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Religious Freedom at Stake in Ground Zero Controversy

By Mark Potok on August 4, 2010 - 10:39 am, Posted in Anti-Muslim

Nine days after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, President George W. Bush addressed the nation to say, in part, that while the murder of nearly 3,000 people came at the hands of radical Muslims, Islam was not to blame.

“We respect your faith,” Bush told Muslims. “It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans, and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. It is a radical network of terrorists.”

Despite that important speech, in the weeks and months after the tragedy, there was a hateful backlash against people perceived to be Muslim or Arab. At least three people were killed, and hundreds were assaulted. Still, it seems clear that the toll would likely have gone much higher had the president not called for religious tolerance. Bush’s speech, and his collegial appearance around the same time with a leading Muslim cleric at the National Cathedral, were high points in his presidency.

How times have changed.

In the last two weeks or so, the siting of a major Islamic center about two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City has exploded into an ugly national debate freighted with tones of intolerance. Many Americans, especially those on the political right, have condemned the plans for a 13-story, $100 million building with the mission of promoting “interfaith tolerance and respect.” The project’s chairman, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, has criticized Islamic extremism but is still being attacked for not denouncing Hamas, the militant Muslim organization in Palestine, and for not identifying his source of funding.

One-time vice presidential contender Sarah Palin described the plans as a “stab … in the heart” and called on Muslims to “refudiate” them. The National Republican Trust Political Action Committee said in television ads that the “monstrous” building was intended “to celebrate [the] murder of 3,000 Americans.” And then there was the comment from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who said, “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.”

Excuse me? Gingrich may have a doctorate in history, but the former college professor doesn’t seem to understand the principles of American democracy at all. As Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen pointed out, his logic suggests that because Saudi Arabia does not allow women to drive, we should forbid Muslim women to drive in the United States — what Cohen characterized as “the schoolyard doctrine of tit for tat.” More importantly, the fact that Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian regime does not mean that we need to become one, too. Instead, we should uphold the finest traditions of American democracy: freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and an open and generous attitude toward all of our citizens.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has supported the project along with many other municipal officials, spoke yesterday after the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission rejected a cynical attempt to get the existing building at the project site declared a landmark — a transparent ploy by enemies of the project to throw up yet another roadblock. The mayor got it exactly right.

“Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish,” he said. “The government has no right whatsoever to deny that right — and if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Whatever you think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should the 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. … In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists — and we should not stand for that.”

Muslims were among the victims of the murderous attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as were people of virtually every political and religious stripe — something we should not forget when we move so easily toward suggesting limiting the rights of minorities that may be momentarily unpopular. As the Very Rev. Nathan Baxter, dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, put it succinctly in a talk shortly after the 9/11 slaughter: “Evil does not wear a turban, a tunic, a yarmulke, or a cross. Evil wears the garment of a human heart, a garment woven from the threads of hate and fear.”

  • Karan

    Islam favours first the relogiin,and if it is beatiful inaddition and wealthy,and..etc what do you think!It is your choice,but the prophet said that .There are4 reasons generally people marry women for; relogiin;wealth;family famousity;and race,and he said take the religious one you will win.but your friend must be involved in a long discussion so as to make sure that they chose for him a perfect one as he who will line with her so close.Regardind the cousin, it is just traditions in some tribes,and actually islam ,the prophet advice more if you go out of your family to achieve more relations betwen mankind,and medically speaking this helps to avoid inherited diseases.

  • Ruslan Amirkhanov

    Epic fail. First of all, the Mosque isn’t on Ground Zero. Second, the “freedom from religion” nonsense fails because most of the anger is coming from the same people who insist that separation of church and state is a myth, and love ramming religion down everyone’s throat via the law every chance they get. By contrast, this lease is a transaction between private entities not involving the state.

    It is clear from your post that you equate Islam with Hamas(what the hell did Hamas have to do with 9-11 anyway) and terrorism in general. Congratulations, you’re a bigot.

