Given the recent controversy over the building of Park51 (a.k.a. Cordoba House), an Islamic community center and mosque, in New York City near Ground Zero, the site of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, I’ve decided to write an entry containing some of my thoughts about the topic. Professor PZ Myers has stated that he does not care about a mosque/community center in New York, and I might not have either if it wasn’t the topic of so many television segments, news articles, and blog posts (some of which have been incessantly pouring into my feed reader).
It was, however, a good opportunity for me to do some thinking about the various issues that are being brought up, colliding with one another, and being mixed together (sometimes appropriately and sometimes not) in the discussion and argument over this project. This entry is my attempt to gather my thoughts and write them in a somewhat coherent fashion.
Whatever houses of worship may be built in this great land, their continued existence and the freedom of those within them depends on how diligently we build and maintain the wall between church and state (or, in this case, I suppose mosque and state). A legal argument against Park51 can be made if it is found that it is involved in illegal activities or is receiving funding from a criminal organization. The legal attempt to shut down the project cannot be based upon its proximity to Ground Zero. An attempt by the government to choose one religion over another, to stop one religion from building a house of worship in a place where another religion would be permitted to do so (all else being equal) on their own property, would be a violation of the First Amendment. We will all have certain times when we have to say that we absolutely disagree with what someone does while supporting their right to do it, but it is not right to take legal action against a group for doing something that we disagree with.
Tied up in all of this is the noticeable self-contradiction of those who regularly speak up in favor of freedom of religion for their own group, but who deny that same freedom to others. I think part of the justified reflexive defense of the community center is due to the fact that some of the people speaking out against it (especially some of the politicians and news anchors) have in the past shown that they favor one religion — particularly Christianity — over all others, so there is the question whether their criticism is coming from a genuine concern or from their own bias. Combined with similar protests against and vandalism of mosques in other places around the country and the horrifying violence against Muslims, this raises the suspicion that the protests are due to the fact that the people are Muslim and not based on any reasonable argument. There is a concern that at least some of the people speaking against the community center really do not favor separation of church and state and may be in favor of taking away the rights of non-Christians. (This is, of course, not true for everyone. When Susan Jacoby writes that she supports the First Amendment right of those building Park 51, but questions whether it should be built so close to Ground Zero, I believe that she actual does support the First Amendment and equal rights for people of different religions, since she has shown this in her previous writings. She has even written a book called Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism about the important role that secular people and ideas played in American history, including contributions made by both religious and non-religious supporters of secularism.) When others, such as Sarah Palin, claim that they support the rights of those building Park51, but question the wisdom of it, I am suspicious of their motivations, given their support for a nation based upon their own religious beliefs. Since not all the critics of Park51 are supporters of separation of church and state (based on their past statements), there is a need to reaffirm secularism, which is always a good goal. We should remember that secularism is one of the ideas which make this country great, and there are several people who have expressed this sentiment during this whole debate and drama.
Hemant Mehta, in What freedoms will we lose next? (his first article for The Washington Post’s On Faith section) makes a good point about not blaming all Muslims for the 9/11 attacks (just as we should not blame all Christians for something horrible done by some Christians) and writes, “Why do I support the building of the mosque? Because we live in a country that supports freedom of religion, even when we disagree with others’ beliefs. I support it because they’re paying for the space and they have every right to build there.” We cannot start deciding that the First Amendment only applies to certain groups and not to others. Those who routinely say that the Christians who take horrible actions are not “real Christians” should ask themselves what they would think of their freedom being limited based on what other Christians have done.
