At last, news reports about the “Ground Zero mosque” are starting to get a few things right. First, the proposed site isn’t at Ground Zero at all, but two blocks north, from which the World Trade Center site cannot be seen and vice versa. The planned community center (that is what many genuine mosques are to Muslim-Americans, but this project’s different) will include meeting rooms, a 500-seat auditorium, a pool, and yes, a prayer space. The avowed model is the uptown 92nd Street Y, which has the same relationship to a synagogue as the current wing-nut pinata does to a real mosque. As New Yorkers who have partaken of its rich store of (mostly secular) lectures, interviews and performances can tell you, that Jewish cultural center has never shoved religion in our faces, and it’s a vital asset to the community. Back downtown, two other actual mosques, dating from 1970 and 1985, have long existed near the proposed center; they’re overcrowded. In one of the three adjacent buildings which would comprise the center – they’ll have to be razed first – worship services are already taking place. Among its tasteful and reverent Ground Zero neighbors are an off-track betting parlor and a strip joint.
I’m amazed, and a little ashamed, at the outpouring of fervor against this construction, and the myths being used to stoke it:
Ground Zero is hallowed ground, so Muslims should have the good sense to worship elsewhere. Hallowed ground? Sarah Palin doesn’t even recognize my city as part of “real America.” Nobody should lose sight of the continuing grief of those who lost loved ones in that barbaric attack. But some of them were Muslim. Let’s try it for the millionth time: we were not attacked by Islam. We were attacked by Al-Qaeda, a ragtag gang of right-wing extremists so nutty that they think they can restore a worldwide caliphate. They’re the Muslim equivalent of the shameful “God Hates Fags” protesters. And by the way, if this ground’s so hallowed, where’d the GOP go when the program to monitor and treat Ground Zero emergency workers died an ignoble “procedural” death in Congress? These selfless, now-abandoned heroes were at Ground Zero, not near it.
Ground Zero is unique, like Pearl Harbor; normal rules don’t apply. That would be easier to swallow if it weren’t for similar protests in other spots like Wisconsin (in hallowed Wilson, patriots threw chunks of asphalt through a newly converted mosque’s windows; “Islamic terrorism begins in the mosque,” said some bird named Rev. Wayne Devrou, without a smidgen of irony), Tennessee (in hallowed Murfreesboro, goons spray-painted “NOT WELCOME” over the “future site of” sign; “They’re not a religion. They’re a political, militaristic group,” said one 76-year-old vet) and California (in hallowed Temecula, the Tea-Party-affiliated protest organizers even encouraged people to bring their dogs, as a deliberate insult to Muslims). By the way, uniformed soldiers of the Japanese nation did attack us at Pearl Harbor, and the Nazis did murder millions of Jews. But, phew, let’s go again: we weren’t attacked by Islam. This isn’t about mourning the victims of Ground Zero; it’s about religious intolerance, pure and simple, and to my shock and sorrow, it seems to be nationwide. I thought we had codified a solution to that problem more than 220 years ago. Which brings me to…
This is a Christian nation. Muslims should just shut up and blend in. While it’s true that most of the founders had nominal religious affiliation (even George Washington, who didn’t take communion or kneel when he prayed; Thomas Jefferson, who did not believe in Jesus’s divinity or resurrection; and Benjamin Franklin, who rarely attended Presbyterian services because he found them dull), and nearly all felt that religion was a healthy influence on the republic, many were “deists” rather than the type of “Christian” represented by today’s evangelicals. They believed in what they called a “prime mover,” or “divine Providence.” That’s one reason you can’t find the words “God,” “Creator,” “Jesus” or “Lord” in the Constitution or any amendment, with one exception, in the Signatory section: “Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.” This method of assigning dates, of course, is also used by atheists; it has nothing to do with religious affirmation. The framers were not dismissing spirituality, far from it. But, mindful of the misuse of faith in centuries past (“I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the Cross,” wrote John Adams. “Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!”), they firmly stipulated that it was no business of the government’s. To make this crystal clear, on June 7, 1797, the Senate unanimously ratified the Treaty of Tripoli with the Barbary pirates of North Africa, which declared that we had no quarrel with the faith of any “Mehomitan” (Muslim) nation, and that “the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” Many American pioneers came to the New World to escape religious intolerance, not to extend it.
It’s no surprise to hear blowhards like Palin, Newt Gingrich (who, unlike Palin, ought to know better), and the full throats of Fox News braying about this “issue”: they’re not running for anything, so there are no consequences to what they say. (But rest assured, Newt: Jon Stewart’s staff is watching all this.) It’s sad when Harry Reid or the Anti-Defamation League – or even the President himself — feel they have to distinguish between the right of Muslims to build a mosque and the propriety of doing so. The NY Post reported that a four-hour hearing, after which Community Board 1 voted 29-1 to approve the mosque project, “got so heated that one young girl, whose father is Muslim and mother is Jewish and who went to testify in favor, decided instead to sit silently.” Could freedom of speech be the next Constitutional right to be literally shouted down? Fortunately, our governing document comes up for a popular vote in only one scenario: a proposed amendment. It’s not meant to bend and sway with public opinion polls. Let’s try one final time: Islam, the faith of 1.57 billion people, 23% of the world’s population (Christianity, counting Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, is around 33%, the world’s largest, but that sure doesn’t make Earth a Christian planet), is not our enemy. Radical kooks are: for example, the “Christian” who walked into a church foyer to murder a physician. If anything can help build bridges of understanding between widely-held faiths, it’s the one-on-one contacts that can be made through cultural centers. Why are we even talking about this?
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) says, “Ultimately I suspect that once this simmers down in a few weeks, people will realize that everybody’s liberty is at stake here.” Congressman, the precise number of weeks is about eleven: that’s how long until the midterms, and you can bet the right will be stirring the pot at least until then. I’ve never been prouder of Mayor Michael Bloomberg than the day he said, “It’s fair to say if somebody was going to try, on that piece of property, to build a church or a synagogue, nobody would be yelling and screaming. The ability to practice your religion was one of the real reasons America was founded. And for us to just say no is just, I think, ‘not appropriate’ is a nice way to phrase it. If you are religious, you do not want the government picking religions, because what do you do the day they don’t pick yours?” If opponents of the mosque get their way, said the mayor, it will be “a sad day for America.” Until recent weeks, I would have expected the vast majority of Americans to agree with him. You live and learn.