The Park 51 Islamic Cultural Center and American values
President Obama, after saying that building a mosque at Ground Zero fit our "commitment to religious freedom," backtracked, saying he wasn't commenting on the 'wisdom' of building it so close to 'hallowed ground.'
A Fox News poll showed that while 61 percent of Americans believe that Cordoba House has a constitutional right to build near Ground Zero, 64 percent believe it is not appropriate to do so.
Does Obama's hedging show a lack of ethical convictions? Does Hamas' endorsement change the debate? What is behind public opposition to the site? Can you believe in religious freedom but not believe the mosque is appropriate?
I have seen this movie before.
A few years back, while I still taught ethics at Andover Newton Theological School, I also sat on the board of the Interreligious Center on Public Life (ICPL). This is an organization that started under the auspices of Andover Newton and Hebrew College to bring together religious scholars, clergy and lay leaders to think about how religion impacts our public life. Its mission and goal was to provide a space for respectful dialogue and problem solving.
One problem we faced in 2006 was the controversy at that time over a proposed mosque to be built in Roxbury. The Islamic Society of Boston planned a mosque and cultural center. However, questions around the propriety of the land agreement with the city of Boston along with concerns about whether or not leaders of the Islamic Society of Boston had ties to terrorist groups and concerns about its sources of funding resulted in lawsuits and counter lawsuits. The problem was causing animosity between the Muslim and Jewish communities.
The Board of the ICPL invited both sides to meet with it and to explain their side of the story. We met with representatives and lawyers for the Islamic Society of Boston on one day and with representatives and lawyers of the David Project, a Jewish organization involved in the law suits on another day. After hearing both sides, we knew that there was no real legal solution to the problem. The law suits could take years, and when all was said and done, the animus would remain. Whoever won would still lose. The ICPL helped to organize a group to mediate the dispute. Rev. Raymond G. Helmick, a Jesuit priest and professor at Boston College with much experience in sensitive peace negotiations was a member of the group of mediators along with Rabbi Harold Kushner author of the book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" and others.
They looked into the concerns about terrorist ties, funding and the propriety of the city's agreement with the Islamic Society of Boston. The mediators were trusted in their various faith communities, and they had the trust of the opposing parties in the law suits. The courts encouraged the efforts at mediation. In the end, the various law suits were dropped, the mosque and cultural center was built. The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center officially opened in June of 2009.
In the controversy surrounding the Park 51 Islamic Cultural Center in lower Manhattan, we hear these same concerns. The First Amendment is clear: Constitutional guarantees trump emotions. Now opponents of the project are making the security argument and the funding argument. New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Rich Lazio, a former Congress member appeared on the August 16 edition of "PBS Newshour" along with Teaneck, New Jersey Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin to discuss the mosque and community center. Lazio called for New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to look into the sources of funding for the mosque. Lazio also questioned the leader of the Cordoba Initiative because of some remarks he made after September 11. Lazio said this was a matter of security. These are the same concerns we heard in Boston.
The feelings of the families of people who died during the September 11 attacks are not at the heart of the issue any longer. We are back to anti-Muslim bias and fear. I say again. Islam did not attack the United States on September 11, 2001. Criminals attacked this nation. To ask every Muslim from this moment forward to prove their loyalty to the Untied States, to prove they have never been associated with someone who has said or done something offensive, and or to prove that every dollar that goes into a building project did not come from some source that the wider society does not approve is unfair. We do not ask this of any other group of citizens.
The difference between this present controversy over the Park 51 Islamic Cultural Center and the case in Boston is that politicians stayed out of the Boston dispute. Religious leaders took the initiative to find the facts and to mediate the dispute. The goal was reconciliation. The political goal is not reconciliation. The political goal is to keep people angry enough about this issue so they will go to the polls to cast a proxy vote against the mosque. Thus, we see politicians of both parties who have to face the voters in November issuing statements against the mosque. A candidate for governor in Florida has put his opposition in a campaign commercial. This is a crass exploitation of people's genuine emotion and pain that is beneath contempt.
Politicians who are using this issue as a wedge issue deserve nothing but our utter disapprobation. The philosopher Immanuel Kant gave us the categorical imperative as a moral guide. It says: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." Kant also argued that one ought to treat others not as a means to an end, but as ends in themselves. The people who are saddened and angry about September 11, about the loss of their loved ones and/or about the assault on this nation are being used as a means to an end, and that end is the election of this or that candidate.
To answer the questions: I do not agree that President Obama hedged his position on the mosque. As president of the United States, he is sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States and that is what he did in his initial remarks on this subject. When he said the next day that he would not comment on the wisdom of building the mosque, that too was appropriate in my opinion. Such a statement would have been a step too far for the president of the United States to take. There are enough others to comment on the wisdom of building the mosque. Hamas' endorsement of the project is neither here nor there. To give it too much weight either way is to fall into the logical fallacy of guilt by association, or to judge a proposition wrong because someone we do not like thinks that it is right. Moreover, in my opinion, the mistaken idea that Islam attacked the United States is behind public opposition to the mosque. To return to a question this panel addressed several weeks ago, terrorists are criminals and not religious leaders or heroes. They do violence for the sake of politics and economics, not for the sake of religion. God does not want, need, or require human violence.
This is a complicated issue. It is possible to believe in religious freedom and to think that the mosque is not appropriate. Some people say it is a matter of time, that after more time has passed, people will be willing to see a mosque and a community center near ground zero. I do not think this is true. I know that for me, more than a century after the Civil War, I still do not want to see a confederate flag flying on state property. When I see it on someone's personal property, I wonder what the symbol means to them. I know what it means to me.
Thus, it is imperative to disconnect Islam from terrorism. And that is why the building of this mosque is not only wise but necessary. We need the space for interreligious dialogue. We need to know more about Islam because we do not fear what we know. We fear the unfamiliar. But, most importantly, we need to demonstrate to the terrorists that they have not sown seeds of fear and hatred in our hearts nor in our country. America's values of pluralism, acceptance, respect and radical love remain intact, and if anything are growing stronger.
Valerie Elverton Dixon
August 17, 2010; 1:17 PM ET
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