Why the mosque story matters

Posted on August 24, 2010

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The last few weeks have been absolutely dominated by a national discussion regarding the planned construction of the so-called Ground Zero mosque, called Park51 by its planners and opposed by large majorities of New York and the country as a whole.

The initial question, easily disposed of, is whether Muslims had a right to build a holy place so close to the hallowed graveyard of 9/11. The obvious answer is that if you own the property, you should be able to do with it as you see fit. It’s a simple fact of individualistic Americanism that Muslim property owners have the right to build a mosque on property they own near Ground Zero. Too many folks are mired in hashing out the easy answer to the first question that they miss the thornier next one – should they build there?

If the goal was truly to promote cross-cultural unity and understanding, then again this would be simple. The problem is that so many are rightly skeptical of a project that says it wants to bring people together yet does so in a way that would inevitably tear them apart. I find it difficult to believe that it never crossed the minds of Park51 planners that building a mosque 2 blocks from Ground Zero wouldn’t cause any consternation in a city that still has a literal raw open wound from the destruction of the World Trade Center, that this is simply an innocent misunderstanding of Western culture.

I don’t know if planners meant to be intentionally provocative; I just think they didn’t care. It’s hard to shake the feeling that they knew what they were doing when Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf said the site’s proximity to the WTC site would raise its profile. Couple this with some of his eyebrow-raising statements about America, 9/11, and Muslim terrorism, and Americans have a right to be a little wary about the man’s intentions.

Yes, it’s true he worked with the FBI on counter-terrorism – it should be obvious that Imam Rauf, like nearly all Muslims, isn’t a terrorist, and we cannot hold an entire religion responsible for the actions of a few of its adherents (though its done to Christians all the time, I might add). Yes, it’s true that the mosque is 2 blocks away from Ground Zero and likely won’t look like a traditional Middle-Eastern-style minaret-sporting mosque. Unfortunately, the concept of an Islamic victory mosque is not one without historical precedent, and the project’s original name, Cordoba House, invoking one such mosque, also throws the project’s true intentions into question.

All of this gives Americans legitimate reasons to have concerns about building a mosque so close to Ground Zero. But to the left, this is a strict freedom of religion issue and opposition is merely racism and Islamophobia. For a crowd that prides itself on nuance and shades of gray, a lot of them sure have no compunction with strict labeling of their opponents. The only problem is that you have to believe that north of 60% of liberal blue-state New Yorkers are suddenly a bunch of redneck wannabe-Klansmen. Sorry, not buying it, though if you’re an elitist it’s an easy proposition to sign up for.

It’s also my belief that some of the sneering at the opposition comes not from a real respect for freedom of religion, but a chance to emasculate common culture and Christianity. A lot of these same folks squawking “freedom of religion” no doubt smile smugly when the ACLU tells libraries to take down Christmas decorations.

It leads me to the President’s insane desire to inject himself into this debate by stating his support for the Park51 builders. This was no off-the-cuff remark, but a planned out policy stance that he first discussed with his advisors, I guess out of some need to appear relevant or simply to use this “teachable moment” to scold the majority of Americans for being too darn mean. The squawkers praised him for bravely standing up against the great racist hordes – a day before he backtracked and toned down his support. Now, Americans are seeing he either doesn’t share their values or is too waffly to have any values of his own.

The mosque story is important for several reasons, not the least of which it serves as an illustration that most of us have indeed not forgotten 9/11, and the scars run deep in this nation. Muslims have an important role to play in our pluralistic society, but sensitivity is a two-way street, and the story also serves to show that the racism card is just about played out. When you start accusing majorities of Americans of being racist simply for having concerns, and the majorities don’t back down, it means you’ve shouted “wolf” too often and the power of the “r” word has diminished.

It may sound cliché, but I truly do wish there was a way we could all get along. The Park51 planners vow they’ll continue in the face of public opposition, a stance that could either be construed as bravery or stubborn apathy for the views of their neighbors. In any event, this was a landmine the President should have been smart enough to avoid stepping on.

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Posted in: News, Politics