08/17/2010 09:09 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Russell Simmons Is Wrong about the Ground Zero Mosque

I still remember, Russell, when you came to my debate with Rev. Al Sharpton, nine years ago, in New York City. You struck me then as a man of warmth and openness. In that spirit I offer you this response to your recent blog post supporting the Ground Zero mosque and your categorization of those opposing it as being guilty of hatred and bigotry, which strikes me as a bit harsh.

For the record, I am a supporter of the mosque being built, but only under two conditions. First, that its builders consult the families of the Ground Zero dead, who are the people whose opinion matters most. Second, that the 13-story complex include a museum detailing the events of 9/11 with exhibits explaining the modern abuse of Islamic teachings by extremists and their repudiation by Islam itself.

I don't expect you to agree with my conditions, or with those who oppose the mosque outright. But I do ask that you consider this.

We live in a secular age where religion has been largely repudiated. Sure, people still go to Church and they still celebrate Chanuka and Christmas. But religious values have ceased to be impactful on their lives. It's secular values that dictate what's important, from money and fame to material comfort and financial security. How did religion which was once all-powerful become so marginal? There are many considerations, but perhaps the most important has been religion's hypocrisy and intolerance. Simply put, when people witness religions behaving badly they conclude that it's all a farce. Whether it's a priest being caught molesting a child, or a Rabbi being arrested for money laundering, or, most seriously, an Imam telling his faithful to blow up children, the average person looks at this and determines that religion is a farce.

Which is why it's so important for the religious faithful, in general, and religious leaders in particular, to behave with morality, ethics, and sensitivity at all times.

But your blog post completely ignores the need for religion to behave with sensitivity at all times. It makes no mention whatsoever of how Islam might win public opinion back and instead accuses Americans of being bigots.

There are bigots in America, but Americans are not bigots. There are a hundred mosques in New York alone and nobody objects. But the average American is souring on Islam not based on any intrinsic prejudice but based on the violence they constantly read in the newspapers. And yes, I agree with you. They should rise above that and understand that the extremists do not define the faith and that the vast majority of religions Muslims are G-d-fearing and peace-loving.

But this is where the builders of the Ground Zero mosque squandered a unique opportunity to portray Islam in a favorable light, even as you completely let them off the hook. Given the huge media profile of this particular mosque, the organizers could have showed Americans how wrong they were about Islam. The builders could have taken out a full-page ad in The New York Times (they have, it is reported, $100 million for the mosque, and this expense would be tiny in comparison) announcing their intentions of building an Islamic Cultural Center at Ground Zero and inviting all the families of the 9/11 victims to the Jacob Javits Center on a specified day to lay out their plans and obtain the families reactions. They could have said that they while they are firm about their intentions of creating an Islamic presence at this hallowed site, their intention in so doing is not offend the families sensibilities but to repudiate the fanatics who have tarnished the name of Islam and hence, the builders wish to proceed with the greatest sensitivity and understanding.

Sadly, Russell, none of this happened. Rather, it was announced that a mosque is being built adjacent to a giant American cemetery irrespective of the families wishes, that it's a First Amendment right, and that all those who oppose it are bigots.

Fair enough. It's a free country. Say what you want and build what you want.

But if you're intention is to reverse people's negative impressions of religion in general and Islam in particular, then you're probably not going to achieve that by telling ten thousand people who watched their loved ones incinerated at Ground Zero, and whose remains are now part of the very air and dust of the place, that they are no longer victims of a terrible attack, but a bunch of cold-hearted bigots who hate Islam.

This, Russell, is just not the way to bring peace and reconciliation.

I wish G-d's blessings for all the good work you do.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach hosts 'The Shmuley Show' on 77 WABC in NYC. He is the founder of This World: The Values Network, and is the author, most recently, of 'Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.' Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.