On its surface, it seems obvious. Who would support the construction of an Islamic cultural center on the ground where Islamic extremists committed mass murder? But it’s not obvious—not at all.
If we dictate who may or may not build a religious center on a piece of land, wherever it is; if we dictate who may worship where, the very foundations of what makes us unique as a nation begin to unravel. The Constitution begins to unravel. Religious freedom is, perhaps, the most fundamental of our freedoms in this great nation. Generations of immigrants traveled over seas and land, sweated and died to find religious freedom here. And so many have died to protect those freedoms. The true test of our mettle as a society is not how we act when it’s easy to wrap ourselves in the Constitution; it’s how we act as a people when it’s not.
I’m going to avoid the issue of whether the group might have chosen a different location or a better location because it’s really beside the point. And if opposition to mosque construction was restricted exclusively to Lower Manhattan, it might be worth arguing. But there has been a frightening rise in vigorous (and sometimes very nasty) opposition to the construction of mosques across the country: from Tennessee to Wisconsin to California.
I was a teenager growing up in Skokie, Illinois when the American Nazi party intentionally staged a march right through the heart of our village—a community in which numerous Holocaust survivors had settled. There was a huge controversy—a national controversy about whether or not to allow them to so disrupt and inflict emotional harm on the survivors and their families with displays of swastikas and much more.
I remember my parents’ reaction that we had no choice as a society: we had to allow the march. It was what our nation stood for—freedom of speech. That march was an intentional and malicious attempt to test the first amendment while being as menacing as possible to people who had been through many horrors at the hand of Nazis.
I am not comparing the construction of the proposed Islamic center to the Skokie Nazi march. They are not really analogous except that both test whether our embracing of the Constitution is mere lip service or real belief. It’s not always easy to be patriotic. It takes more than xenophobic flag waving and an “Us vs. Them” attitude.
The construction of the proposed Islamic center makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. What’s next? Will the construction of all religious centers be banned there, or just Muslim centers? Successfully prevent this Islamic center on “sensitivity” grounds (or whatever that term euphemistically represents) and the next prevented religious center may be yours. Or mine. ‘Nuff said.