  • Bluetune

    No one is violating the Muslims right to worship their diety. I think all people want is the FREEDOM FROM RELIGION and the consistent antaganistic feelings they receive from the war. The issue has nothing to do with the freedom of religion whatsoever. I think courtesy is more called for in this instance and really honestly feel that building a Mosqu at such a sensitive site is very discourteous to millions upon millions of Americans. It reminds everyone of what caused the terrible catastrophe to begin with which was radical Islam! Better to quietly relocate and turn humble than to antagonize an entire nation further filled with people that also have rights to be free of the constant stream of Muslimism. Freedom from Religion is also a divine right! Also that Mosqu head supports terrorism called Hamas a terrible org that have killed scores of peoples of every type and faith including Muslims. Anyone who supports that type of ideaology I do not want in a central location in my hometown running any Mosqu. It will rub off on others and his teachings will violate the American spirit and truth. Hate will perpetuate further inviting more terrorism to this central local in NY where it has tended to more than once already. No one want to deny anyone’s right to worship whether it be a table, chair, some form of Gd in various names but we don’t have to place extreme type leaders in the midst of very sensitive locations including :& not excluding near Martin Luther King Jr.s Memorial in Washington, next to the NAACP headquarters. I mean with this support for so called tolerance and consitutional rights than any sort of group or church would have a right to place their 100 mill buildings anywhere such as the Rebel Nazi Socialist White Movement building an entire conglomerate right next to the NAACP or building a Southern Rebel leader’s statue near Martin Luther King Jr’s memorial. It just doesnt make a whole lot of sense and doesn’t create a feeling of peace or harmony. The same applies to a Mosqu right smack dab at Ground Zero. Build something where everyone feels welcome and can reflect instead of forcing religion into our hearts. I need some freedom from religion already and it gets to be overkill. A museum, a library where all people r welcome of all faiths and colors – a children’s center – a place where Jews, christians, Bahaiis, Gays, married couples, teens can go to in acceptance. A place where also Muslims can go to but not exclusive to Muslims because everyone knows that Jews and Infidels r just not really welcome there at any Mosque. Putting a Mosqu there is like forcing people to resolve issues with eachother just like the Nazi Socialist White Movement moving right next to NAACP. It’s unnacceptable and unnecessary. I don’t welcome supporters of Hamas anywhere in the US and don’t trust that terrorist ideal in America. I advise no one else does either. Hamas has murdered Americans already.

  • Ruslan Amirkhanov

    Look, if the GOP’s behavior is enough to help you leave religion in general, then that’s good enough.

  • Carter

    skinnyminny – DO REALIZE WHAT YOU SAID?

    You said that a political party what enough for you to abandon your faith?

    “I’m not a Christian anymore either – thanks to the GOP. I really have a problem with the Christian religion when they won’t stand up for the righteous, the poor, yet, they are leading the voices of denying rights, against the poor, and what appears to be downright hatred of different groups of people.”

    What of all the progressive Christians? You really need to look much deeper inside yourself if abandoning that which you would hold Most Holy is in any manner shaken by the GOP.

  • skinnyminny

    What I find confusing about this, there are a lot of Christians that complain about Muslims, yet, they watch Fox everyday. Do they know that Fox’s major shareholder is Saudi Prince?

    I think that instead of being angry or whatever ill-feelings they have towards all Muslims is wrong. I think they should focus energy on this, here is where a congressman allegedly denied benefits to workers at this site, and said 9-11 was just a plane crash, and that Valerie Plame committed perjury.

    I’m not Muslim, but I’m not a Christian anymore either – thanks to the GOP. I really have a problem with the Christian religion when they won’t stand up for the righteous, the poor, yet, they are leading the voices of denying rights, against the poor, and what appears to be downright hatred of different groups of people.

  • Anon

    John – with some kind of Christian church within a block or two of almost everyone in this country how is it the rights of Christians are in any way being prevented. Christianity has had a near monopoly on this nations religious podium from the very beginning… for good and evil. I consider myself a Christian and do not even in the remotest way feel persecuted. Maybe persecution to a rightwinger is not having the right to control someone else.

  • Ruslan Amirkhanov

    Ray, you’re doing a great job as a concern troll. I think the West has heard just quite enough about Islamic traditions, real and imagined. The fact is that all the unsavory, backward aspects of Islam exist in one form or another in other religions. There is no such thing as a “religion” of peace, save for a few exceptions such as Jainism. “Religion of peace” is a meaningless term.

    As for the inter-faith center, their money is as good as anyone else’s.

  • Tom Shelley

    I read somewhere, I think in the NY Times, that the board of directors for the mosque/community center will include Jews and Christians.


  • Ray

    I have mixed feelings about this issue. I hear and agree with those who espouse religious freedom, they’re right. But I have to wonder why the moderate muslims want to build their mosque near the Trade Center when so many are opposed to it ? I also question Islam in general as a “peaceful” religion. I’ve been reading a lot about Islamic traditions in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Holland, England and even here in the US and I find their treatment of women (in general), infidels (those who are not muslim) to be against many of the basic human rights americans have fought so hard for. I think the time has come for the West to learn more about Islam and its customs and to start speaking out, writing about, pushing back on Islamic intolerance and in some cases its barbaric practices against their own women, about mosques being used by Imans as recruiting centers for mal-adjusted, young, despondent future terrorists and about moderate muslims inferred acceptance of muslim extremists. Problem is, that whenever anyone has had the nerve to publicly question Islam, this peaceful religion threatens the questioner with death or even had them murdered.