Herb Silverman, in Mosque is insensitive; so are pandering politicians, criticizes the politicians whose clichéd arguments have gained them undue publicity and then goes on to write that he agrees that the mosque is insensitive. Ultimately, he states quite plainly, “It is my right to be bothered by this, it’s the right of others to be bothered by the potential mosque at Ground Zero, and it’s absolutely the right of American Muslims to build it. Observing Constitutional principles may be bothersome, but that’s a small price to pay for the liberties our Constitution guarantees.” Following the Constitution and agreeing that others have rights, even if we disagree with them, may not always be easy, but it is necessary if we want to preserve our freedoms and rights. The hope that humans will be able to grant others the liberties they themselves so cherish is the basis of my hope that a secular society can work and thrive.
Arthur Waskow tells a touching story about his grandmother in Mosques in America: Rabbi Hillel, George Washington, & my grandma, reminding readers of the promise of freedom that American stands for. Just as his grandmother remembered the horrible way Jewish people were treated in Europe and knew that it was wrong to treat Black people that way (even when other Jewish women were talking about them with contempt), Waskow remembers his grandmother and reminds us that we must not treat Muslims that way. He thinks it is right to build Park51, which will be “[a] beacon of the Islam that celebrates the God Who is Compassion. A beacon of truth, of hope, of peace to vanquish the hatred and despair and violence that murdered 3,000 people of many different nations and many different faiths in the World Trade Center.” I am glad he has hope for the emergence of a better Islam that will not be as fraught with problems as the religion is right now. Perhaps if more Muslims were willing to speak up against the extremism in their own faith and create a new Islam that would be more secular and supportive of equal rights, we would have a better world.
What makes the situation even more absurd is that one suggestion that’s been made concerning the moving of the mosque actually would violate the First Amendment. Over at The Wall of Separation (the blog of Americans United for Separation of Church and State) Sandhya Bathija has written a blog entry titled Land Plan Panned: N.Y. Governor’s Islamic Center ‘Compromise’ Draws Fire, in which she comments on a statement by Governor David Paterson. According to Glenn Blain at The New York Daily News, Governor Paterson supports the Park51 Islamic Center and has said, “Frankly, if the sponsors were looking for property anywhere at a distance that would be such that it would accommodate a better feeling among the people who are frustrated, I would look into trying to provide them with the state property they would need.” Bathija writes at The Wall that this idea will fortunately probably not be put into action due to the fact that it’s obviously unconstitutional. (She links to an article by Justin Elliot at Salon, in which Barry Lynn, Americans United’s executive director, and Professor Jay Wexler express concerns about such an idea.) She points out in her blog entry that a suggestion like Patterson’s (providing state property to a religious group for a religious place of worship) “should outrage Americans, yet it’s hardly caused a stir. At the same time, when a private group wants to build a religion-based community center on private land, some find cause for a public uproar. All this goes to show that many Americans could benefit from another glance at the Constitution, and that includes Paterson.” It does often amaze me that more people are not more concerned about separation of church and state, but as can been seen above, there are many who do. This gives me hope.
It is absolutely essential to remind both ourselves and our fellow humans deserve to have equal rights. Demanding that they should voluntarily give up their equal rights (especially when such criticism is coming from those who have shown their own support for discrimination in the past) is unreasonable and wrong. (It is for this reason that I also support the rights of peaceful protesters who are against Park 51 to express their views, just as I support the right of the people who are building it.) I am glad that there are many people who realize the importance of secularism and of the First Amendment, even for those whose religious beliefs they do not agree with.
Rebuilding Ground Zero
Any hallowed nature associated with Ground Zero is not a characteristic force emanating from the spot itself but rather the hurt that is felt in the hearts of human beings when we look upon a site and remember the horrid events of the past. When Sarah Palin claims that the planned mosque “stabs hearts”, it is as an American that I reply that the real stab to my heart was the actual attack. What further stabs my heart is the attempt by various groups (including, to various extents, the groups both in favor of and against Park51) to use what was a tragedy for our country to forward their own agendas, which contain little or nothing in the way of either dealing with the extremism within Islam or protecting our freedoms, including those outlined in the First Amendment. It is important that we remember what is really important and do not focus on inanimate objects. As Susan Jacoby writes in What makes ground so “sacred” that it provides soil for profane behavior?, “Truth and knowledge, not ground or steps, are sacred.”
