Written by: Michael Baharaeen
With all of the controversy that has sparked over the new Islamic community center a few blocks away from Ground Zero, I feel that many people have simply congregated to their comfort zones on the right and the left and have decided that there should be no dialogue. I will admit that I was part of that group for a little while. I have thought, though, since the issue came to the forefront of national politics that the project, known as Park51, should only be the concern of the residents in the area, not politicians who have their sights set on 2012. But alas, the issue was nationalized, so I feel I must give my two cents. My goal is to look at this using reason and logic.
Trying to distance myself from the wingnuts on both sides, I sat and contemplated all of the factors that were coming into play with this new proposed project – constitutional rights, legitimate fears, constant demagoguery – and realized that this back and forth bickering is not ever going to take us forward; not on this issue, and not on any other issue. Some people, such as President Obama and former Governor of Vermont, Howard Dean, have taken the stance of, ‘Yes, they have a constitutional right to build it, but I’m not sure it’s the greatest idea in the world.’ Personally, I favor the project, mostly on constitutional grounds. But I will admit that it took a fair amount of research before I finally came to the conclusion that there really is not anything wrong with the center being placed in its prospective location.
The First Amendment is not some limited concept, something that can just be revoked or side-stepped anytime someone says or does something offensive. Fred Phelps, the minister from Topeka, Kansas, who protests at military funerals, may be terribly misguided in his beliefs; nevertheless, there has never been a successful lawsuit brought against him. Why? It is his constitutional right to preach vituperative nonsense to the rest of the country. If we start taking that right away from groups that are deemed “too offensive” in their views, where would we draw the line? It is a haunting precedent to set.
I do not want to classify the New York City Muslims in the category of having offensive views or actions, however, because I don’t believe that they do. I don’t think that their intentions are to rile up the people who were tragically affected by the attacks on the Twin Towers. A factor that we sometimes forget in these discussions is that Muslims are Americans, too, and many Muslims were afflicted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Not only did Muslims know that they would soon be facing serious retaliation, but there were also several victims of the Islamic faith that died when the Twin Towers caved in and died right next to their Christian and Jewish brothers and sisters. There is no definitive number, but most sources place the number of Muslim deaths from that day (not counting the terrorists) between 20 and 25 people – about 0.75% of all of the victims from that day. When we compare that number with the percentage of Muslims in America – about 0.6% – one can see that percentage is very similar to the number of Islamic casualties. What sense would it then make to build this center if its only intent was to slap the faces of all of the victims who went through unimaginable pain in the event’s aftermath? Sarah Palin wishes for moderate Muslims to “refudiate” this project, but why? They suffered through the same events as the rest of the people in New York City. Why are they now the one group being singled out and told that they cannot fully exercise their rights?
A lot of people seem to feel it is okay to simply paint all forms of Islam with a broad paintbrush by associating all 1.5 billion Muslims in this world with the few thousand that are responsible for acts of terrorism around the world. Newt Gingrich – who looks as if he is capitalizing on this opportunity to fire up his base in the run-up to his 2012 presidential bid – made a detesting statement in the New York Times comparing the current construction project in New York to the hanging of a swastika next to a Holocaust museum. He basically decided it would be okay to compare the entire Islamic community to Nazis. As Cenk Uygur said, while hosting the Ed Show on MSNBC, “Can you imagine if [Gingrich] did that with any other religion…how about if we didn’t let a church to go up anywhere near the Olympic site because fundamentalist Christian, Eric Rudolph, did the Olympic bombing there…should we not let any churches go up near there because of what [Rudolph] did in the name of [his] church? I know what you’re thinking: ‘but wait, that isn’t my belief; that isn’t my church…why should you punish me or my church for what some crazy person did?”
That is exactly the point that the Muslim community in New York is trying to make. Wayne Besen hit the nail right on the head when he said, “…the former House Speaker has proclaimed that America’s woes are the result of “a secular assault on God. Would Gingrich prefer a non-secular, Christian version of Iran in the United States? The genuine threat we face is not radical Islam but religious extremism of all stripes, including that preached by Gingrich.”
Cenk’s analysis of Gingrich’s comments was just the tip of the iceberg. Huffington Post reporter, Bob Cesca, did some research on both the current ground where the Trade Centers once sat and other historical sites around the country where battles were once fought. He then begged the question to the leading conservative voices in this opposition movement, where have you been? As it turns out, the builders of the new Freedom Tower, which will replace the old Twin Towers, are planning to construct a retail center underneath the new building. This means that the remains of the victims who fell to their death as the two structures came crumbling down will be mixed into the new floor of a shopping mall. Where is the outcry over this development? Another notable ‘moral hazard’ in lower Manhattan would be the strip club only two blocks away from Ground Zero, closer than the new community center would be. Are strip clubs more decent than a place of community activity and worship? Newt? Palin?
