No compromise on religious freedom

Richard Cohen

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

When it comes to the mosque that's neither too close to Ground Zero for its proponents nor far enough away for its opponents, the disturbing word "compromise" is now being tossed around. It has been suggested by New York Gov. David Paterson, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan and, in Sunday's Post, Karen Hughes, once an important adviser to George W. Bush. These are all well-meaning people, but they do not understand that in this case, the difference between compromise and defeat is nonexistent.

This is not a complicated matter. If you believe that an entire religion of upward of a billion followers attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, then it is understandable that locating a mosque near the fallen World Trade Center might be upsetting. But the facts are otherwise. Islam was not in on the attack -- just a sliver of believers. That being the case, those people with legitimate hurt feelings are mistaken. They need our understanding, not our indulgence.

If, on the other hand, you do not believe that the attack was launched by an entire religion, you have a moral duty to support the creation of the Islamic center. Lots of people fall into this category -- or say they do -- and still protest the mosque. They include Newt Gingrich, New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio and that Twittering Twit of the Tundra, Sarah Palin. They indulge in a kind of pornography of analogy -- a bit of demagogic buffoonery that is becoming more and more obvious. They pretend that they have a solemn obligation to defend the (powerful) majority from the demands of the (powerless) minority and champion people whose emotions are based on a misreading of the facts.

Those of us who are of a certain age remember the days when African Americans and their champions were being cautioned to go slow, compromise. They were being told to consider the tender feelings of whites, no matter how ugly their racism, and protect their dewy Scarlett O'Hara way of life. Leading politicians espoused this course, President Eisenhower among them. Wrong was somehow to become a little less so, but right would be painfully postponed. What was compromise? The middle of the bus?

From that era I exhume a term: moral suasion. Repeatedly, civil rights activists urged Eisenhower to use the bully pulpit to guide the country on a moral course, to set an example. For the longest time, Ike refused to budge. The hero of Normandy somehow forgot how to lead until Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus forced the president to literally call out the troops. The era remains a huge blot on Eisenhower's otherwise exemplary record.

Now something similar is happening. It's not merely that unscrupulous politicians are demagoguing the mosque issue, it is also that most others have kept their mouths shut. The Post editorial board suggested that Bush, who has always shown great leadership on interfaith issues, speak out. Hughes, who argued the case for the mosque and then advocated building it elsewhere, should have followed her own logic. And the archbishop, instead of urging compromise, should have urged his congregants to show tolerance. He's not a labor mediator. He's a moral leader.

Over the years, thousands of priests have abused many thousands of children. This is a lamentable fact. Yet no rational person can possibly believe that all priests are pedophiles and that a plan to erect a church should or could be opposed by victims of priestly pedophilia. We know the difference between the acts of individuals -- even many of them -- and the dogma or beliefs of an entire religion. I am a Jew, but do not judge me by Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 murdered 29 Muslims in Hebron.

Appearing on ABC's "This Week with Christiane Amanpour," Daisy Khan, a founder of the mosque (and the wife of the imam), rejected any compromise. She was right to do so because to compromise is to accede, even a bit, to the arguments of bigots, demagogues or the merely uninformed. This is no longer her fight. The fight is now all of ours.

It has become something of a cliche, I know, but no one ever put this sort of thing better than William Butler Yeats in his poem "The Second Coming." "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Some passionate intensity from the best is past due.

New York mosque controversy echoes anti-Catholicism of another era

Patricia Zapor

August 27, 2010 -- Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The controversy over plans to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque a couple of blocks away from ground zero in New York is but the latest manifestation of a historic cycle of distrust of immigrants -- and their faith.

Public outcry erupted this summer over plans to convert a former Burlington Coat Factory store, located a little more than two blocks from the World Trade Center complex, into a nine-story Islamic cultural center, with a mosque included. The area's Muslim community already uses the vacant retail space for worshippers who overflow from the al-Farah Mosque, about a dozen blocks north of the trade center property, according to The Associated Press.

Critics in New York and beyond have decried the project as an insult to the memory of those who died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers and as an attempt by radicals to "triumphally prove that they can build a mosque right next to a place where 3,000 Americans were killed," as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a likely Republican candidate for president in 2012, put it.

Supporters of the project argue that the right to religious freedom means the Muslim group is entitled to build on the site and point out that the proposed building is not within sight of the trade center property, and is in fact about six blocks from the nearest of the two towers destroyed in 2001.

At its core, the mosque furor is not unlike what Catholics experienced in the United States for more than 100 years, according to Georgetown University theology professor Chester Gillis. He also is dean of Georgetown College and the founding director of the program on the Church and Interreligious Dialogue within the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. While there are a wide range of political, philosophical and even zoning arguments about the Islamic center plans, Gillis sees anti-Muslim sentiment -- based in misconceptions and xenophobia -- at the core of the debate.

"The neophytes in society are always on the outside," Gillis said. "With Catholics, people feared they would have loyalty to a foreign power, the Holy See." With Muslims, he added, people fear a possible connection to an Islamic government or to a terrorist organization.

At an impromptu news conference Aug. 18, New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan noted that "as Catholics, we ourselves are somewhat touchy about this issue because in the past we have been discriminated against." He said he would be happy to participate in efforts to negotiate a compromise over the Manhattan mosque as part of "a very civil, rational, loving, respectful discussion."

President Barack Obama has said that as a matter of religious freedom, Muslims have a right to build a mosque on the site, though he has declined to weigh in on whether it's a good idea for this one to proceed.

Survivors of those who died in the 9/11 attacks have diverged into two groups, those who oppose the mosque project as a desecration of the area, and those who say it could become a place for "healing, reconciliation and understanding."

The issue has inflamed some political campaigns, talk shows and Internet discussion pages.

