Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Mosque at Ground Zero

Practically everybody, so it seems, has an opinion about the proposed mosque to be located in New York near the site of the 9/11 attack by Muslim terrorists in 2001. Even the President has weighed in on the issue (and has been duly criticized by both sides). Sometimes being criticized by both sides suggests that one has embraced some rational middle ground, offensive to extremists at both ends of the spectrum. On the other hand, being criticized by both sides can also be a consequence of an unimpressive attempt to have it both ways, which seems more likely the case in this instance. Yet, while the President’s defense of our American tradition of religious freedom followed soon after by an awkward attempt to distance himself from any endorsement of this particular mosque in that particular place seemed like just some politician’s attempt to have it both ways, it could conceivably have been presented instead as a principled argument trying to take into account the competing values involved in this controversy and allowing a greater role for common sense than ideologues on either side generally admit.

It is, of course, true that freedom of religion is a core American value, and that certainly includes the right of any religious group to worship publicly in buildings they have built or bought, on property they have purchased or otherwise legitimately acquired. It even includes the right to conduct acts of public worship (e.g., processions) in public streets, subject always to ordinary regulations in the interest of public order. No one seriously disputes any of this. Churches, synagogues, and more recently mosques have been built and religious services conducted throughout this land subject to those general restrictions and limitations that are reasonably and generally accepted as rightfully imposed by governments to promote public safety and health and maintain public order.

So, quite apart from whether or not one likes mosques or thinks they are good things, one can certainly accept that our system entitles Muslims to erect a mosque in Manhattan, while at the same time recognizing the possibility that there may be legitimate arguments against its erection in a particular place. Reasonable people can and will disagree about whether those objections represent legitimate public concerns or irrational prejudice.

When the original Immaculate Conception Church was built in Knoxville, TN, in the mid-1850s – on a prominent hilltop overlooking what were then the northern limits of the city – some local people did object. The March 10, 1855 Knoxville Whig warned that Catholics “are a dangerous population much to be dreaded.” The Knoxville Protestant community, however, did not universally share this view. The Mayor, a Presbyterian, even donated an adjacent plot of land to the new parish. Had there been a more rational basis to the allegation that Catholics posed a danger and should be dreaded, perhaps the outcome might have been different.

Thomas Jefferson famously saw Roman Catholicism as inimical to American liberty. History has contradicted Jefferson, and his views now appear as typical Enlightenment prejudice. If Jefferson were around today, with his same Enlightenment views, he probably would have similar reservations about Islam. As with Catholicism, the question of whether or not a particular religious belief or practice is compatible with American values is in part a question of fact and in part a matter of judgment.

Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., famously characterized anti-Catholicism as "the deepest bias in the history of the American people." In 1960, Peter Viereck said that "Catholic baiting is the anti-Semitism of the liberals." Yet the reality is that Catholicism never really posed a significant threat to American democracy. All the allegations to the contrary ultimately could not compete with the plain fact, evident to unbiased observers, that Roman Catholics embraced the American way of life as eagerly as other immigrants. Whatever their theoretical beliefs, American Catholic practice was tame enough to fit into American culture.

Mormonism, though native to the United States, had a harder time because of its very counter-cultural practice of polygamy. In 1862, Congress outlawed polygamy in all US territories. The unanimous 1878 Supreme Court decision Reynolds v. United States declared that polygamy was not protected by the Constitution, based on the longstanding legal principle that "laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices." The official Mormon Church eventually abandoned and proscribed polygamy, rendering mainstream Mormon religious practice likewise tame enough to fit into American culture.

Since its creation in the 7th century, Islam has often been at war with the Christian societies of the West - probably for more years than it has been at peace. As Diarmaid MacCulloch has recalled, for example, in his magisterial history of the Reformation, historians estimate that Islamic raiders enslaved some one million Western European Christians between 1530 and 1640. The decline of Ottoman power after the decisive 1683 battle of Vienna ushered in a period in which Islam no longer posed a significant threat to Western ways of life. To what extent the events of the 20th and 21st centuries have decisively changed that involves an assessment of fact and an interpretive judgment, about both of which there can be – and obviously is – considerable disagreement in the post-9/11 world.

It should not be necessary, however, to resolve all such disagreement in order to appreciate the strong feelings raised by the possible location of this particular mosque in that particular place. In some respects, the controversy reminds me of the 1980s controversy about the Carmelite Convent at Auschwitz in Poland. Like the proposed mosque, the convent was established as a peaceful place of prayer. Some Jewish groups objected to the visible presence of Christian religious life and worship so close to a site associated pre-eminently with the Holocaust. Of course, a great many non-Jews were also murdered at Auschwitz, many of them Polish Catholics (just as Muslims were victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York). Eventually, however, the Church gave in to the pressure to have the convent moved. The larger questions the controversy raised about the tragic events of the 1940s were left unresolved, but the sensitivities of those most directly offended by the convent were nonetheless accommodated. Regardless of where one comes down on the larger geopolitical questions and value judgments, it seems eminently reasonable to expect a comparably similar sensitivity to addressing this controversy in post 9/11 New York.

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