Mayor Bloomberg is accustomed to having his way, and maybe he will this time, too. After all, now that he has declared the opposition to building the Cordoba Initiative mosque at Ground Zero enemies of the First Amendment, he has raised the stakes so high that many perfectly tolerant and liberal people will simply shut up. How's that for the usage of freedom of speech!
I suppose there are some people who would want, by hook and by crook, to keep Muslims from worship anyplace in the United States. They are cranks on the order of the miserable folk who want to keep churches and synagogues and, for that matter, Mormon Tabernacles out of their towns or, at least, out of their neighborhoods. Sometimes they disguise their argument by saying that their streets can't bear the traffic. On a few occasions they may be correct. On most, the courts rule against them. We do not have a "freedom of religion" problem in the United States.
And we certainly don't have an issue of freedom of religion for Muslims in America. Most demographic scholars report that there are from two and a half million to three million Muslims in the country. President Obama says there are much more. The figures are uncertain because the census count is legally obliged to omit religious identification from its survey. I suspect that one of the statistical problems is that it's unclear how members of the Nation of Islam identify themselves. Who is a Black Muslim? How many Jews are there? Or Unitarians? There are no reliable or, more to the point, government sanctioned statistics
But there really are at least 100 mosques in New York City, perhaps more. None of them has been torched, which you cannot say for synagogues. How many other mosques are there in the country, I don't know. Still, no Muslim anywhere in America has problems finding a welcoming place of prayer or for eating hallal (the Muslim kosher) or for using his Blackberry to arrange an Islamic study group.
Christopher Caldwell, one of the truly brilliant columnists in the English language, published an article in Saturday's Financial Times titled "A mosque that wrecks bridges."
Citing freedom of religion, [Bloomberg] has defended the mosque project in speech after speech. He gave another this week, saying of the fire-fighters who died on the day of the attack, “We do not honour their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting.” This would be stirring if constitutional rights were the whole of the issue. But they are not...
The argument...that it is insensitive to build a mega-mosque next to the spot where 2,700 people were killed in Islam’s name. This distinction – between what is constitutional and what is appropriate – is an important one.
It is lost on Mr Bloomberg. In May, he said: “If somebody was going to try, on that piece of property, to build a church or a synagogue, nobody would be yelling and screaming.” That is right. But history matters, too. The attacks of 2001 were not a political-science abstraction. They were an expression of Islam. Not all of Islam, certainly – and Islam is neither the only religion that has such crimes to answer for nor the only one that has provoked such controversies. The building of a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz in the 1980s so wounded Jewish sensibilities that Pope John Paul II ordered it removed in 1993, even though the Holocaust was not carried out in the name of any faith.
It was perhaps with that episode in mind that the Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism and other forms of religious bigotry, produced an admirably balanced response to the controversy, one that respected both the constitutional and historical aspects of it. While defending Muslim religious freedom unreservedly, the ADL warned that building the mosque at Ground Zero “will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right”. In other words, if the consortium wants to build it, it can build it. But it would be a very bad idea. They should build it somewhere else in Manhattan.
Including Islam within the fold of traditional western religious tolerance is not business-as-usual. It is an experiment. Our Lockean ideas of religious tolerance had their origins in the 16th century (the peace of Augsburg) and the 17th (the peace of Westphalia). Those understandings regulated relations between Christian sects and were steadily liberalised. Judaism later proved assimilable into this system in the US, but not, to put it mildly, everywhere in the west.
Islam – which is, like Christianity but unlike contemporary Judaism, an evangelising and expansionist religion – is a bigger challenge. A radical school of it views the US as its main enemy. Because that school is amply funded by Arabian oil, there is a standing fear that radicals will capture any large international project involving Islam, no matter how good its original intentions.
Most newspaper accounts of Manhattan’s mosque project have lauded its leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Bloggers are quicker to note that he said after the 2001 attacks that US policies had been “an accessory to the crime”. The organisers have been unforthcoming about their sources of funding. They are proceeding with the mosque project, even as it produces the very opposite of the inter-religious harmony they claim to seek.
A married couple from Connecticut, whose son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter were killed on a flight that hit the World Trade Center, wrote to The New York Times to oppose the project on the grounds that it “has the trappings of a victory mosque”. That expression captures a lot. People around the world will differ over the meaning of September 11 2001, but there can be no doubting that it is one of America’s most consequential military defeats. It led to a stalemate in Afghanistan and a war in Iraq that undermined the US’s standing in the world. By providing another reason for low interest rates and easy credit, it helped spur the present economic crisis. Whether or not this was inevitable, it happened. Osama bin Laden’s strategic calculus – that the US lacked either the resolve, the cohesion or the cultural self-confidence to stand up to a mighty blow – has in many ways been vindicated.
I agree with virtually all of this. This is not a matter of constitutional rights. This is a matter of justice and political justice, at that. This is not the occasion to be "building bridges" which cannot be built or which cannot be built at least right now. In any case, "building bridges" is the kind of cant which right now means weakening the American core. I do not believe in that.
Muslims would be better served as Muslims if they saw America as a gift.