Meanwhile, from New York to Tennessee, Wisconsin and California, communities are having similar debates about plans to build Islamic centers or mosques.

On Staten Island, the board of St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church voted in July not to sell a former convent to the Muslim American Society, which wanted to use it for a mosque. People opposed to the sale said a mosque would cause traffic and parking problems. Many also expressed fear that the society was linked to a terrorist group.

One small Protestant church in Florida has scheduled a public burning of copies of the Quran, the Islamic scriptures, for Sept. 11. The Dove World Outreach Center, which has only about 50 members, has nevertheless captured worldwide attention. Its leaders said they intend to hold the Quran burning despite being denied a burn permit by the city of Gainesville.

Gillis noted that the "No Irish Need Apply" signs common in Massachusetts early in the 19th century were rooted in fears over how American society might be changed by immigrants, but particularly by their Catholic faith and culture.

The fear of Catholics extended beyond the refusal to hire Irish immigrants.

The Catholic Encyclopedia describes mobs descending upon a cathedral in Cincinnati in 1853, on churches in New Jersey, New York, Maine and New Hampshire the following year. It tells of a Maine priest who was dragged from his church, robbed, tarred and feathered; of Ohio churches being blown up and convents burned in Massachusetts and Texas.

The development of Catholic schools, hospitals and organizations for writers, physicians, teachers and so on all happened because Catholics were not all owed in counterpart entities, Gillis explained. "CYO, for example, was intended as a counter-organization to the YMCA, where Catholics were not allowed."

It took more than 100 years after the large waves of Irish and Italian immigrants from Europe arrived for Catholics in the United States to become enough of a mainstream part of society that the prejudices and hurdles they experienced began to fade, said Gillis.

"The tipping point for Catholics was post-World War II, with the GI Bill," he said. "Catholics signed up in large numbers for the war and when they came back they went to college in larger numbers than ever in the past, because of the GI Bill."

From that point on, Catholics were a more dominant part of business, politics and fields such as law and higher education.

It may not take 100 years for Muslims to be similarly accepted in the United States, Gillis said, but it will take time.

Until then, he suggests, "it may sound simplistic, but you really need to know Muslims as people."

Shameful Campaign Against Islamic Community Center

Editorial -- September 10, 2010

In the past nine years, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have been invoked, distorted, and exploited to serve a variety of political and ideological agendas. But no such effort has been quite as shameful as the current campaign against the so-called Ground Zero Mosque.

"Ground Zero," for better or worse, is the widely accepted term of reference for the site where the Twin Towers once stood, and discussions about the fate of that site since 9/11 have been protracted and painful. The families of those who died there differed about what should be built. A skyscraper called One World Trade Center is finally under construction, as well as a museum and a memorial, but the debate continues, along with bitter complaints about the slow progress.

Two blocks away, a group of New Yorkers is at the center of another painful debate, this one over the terms on which American Muslims should be permitted to participate in civic life. They propose to build, on the site of a now-abandoned building, an Islamic community center dedicated to promoting diversity, dialogue, and service. The project's leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, is a moderate Sufi, long established in Lower Manhattan, who was called on by the Bush administration to assist with outreach to Muslims overseas. The community center, to be called Park51, would house a mosque, an interfaith program, fitness facilities, a restaurant, and a memorial to the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

The controversy over Park51 was manufactured by opportunists on the Right stoking outrage against what they describe as a "victory mosque" to be built "at Ground Zero" by radical Muslims intent on commemorating their "triumph." Politicians and pundits from Sarah Palin to Newt Gingrich to Charles Krauthammer have sought to exploit anti-Muslim sentiment, as well as the pain of the 9/11 victims' families, and have suggested that Islam itself is at war with America. Their opposition to Park51, which polls indicate is now shared by a majority of Americans, is implicitly based on the notion that all Muslims share in the guilt for the 9/11 attacks. It is an overt appeal to religious bigotry, one that both victimizes Muslims at home and makes it more difficult for ambassadors from the United States to the Muslim world, including Imam Rauf, to win cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

Catholics have been on both sides of religious prejudice in the past. President Barack Obama alluded to past persecution of American Catholics in his August 13 remarks defending religious freedom, and New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg recalled that Catholics were once prohibited from practicing their faith in Lower Manhattan. "We would betray our values and play into our enemies' hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else," Bloomberg said in an address defending Park51. "Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off limits to God's love and mercy."

Although he praised Bloomberg's remarks, New York's Archbishop Timothy Dolan passed up the opportunity to take an unequivocal stand. Instead, the archbishop offered tentative support for a "compromise" that would relocate Park51. But calls for the Muslim organizers to change their plans out of "sensitivity," however well-meaning, would allow the prejudices of some to define the terms of freedom for others. It would set a dangerous precedent to allow the cynicism of those who launched this campaign to prevail over the facts.

Muslims were among those who died in the September 11 attacks. They were among the emergency personnel who responded to the disaster and the workers who sorted through the wreckage at Ground Zero. Muslim Americans, like all other Americans, responded to 9/11 in anger and fear, prayed for peace, grieved the loss of loved ones, and enlisted in the armed forces to fight terrorism. Any version of what happened that day that excludes their presence among the victims is inaccurate. Any argument that places all American Muslims outside the definition of "American" or fails to distinguish between ordinary Muslims and terrorists must be rejected.

Asking Imam Rauf and his community to retreat in the face of a deficient understanding of Islam is unreasonable and deeply harmful to attempts to combat Islamist terrorism at home and abroad. It is also a betrayal of the church's call to rise above prejudice in relations with other faiths. American Catholics should be standing against the opposition to Park51 and all other manifestations of anti-Muslim prejudice. The bishops should be leading the way.