  • Alma Jurgensen

    John, perhaps you are feeling picked on because it is the Christian Right that is doing all it can to divide and conquer Americans. There is rarely a day that goes by that someone on the Christian Right isn’t DEMANDING that something or other be done about Gays or public education or Socialism or abortion. Rarely does it occur to the CR that the First Amendment allows us to have individuals opinions but we have to tolerate other’s opinions. Shame on those people at Ground Zero whose reason for existing, it appears, is to have the hole/pit as the memorial to 9/11 rather than some kind of memorial. Shame, shame.

  • Ruslan Amirkhanov

    John, please demonstrate with verifiable evidence that Christians, 80% or more of the religious community in the US, are persecuted or restricted, as you claim.

    If a Christian group bought or leased land near Ground Zero to build a church, nobody would have any grounds to complain. Separation of church and state refers to…wait for it…THE STATE. Private individuals and organizations leasing or renting private property is not affected by church and state issues.

  • John

    I am not a Christian but I am finding it very interesting that we want to protect the religious freedom of every group except the Christians. Why is it we want to protect the rights of the Muslims but we want to restrict the rights of Christians. I am very sure that if some Christian group wanted to build a church at ground zero people would be screaming about separation of church and state. I also find it very interesting that the 1st amendment of freedom of religion is all of a sudden very important to the political left.

  • skinnyminny

    I agree with you, sort of! Meaning, yes, I like that the ADL supported and defended the 1st Amendment. However, it should be noted, the right for NSM was also defended to go into predominantly black and latino neighborhoods to get the residents riled up.

    There is one big difference, the Mosque is not using tax-payer dollars, or tax-payer resources for police protection to to harass people in public, the Mosque will be a place for worship away from public and not to harass people in public.

    I expect the right-wing to take up the 1st Amendment as a next issue, even though they say hateful, inciteful things on the radio, teevee, and in public.

  • John Harvey

    How far away from Ground Zero would the Muslim community center have to be to satisfy the people who oppose it? Would ten blocks be enough? How about twenty blocks? Would twenty miles be OK? I doubt that it being two blocks away is the real issue.

    Some of them claim the current building should have been declared a landmark? Were they pushing to have landmark status before the Muslim group wanted to use the site?

    Or is the real issue fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims the real issue? Let us not forget that many religious groups have been hated in the past. Catholics were discriminated against. Jews were hated and despised. Rhode Island was founded because Baptists were not allowed in Massachusetts.

    The Irish and Italians were reviled in the 19th Century. Jews could not join country clubs.

    Religious and ethnic hatred is a slippery slope. Let us not go down that road like we have too many times in the past.

  • Alan Aardman

    Bravo, SPLC. Americans everywhere concerned with the rise of bigotry and intolerance should support the Muslim community on this issue.

    If we allow ourselves to be divided on these issues, we will be picked apart by the forces of intolerance. The First Amendment does not allow for compromise, particularly in the area of freedom of religion.

  • Mason Green

    Newt’s comments about there being no churches in Saudi Arabia is cherry-picking. While it’s true that the _Saudi_ government does not allow churches to be built, other majority-Muslim countries do not have this restriction. There are plenty of churches in Turkey, Indonesia, etc.

  • Ian

    I was totally amazed when I saw the Anti-Defamation League’s reaction to this. Granted, they went out of their way to say the First Amendment protects their rights, but I didn’t expect them to play into the hands of bigots so easily.

  • Ruslan Amirkhanov

    As usual, conservatives get howling mad about stuff that either isn’t happening, or is completely insignificant.

  • Steve

    Ok, you all support the right to worship. Great….please join us the remainder of this month (August) as we hold public Church services at the summers remaining public “gay” festivals. Will the SPLC, Bloomburg and the other Libs support our rights too? Doubtful…….

  • CM

    So typical – the “Ground Zero Mosque” is neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque. It’s a couple of blocks away and not visible from the World Trade Center site, and it’s a community center with no minarets or anything else to make it look significantly different from any other building in lower Manhattan. All bigotry is irrational, and this current example of anti-Muslim bigotry is a perfect illustration.