The downtown mosque controversy

The downtown mosque controversy

The battle still rages over the right and propriety of Muslims to construct a mosque inside a building a few blocks from the World Trade Center site. To me, the matter is very simple. The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right of free assembly. Therefore my opinion and public opinion about the propriety of its location is irrelevant. Muslim-Americans, like all Americans, may meet and pray wherever and in whatever manner they choose.

Many Americans forget that our nation is a republic, not a democracy. Our highest principle is liberty, not democracy. In a pure democracy, the majority may impose its will upon the minority. What makes our nation great is that the minority, even the individual – a minority of one – is protected from the will of the majority.

When I hear people complaining about the Muslim mosque in lower Manhattan, I am reminded of the people who complained about the Jews’ attempt to relocate Temple Emanuel from Paterson to Franklin Lakes. That attempt was litigated in court until the expense of lawyers and the cost of waiting made it impossible to build. Thus the right of a group of Jews to worship where they chose was thwarted. (The synagogue did eventually relocate to Franklin Lakes.) To protect our own rights we must protect the rights of all, even the rights of those we may fear or distrust, even the rights of those whose beliefs contradict our own.

One aspect of the controversy is the question of propriety and location. The argument raised is that even if the Muslims have a constitutional right to build a mosque near Ground Zero, shouldn’t they have respect for feelings of the community at large and build elsewhere? I am outraged by this argument. Since when do we honor the voice of bigotry? When the Newport, R.I., congregation wrote a letter of congratulations to newly elected President George Washington, he wrote back to them praising a government “which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

When I lived in Huntington, W. Va., many years ago I was a member of the Fair Housing Commission. As commissioners we were taught that a landlord may not refuse housing to a potential tenant because of concern for community views. Hearing landlords respond that “I am not a bigot, but my other tenants are, and they would object” was insufficient and illegal. If all the white tenants move out because a black tenant has moved in, so be it. Prejudice does not get a voice or a vote.

My support for the right of Muslim-Americans to build a mosque wherever they wish is not based on any quid pro quo. I wish that the imams of America and the world would preach a moderate and tolerant Islam, but I know this is all too often not the case. To me, moderate Islam is one that says, loud and clear in the public marketplace, “Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state. Terrorist acts against the Jewish state of Israel are wrong, and those who commit them will not go to heaven. Jews are not to be simply tolerated under Islam, but treated as equals in every respect.”

I have seldom heard this said by Muslim leaders. Much of the talk I hear about moderate Islam comes from left-wing Westerners who seem to be trying to impose their liberal values on another culture. I can only hope that the day arises when the voices of those Muslim teachers and leaders who preach mutual acceptance among Muslim, Christian, and Jew will become the most honored voices.

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