In the debate over the Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero in New York, two competing arguments have emerged.
The supporters of the Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero (called the Park51 project) have argued that the First Amendment gives American Muslims the right to build a house of worship wherever they wish so long as the project complies with local ordinances. Some proponents also assert that building a mosque near Ground Zero is a statement that America is not turning its back on the fundamental value of freedom of religion despite religious fanatics abusing a religion to perpetrate a crime against humanity.
The detractors of the Park51 project principally base their opposition on erroneous links between the terrorism being committed in the name of Islam by a handful of fanatics and the faith of Islam as peacefully practiced by the vast majority of Muslims. Opponents have drawn encouragement from various polls that show that nearly 7 in 10 Americans oppose the project. Opposition from some, but not all, families of 9/11 victims has also been cited as a reason.
The debate was already rancorous, but when President Obama weighed in on the controversy by affirming the right of the Park51 planners to build their mosque on a site of their choice, the decibel level from the partisan opposition went up a notch. The opposition have obfuscated several pertinent facts, which, if known, could convince the vast majority of the American public to change its opinion. How many Americans know that Muslims were among the victims of 9/11? How many Americans know that a mosque already exists near Ground Zero? How many Americans know that American Muslims have unequivocally condemned 9/11? How many Americans know that al-Qaida has killed and targeted more Muslims than people of any other faith?
Either Muslims have the right to practice their religion or they do not. Raising questions about the "appropriateness" of the project or its "wisdom" are indirect ways to infringe on the freedom of religion. Is the First Amendment sacrosanct or is it subject to a popularity contest? Our founding fathers anticipated this conundrum and laid out clear markers that we should use to guide our views.
George Washington, in a letter to the Jews of Rhode Island, affirmed the essential nature of America, "a Government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance -- but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship." But today we have government officials openly giving sanction to bigotry.
In 1784, George Washington, seeking to hire craftsman for Mount Vernon, said, "If they are good workmen, they may be of Assia [sic], Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans [Muslims], Jews, or Christian of any Sect -- or they may be Atheists." Thus the foundation of America was based on meritocracy. On merits, the Park51 project has cleared all hurdles. No other consideration should stop the project from moving forward.
Ben Franklin wrote in his autobiography, "[S]o that even if the Mufti [Imam] of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service." Whereas Franklin was welcoming of foreign imams, today an insidious propaganda has opened up against a stalwart American imam.
Thomas Jefferson, who owned and read a copy of the Quran, wrote in 1816, "The most sacred of the duties of a government [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens." Today government officials are dictating where private citizens should erect their houses of worship.
In 1797 the U.S. Senate approved the Treaty with Tripoli, noting, "As the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Musselmen [Muslims]." Today President Obama, who emphasized this point in his Cairo speech and again reiterated it during the iftar dinner at the White House, is being mercilessly attacked for standing with America's founding values.
John Locke, whose writings influenced our founding fathers, wrote, "Nay, if we may openly speak the truth, and as becomes one man to another, neither Pagan nor Mahometan [Muslim], nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion. The Gospel commands no such thing." Is it not ironic that one of the biggest opposition to the Park51 project is coming from religiously conservative groups?
Park51 has a right to pursue the building of this mosque. Its proximity to Ground Zero does not provide any rational reason to pull back. However, given that we live in an imperfect world where the public is prone to episodic bursts of cognitive dissonance, it is better for Park51 to seriously explore an alternative location so long as the new location can effectively serve its constituents. (Reports indicate that the developer is open to such an idea.) They should do this to honor the peace over pride principle well illustrated by Prophet Muhammad during the signing of the Treaty of Hudaybiyah, where he compromised by voluntarily giving away his rights in order to gain peace. An imperfect peace is preferable to a righteous conflict.
If Park51 were to relocate the project, will the opponents then turn their energy to support the other mosque projects around the country that are facing bigoted opposition? Will opponents repudiate the church in Florida that is planning to burn the Quran on the 2010 anniversary of 9/11? Will Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich educate their supporters on the reality of the American Muslim community, which is described in the Pew 2007 Survey as being "decidedly American in their outlook, values and attitudes?"
Professor Parvez Ahmed is a Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida. He is also a frequent commentator on Islam and the Muslim American experience.
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