You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Where Does the Mosque Backlash Fit Into the History of American Tolerance?

Amid all the controversy surrounding the Ground Zero Islamic center and mosque, the most memorable comment I’ve seen was made by a New York State assemblyman named Henry Meigs.

“The constitution of this state,” Meigs said, “guarantees equally the religion of all. The Jew, who believes the blessed Savior an imposter; the Egyptian who worships a crocodile or an onion; the Pagan who worships the sun; the Indian who pays divine honors to sticks and stones; the worshipper of Odin; the Chinese or the Mahometans. All persuasions, denominations or religions are equally protected.”

The language is antique—not to mention colorful—because Meigs made his statement in 1818. (You can find the quote in Ilyon Woo’s new book, The Great Divorce.) He was speaking in defense of the Shakers, a communal, celibate sect now best known for its furniture and for a tune Aaron Copland borrowed for Appalachian Spring. (The Shakers also invented the clothes pin.) But in the early part of the nineteenth century, they were suspected of all manner of malfeasance: murder, torture, kidnapping, child abuse, a conspiracy to gain world domination; even, despite their vows of chastity, “licentiousness.” Because of their strange ways (Taliban-like, a Shaker woman was prohibited from sewing a button on a man’s shirt if he was wearing it), they were also accused of undermining the institution of marriage. Meigs’s statement is inspiring not only because of the very contemporary sentiments it expresses, but also because it reminds us that the principle of religious freedom is as embedded in American history as is the bigotry Meigs was responding to.

Friends of mine who oppose the construction of the Ground Zero mosque insistently assure me that bigotry is not the only reason why someone might wish the center were built elsewhere, and I have no reason to doubt them because I know for a fact that they are not bigots. Even so, I cannot deny—nor would my friends—that animosity toward all Muslims and to the religion of Islam itself is a major motivating force behind the opposition. There is simply no getting around the truth that we would hear no objections if a church or synagogue were being proposed for the site. It’s hard to see how Henry Meigs isn’t relevant today.

Yes, my friends reply, the backers of the community center have the right to build it, but should they build it? It’s all a matter of sensitivity. The vast majority of Americans are offended by the project and however irrational their emotions, those feelings should be respected, if only for the sake of social and interfaith peace. This is a powerful point; reality is always an attractive argument. But is this one of those times when principle has to be upheld even if the consequences are unpleasant?

Since the modern culture clash with the Muslim world began, the urge to avoid giving offense to the emotionally aggrieved has had a sorry, cringe-making history. Turn to Christopher Hitchens’s chapter on Salman Rushdie in his memoir, Hitch-22, for a reminder of how the opening battle in this conflict played out. It’s not a pretty picture.

When the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against Rushdie for his novel, The Satanic Verses, in 1989, condemnations rained down from the left and the right, but not so much on the Ayatollah as on the author who had provoked him. Religious leaders—the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, spokesmen for the Vatican—all declared the problem was blasphemy, not censorship or death threats. Rushdie was said to have “abused freedom of speech.” Hitchens writes that “every ‘official’ human-rights committee in the nation’s capital turned me down when I asked them to sponsor a visit by Salman.” President George H.W. Bush refused to get involved, and his successor, Bill Clinton, agreed to see Rushdie in the White House, but only if no photographs were taken. Bookstores refused to sell the novel.

A second chapter in this depressing narrative was the Dutch government’s harassment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali after she had offended Muslims by criticizing their treatment of women. But the next eruption to attract widespread American attention was the episode of the Danish cartoons in 2006. Muslims upset with how Muhammad was being portrayed—or that he was being portrayed at all!—demonstrated or rioted in Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere. At least 200 people died. Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, said that while he respected the right of freedom of speech, “freedom of speech is never absolute.” The second Bush administration’s position on the cartoons was: “We find them offensive, and we certainly understand why Muslims would find these images offensive.”