But one of the most mind-boggling discoveries that Cesca came across was at the field where the Battle of Gettysburg was fought. Known to be one of the most gruesome battles during the entire Civil War, the blood of 3,155 men was shed on that hallowed ground (that is almost two and a half times the number of U.S. soldiers that have been killed in Afghanistan during the “War on Terror”). And standing tall and proud on this sacred soil is a marble and bronze statue of none other than General Robert E. Lee. This general committed acts of treason against his country, and yet we have a figure of him standing erect and gleaming on the battlefield where unspeakable violence took place. Where are our so-called defenders of “all ground that is holy?”
In all of this, it intrigues me to see the leading conservative activists (i.e. Newt, Sarah and Glenn) taking such noncommittal stand on the issue of First Amendment rights. It must be because “freedom of religion,” to them, means “freedom to choose your denomination of Christianity.” Well, funny enough, a lone congresswoman can contradict that line of thinking. I had the privilege of meeting former Kansas Congresswoman Nancy Boyda while I was in D.C. this summer. She has lived in D.C. for the last few years since leaving Congress. She informed me that she had the chance to visit Mount Vernon on more than one occasion. Apparently there is an old desk on display in the museum there that has a carving hundreds of years old saying something to the effect of ‘we were not founded as a Christian nation.’ Hard as it may be to believe, this nation was NOT founded on Judeo-Christian principles as many from the Christian right like to proclaim. It was founded on the basis of complete freedom of religion; that does not mean that you have to have a religion, and it does not mean that you have to be a denomination of Christianity. All people are welcome, including Muslims.
The political leaders taking a stance of staunch opposition against Park51 are using religious intolerance and the fear of terrorism to rile up their base. Cesca condemned them for these actions, saying that they were “guilty of ginning up anti-Muslim fear and demagoguery to score political points. It’s a cheap and obvious exploitation of the widespread American prejudice that anyone who happens to be Muslim is equally as guilty and offensive as the 9/11 hijackers.” One of the most harmful and significant actions taken by the project’s opponents was to improperly dub the Islamic community center the “Ground Zero Mosque,” even though the mosque is technically the equivalent of having a chapel in a hospital.
And who is the mastermind behind this sinister plan to affront the 9/11 victims? Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. In case you need a refresher, he was the man who, in the aftermath of 9/11, helped the FBI soothe the tensions between federal agents and Muslim and Arab-Americans. The Bush Administration found Rauf to be such a useful asset that they sent him to the Middle East, through the State Department, to promote tolerance and religious diversity. As head of the Park51 project, he has worked with the center’s developers to try and mollify the people’s fears about the site’s future. In fact, al Qaeda kills more Muslims than they do people of any other religions. That bears repeating: they kill more Muslims than people of any other religion. Moderate Muslims like Imam Rauf fear al Qaeda and Islamic extremists just as much as the rest of us do.
So I say to the Muslims in New York City who are preparing to make this new addition to lower Manhattan, please continue your construction on the community center. Yes, people who claim to be a part of the same religion as you committed an atrocious act a few hundred feet down the way, but this country sometimes forgets the heinous acts of terror committed in the name of Christianity. We cannot just throw all Muslims into the same group as the fundamental extremists and then turn around and decide to think of the slaughtering of millions of Jews in the name of Christianity and the lynching of blacks all throughout the south in the name of Christianity as an afterthought.
I do not intend for this to come across as defamation against all of Christianity, but rather a scolding to those who are as fundamentally extreme and show as much intolerance towards others’ beliefs as the Islamic extremists that we are fighting against do. This is not meant to be an attack on those who were directly affected by 9/11, but rather a reprimand of the opportunist politicians that are trying to take advantage of this debacle to advance their own careers. This is about showing Americans, and, quite frankly, the rest of the world that we do not stoop to the low levels of our enemies in the face of fear. We are better than that. We are better than the people who knocked down those towers. Reacting to fear by drumming up religious intolerance will not work if we want to move forward as a nation. We are starting to attack each other from within, gradually doing their work for them. They hate us because we have freedoms, and one of those freedoms is that of religion. Let’s show them that the convictions and values that our country holds are unshakable.