised. And within a few years, he’d succeeded — the country was back to being one of the world powers, the military was strong again, and a minority religious group that he believed to be undermining the nation was being dealt with. Most of the churches loved him, I know that.
Now, having read the last two paragraphs, seeing what this man accomplished once he skipped the legal niceties, I have one question for you. Do you:
- think that sounds like a pretty good deal, and wish the United States had a leader like that today?
- know enough history to realize that the man I just described was Adolf Hitler?
Because when you set aside an objective standard for governance, that’s what you get. The Founding Fathers (having dealt with King George’s madness) knew that. If only the pols objecting to Cordoba House were as wise.