By Wendell P. Simpson
This week, more than one billion Muslims around the world began the observance of Ramadan, a month long period of fasting and prayer intended to reflect the Islamic virtues of patience, humility and spirituality.
In New York City, this holy month will be celebrated amidst a controversy that reflects anything but humility or the better angels of the American nature.
A battle over consecrated ground has erupted as an American Muslim organization moves forward with its plans to build a mosque/community center in lower Manhattan, two blocks from the site of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks.
Last week, members of the local Community Board voted 29-1 in favor of the project. In the wake of that decision, angry protestors and relatives of 9/11 victims, who have deemed the WTC site as a holy place and who say that the planned mosque defiles the memory of those victims, have squared off against mosque supports, who say that American values of fairness, religious freedom and equality demand that the building of the mosque be allowed to progress, and that acquiescence to our baser impulses becomes a victory for the terrorists.
And of course, in the middle of our xenophobic angst and the culture wars that portend our contentious political discourse, the arguments for and against have taken on national dimensions.
Earlier last week during a press conference, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a supporter of the mosque, weighed in with a fierce defense of the American ideals of fair play and religious freedom.
“Democracy is stronger than this,” Bloomberg said during his speech. “The ability to practice your religion was one of the reasons America was founded, and for us to just say ‘no’ is just not appropriate. You do not want the government picking religions because, what do you do the day they don’t pick yours?”
Rev. Robert Chase, founder and spokesperson of the New York City-based interfaith organization, Intersections, also came out in support of the mosque.
“It’s a really positive example of how we Americans can truly move beyond a tragedy like 9/11,” Chase said.
On the opposing side , all of the usual suspects who typically cast their lots on the side of reaction and in opposition to reasonable discourse, offered their opinions. Newt Gingrich called the mosque “an assertion of Islamic triumphalism”. Former NYC mayor Rudy Guiliani called it a “desecration of Ground Zero.” And Sarah Palin, the Grand Dragoness of Ku Klux Ku-ku-ism, became so disturbed by the “stab in the heart” that she called on ‘reasonable’ Muslims to “refudiate (her word)” the project.
Even the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that says it exists in order to ‘counteract hatred, intolerance and bigotry’, and that really ought to know better than to start stoking anti-Semitic fears and religious antagonism, issued a statement that read, in part, “…in our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain—unnecessarily—and that is not right.”
The opposition to the mosque is inordinate in its refusal to acknowledge several critical distinctions germane to religion, the 9/11 attacks and American principles.
First, war is never, ever about religion. Religion only serves as pretext. It, along with narrow nationalism (oftimes, inextricably linked), serves as the means by which powerful factions with very specific political and/or commercial agendas are able to foment the kind of rage, angst and zealotry that compels young men to sign up and die for the cause.
The World Trade Center attacks were a direct result of the propagandizing of an American foreign policy paradigm that truly has had horrific consequences for the people of the Middle Eastern—who just happen to be Muslims.
The response from the West? All about oil and no-bid contracts. Religion only stokes the fires of the dispossessed.
“When will Americans come to see that the never-ending terrorist crisis—along with the concomitant loss of our civil liberties—is rooted in U.S. imperialism and intervention rather than in religion,” asked Jacob Hornblower, founder of the Future of Freedom Foundation, in a recent column.
Then there is the issue of the First Amendments. Bloomberg is correct in his assessment of the Founding Fathers’ concerns. A generation removed from religious persecution in Europe, these men were so profoundly concerned about the preservation of the principles of religious freedom, the rights of assembly and freedom of expression that they seared those features into law from the jump, with the very First Amendment.
To wit, “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 to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The intent is clear: Religion cannot be a factor in the public discourse—one way or the other.
And finally, if America succumbs to fear and bigotry and reaction, then the terrorist win on all counts. The schism they set out to cause takes root, and all of the lofty principles for which so many Americans have fought and died for—both domestically and abroad—are rendered moot. Because one of the points that nobody seems interested in discussing is that the organization behind the mosque, the Cordoba Initiative, is comprised of American citizens who, again, happen to be Muslims, and who have chosen to worship in line with their rights as spelled out in the U.S. Constitution.
Those who oppose them are in opposition to the letter and the spirit of the law. They advocate for the usurping of the rights of American citizens. That makes them criminals. It also puts them in conflict with America’s most lofty and generous traditions and ideals—and that makes them treasonous.