The rebuilding of Ground Zero, including a memorial to those who died, has not moved forward by much, and this is a cause of sadness for many Americans, including myself. We are still living with the memory of these attacks, and that memory will never go away. We desire to do something to honor those who died, and lack of such a memorial makes us feel that we are not properly remembering them, that we have been lax in taking the correct action.
There is also the issue of other religious buildings. In the arguments against Park51, the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church is sometimes mentioned. The anger over the fact that the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church has not yet been rebuilt is understandable, but I don’t understand how that is related to the building of Park51. The Islamic center is not being built to replace St. Nicholas. The fact that the rebuilding of Ground Zero and St. Nicholas has been slow is not, to my knowledge, caused by some kind of covert plan by the people planning to build Park51. The various building projects going on in our country are not in competition with one another. The fact that Park51 has been approved while plans for Ground Zero and the St. Nicholas Church have not yet moved forward does not mean the government is endorsing Islam or insulting either Christians or Americans in general. One difference between St. Nicholas and Park51 is that St. Nicholas was actually destroyed in the attacks and is in the area that has sadly not yet been rebuilt, whereas Park51 is two blocks away. If all the circumstances surrounding the rebuilding of the church were the same as those involved in building Park 51, then I would expect it to be given the same approval as Park51. There seem to be various issues affecting the rebuilding of St. Nicholas. As Nicole Neroulias writes in an entry at the Beliefnet Blog, “St. Nicholas, a Greek Orthodox church with only a few dozen regular worshipers before 9/11, has been mired in Ground Zero-specific bureaucracy for years, trying to hammer out a deal with the Port Authority to swap its tiny piece of land for a bigger plot and receive millions of dollars in public funds for the construction and security requirements.” She writes in an article at Religion News Service that the plans for Park51 have motivated people to ask about why more progress has not been made on the church, and goes on the explain the various circumstances and events which lead to the delays. “The entire Ground Zero rebuilding process has taken years longer than expected, due to the arduous rescue, recovery and rubble-removal efforts, followed by the bureaucratic process of establishing property ownership and designing the memorial and buildings.” It is clear that, despite the understandable upset of the Greek Orthodox community in New York City, blaming the people building Park51 for the delay in rebuilding St. Nicholas is the incorrect response. Although I disagree with both Islam and Christianity, I support the right of members of both of these religions to build their places of worship. It seems that in addition to being important to the Greek Orthodox community in New York, St. Nicholas also has a long history behind it. I look forward to Ground Zero, including St. Nicholas, being rebuilt.
The relevant parts of this situation, to me, are protecting freedom and equality, building of a memorial to those who died, and dealing with Islamic extremism that played a role in the attacks in the first place. Moving the mosque will not accomplish any of this. The distance between Ground Zero and Park51, to me, is not completely irrelevant, but one of the least relevant points of the whole situation. (This is mostly because the center is not actually on Ground Zero; if it was, then I would be opposed to the location, because I think there should be a memorial there.) As Jeffrey Rowland illustrates in this cartoon, the whole argument is ridiculous and YHWH has not shown a preference in the matter (which is as I expected, given the deity’s propensity for revealing contradictory messages to different members of humanity). Rowland writes beneath the cartoon, “Exactly what is a ‘safe distance’ to put your Muslim Community Center away from a place so that it doesn’t have some imaginary effect on it? I’d prefer a ban on ALL religious buildings being built within 1,000 miles of a place where ANY MEMBER of ANY SPECIFIC religious organization did some harm unto society.” Well, that would considerably decrease the number of houses of worship, but it would of course, not be in line with the freedom of religion on which we place great value. The cartoon and its caption illustrate perfectly the problem we face when trying to determine exactly how far away this Islamic center can be from Ground Zero.