Since then, a German opera company suspended a performance of Mozart’s Idomeneo because it included a scene with Muhammad’s severed head, and the creators of “South Park” were prohibited from showing an image of Muhammad on television—and then prohibited from satirizing the prohibition. Last year, in a particularly bizarre example of the impulse to avoid giving offense, Yale University Press decided not to reproduce the Danish cartoons in a book about the Danish cartoons. Especially ominous was the press’s decision to exclude images of Muhammad from the past, including one by the nineteenth-century artist Gustave Doré, showing him being tortured in Hell. Go one or two more steps down this path and we can say goodbye to The Merchant of Venice, Huckleberry Finn, and The Catcher in the Rye.

Let’s disentangle a couple of strands here. The U.S. government has a legitimate interest in maintaining good relations with the Muslim world even when it is behaving irrationally, and so it may from time to time issue statements that sound—or are—pusillanimous. Similarly, American newspapers and the Yale press may have refrained from reproducing the Danish cartoons out of a genuine fear of violence. The Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was murdered, its Italian translator was stabbed, and its Norwegian publisher shot. Self-censorship based on fear is not a position to be proud of, but on the other hand it’s hardly honorable to demand that other people—editors, translators, secretaries, clerks—endanger their lives for your own heroic principles. (Hitchens points out that the staffs of the bookstores that refused to handle The Satanic Verses passed a resolution expressing their willingness to sell it.)

Up till now, the culture clash has moved in one direction only. Muslims have taken offense at something, and the West has rushed to reassure and pacify them. The mosque controversy reverses these roles. Today, it’s millions of Americans who are feeling aggrieved. Fear of violence is not an issue in this case (though the backers of the center have no doubt been subjected to numerous death threats). If building the center proceeds, there may be demonstrations and protests, and the Democratic Party will pay a political price, but hundreds of people won’t die, and any violence directed at the mosque will surely be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

The question at this point is whether the center has to be built at the proposed site. It’s understandable that the supporters would want to resist yielding to bigotry, irrationality, and intimidation, but on a simply pragmatic basis, everyone should hope that some solution can be reached so that the feelings of millions of Americans are respected. After all, the sponsors of the center say they are interested in building bridges among peoples. This aim would be better served by moving the mosque a few blocks away, even if that means bending a cherished principle. And just think of the good will that would be generated across the country. Nonetheless, if compromise proves to be impossible, then Henry Meigs must be the one to have the final word.

By wonderful coincidence, Pastor Terry Jones’s threat to burn Korans puts the issue of the Islamic center into sharper focus.

Jones is a poster child for everything that is wrong with the opposition to the Ground Zero mosque. He is a bigot who has declared that “Islam and Sharia law were responsible for 9/11.” Last year, to the consternation of its neighbors, his church put up a sign saying “Islam is of the devil.” And he is ignorant: He has not read the Koran and is obviously unaware of the philosophy associated with book-burning.

Right now, we can’t know for sure if Jones will follow through on his threat, or if he doesn’t, whether some other zealot will. (And just wait till next year and the tenth anniversary of 9/11—the opportunity for a true bonfire of the vanities.) Jones has pigheadedly shrugged off arguments that his actions might provoke a violent response in the Muslim world, or could harm the United States. The feelings of others are not his concern. Unlike most of the other individuals caught up in the culture war with Islam, he is a provocateur, and deliberately intends to give offense. (Squint hard enough and you may be able to make out the ghost of Lenny Bruce.) For this reason, he represents a particularly pure case of what we Americans mean when we say we stand for freedom. It’s easy enough to defend someone you agree with, much harder to stand up for someone you despise.

So what should be the reaction to Pastor Jones? We can condemn his message of hate. We can lament the damage he may do to the interests of the United States. But at the end of the day we must defend his right to burn the Koran—and not just with a sense of disapproval and regret but, because of what it says about the values of our country, with a grudging, embarrassed sense of pride.

Barry Gewen has been an editor at The New York Times Book Review for over 20 years. He has written frequently for The Book Review, as well as for other sections ofThe Times. His essays have also appeared in World AffairsThe American Interest,World Policy Journal, and Dissent.