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Park51 Controversy Requires Less Heat, More Light

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There is much heat, and not a lot of light, in the discussion about the Park51 community center.

No, it is not the "Ground Zero Mosque." In the crowded landscape of Manhattan, two blocks away from Ground Zero is a significant distance. In the same distance from Ground Zero that this community center is to be located, you can find a McDonald's, a Burger King, a Dunkin Donuts, a "New York Dolls Gentleman's Club," an Off-Track Betting site, and a host of peddlers selling T-shirts and souvenirs. Let us remember that the site of this community center is the former Burlington Coat Factory. Hallowed ground? Hardly.

No, it is not a mosque. It is a community center with interfaith spaces, wedding halls, reading rooms, and yes, a prayer space.

So what if it were a mosque? We have churches and synagogues close to Ground Zero. To say that having a mosque presents a problem is to suggest that Islam, and Muslims, somehow are held collectively responsible for the crimes of 19 terrorists. Those crimes are their own, and cannot be used to stigmatize 1.3 billion members of humanity. Collective punishment runs against the very foundation of our legal system, in which each individual is responsible for his or her own actions.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has been a leading voice in the interfaith community of New York. The mere fact that this establishment has been viewed as promoting jihadism baffles the mind, and it would be laughable if the charges were not so serious. Have the critics looked at the fact that this community center would include a swimming pool? This is hardly the version of Islam that the Taliban or Wahhabis would like to see established in America!

The way that this whole issue has been framed is that "those" Muslims are coming here to build a mosque on "our" Ground Zero, our hallowed grounds. How to break it to these critics? Those Muslims are the US! We, too, are part of the mosaic of American society. A society in which some citizens have to be situated five blocks, 10 blocks, 20 blocks away is one that ultimately sees a two-tiered model of citizenship. Imagine if we were talking about a portion of a society not being comfortable with an African-America community center, or a Jewish community center? Why would the racism or anti-Semitism of those groups be a license to prevent those minority groups from building their legally valid center? And why should it be any different when it comes to Muslims?

Here is a different way of making the same point: we need something loftier than the pseudo-liberalism of the likes of the New York Times pundit Tom Friedman, who said, "When we tell the world, 'Yes, we are a country that will even tolerate a mosque near the site of 9/11,' we send such a powerful message of inclusion and openness." Where does the "even" in the above come from? If someone had said, "America is so great, we even let blacks (or Jews, or gays, or...) live here and worship freely," what would you say? It should be no different when it comes to Muslims. Muslims are not tolerated guests; we are citizens! There is no such thing as "kind of a citizen," "almost a citizen," "sort of a citizen," "citizen who has to live by other people's fears and misinformation." Being a citizen, as a great critic said recently, is like being pregnant: either you are or you are not. If a right is a right only for some but not for all, then it is not a right; it is a privilege. And citizenship is founded on a notion of rights guaranteed legally and constitutionally for all, not just for some.

Lastly, and most importantly, this controversy is not ultimately about Muslims, or Islam, or the place of Muslims in the mosaic of America. It is about competing and contentious visions of America. It is about what kind of a society we wish to be, and to become. We do have a culture wars in this country, and on one side we have people who see us as being made richer through our existing diversity, and on the other side we have people who are displaying xenophobic anxieties about the increasing religious, ethnic, and sexual diversity of America.

The key to rising above this mad, sense-less, and utterly manufactured controversy is to remove it from the singular focus on Islamophobia, and instead place it, as Mayor Bloomberg did, in the much longer and broader context of American religious history:

Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish. And it is a freedom that, even here in a City that is rooted in Dutch tolerance, was hard-won over many years. In the mid-1650s, the small Jewish community living in Lower Manhattan petitioned Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant for the right to build a synagogue -- and they were turned down.



In 1657, when Stuyvesant also prohibited Quakers from holding meetings, a group of non-Quakers in Queens signed the Flushing Remonstrance, a petition in defense of the right of Quakers and others to freely practice their religion. It was perhaps the first formal, political petition for religious freedom in the American colonies -- and the organizer was thrown in jail and then banished from New Amsterdam.



In the 1700s, even as religious freedom took hold in America, Catholics in New York were effectively prohibited from practicing their religion -- and priests could be arrested. Largely as a result, the first Catholic parish in New York City was not established until the 1780s -- St. Peter's on Barclay Street, which still stands just one block north of the World Trade Center site and one block south of the proposed mosque and community center.



This morning, the City's Landmark Preservation Commission unanimously voted not to extend landmark status to the building on Park Place where the mosque and community center are planned. The decision was based solely on the fact that there was little architectural significance to the building. But with or without landmark designation, there is nothing in the law that would prevent the owners from opening a mosque within the existing building. The simple fact is this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship.



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 may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question -- should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? ...



The World Trade Center Site will forever hold a special place in our City, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves -- and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans -- if we said "no" to a mosque in Lower Manhattan.

This is the challenge for America today. It is not about a mosque, or even about a community center two blocks away from Ground Zero. It is about what kind of a society we are and wish to become.

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