What type of weird arithmetic can we come up with to determine exactly how far away a religious place of worship has to be from the site of a disaster? Does this vary depending on how many people were killed? Does the rule apply to all religions or only to one? Does it apply to all the people who follow the same religion as the perpetrators of the attack or to those of the same denomination?
All of this is not only confusing but misses the point entirely. The building is not the cause of the problems within Islam, but the bad ideas and actions of certain people and groups within Islam. It is important to identify and criticize these ideas and people while realizing that many Muslims themselves also realize the problem and are being hurt by members of their own faith.
[To read Part 2, click here.]
 Myers, PZ. I don’t care about a mosque/community center in New York. Posted on August 16, 2010 at Pharyngula. Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/08/i_dont_care_about_a_mosquecomm.php.
 Jacoby, Susan. Ground Zero mosque protected by First Amendment—but it’s still salt in a wound. Posted on August 4, 2010 at The Washington Post’s On Faith section. Retrieved on August 25, 2010 from http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/spirited_atheist/2010/08/ground_zero_mosque_protected_by_first_amendment–but_its_still_salt_in_a_wound.html.
 Mehta, Hemant. What freedoms will we lose next? Posted on August 16, 2010 at The Washington Post’s On Faith section. Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/Hemant_Mehta/2010/08/what_freedoms_will_we_lose_next.html.
 Silverman, Herb. Mosque is insensitive; so are pandering politicians. Posted on July 19, 2010 at The Washington Post’s On Faith section. Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/herb_silverman/2010/07/sarah_palin_and_alvin_greene.html.
 Waskow, Arthur. Mosques in America: Rabbi Hillel, George Washington, & my grandma. Posted on August 16, 2010 at The Washington Post’s On Faith section. Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/arthur_waskow/2010/08/mosques_in_america_rabbi_hillel_g_washington_my_grandma.html.
 Quote of Paterson, David (Governor of NY). Blain, Glenn. Gov. Paterson: No objection to Ground Zero mosque, but floats state land for less controversial site. Posted on August 10, 2010 at The New York Daily News. Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/2010/08/10/2010-08-10_gov_paterson_no_objection_to_ground_zero_mosque_but_floats_state_land_for_less_c.html.
 Elliott, Justin. Law prof: Paterson mosque plan may be unconstitutional. Posted on August 10, 2010 at Salon. Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from http://www.salon.com/news/politics/war_room/2010/08/10/paterson_mosque_plan_constitution.
 Bathija, Sandhya. Land Plan Panned: N.Y. Governor’s Islamic Center ‘Compromise’ Draws Fire. Posted on August 11, 2010 at The Wall of Separation, blog of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from https://blog.au.org/2010/08/11/land-plan-panned-n-y-governor’s-islamic-center-‘compromise’-draws-fire/.
 Jacoby, Susan. What makes ground so “sacred” that it provides soil for profane behavior? Posted on September 1, 2010 at Washington Post’s On Faith section. Retrieved on September 8, 2010 from http://onfaith.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/spirited_atheist/2010/09/what_makes_ground_so_sacred_that_people_spill_more_blood_over_it.html.
 Neroulias, Nicole. The Real Story Behind the ‘Ground Zero Church’ Rebuilding Delay. Posted on August 24, 2010 at the Beliefnet blog. Retrieved on September 8, 2010 from http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/2010/08/the-story-behind-the-ground-zero-church-rebuilding-stalemate.html.
 Neroulias, Nicole. Future of destroyed Ground Zero Orthodox church in doubt. Posted on August 23, 2010 at Religion News Service. Retrieved on September 8, 2010 from http://www.religionnews.com/index.php?/rnstext/future_of_destroyed_ground_zero_orthodox_church_in_doubt/.
 Rowland, Jeffrey. Proximity. Posted on August 16, 2010 at Overcompensating. Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from http://www.overcompensating.com/posts/20100816.html.