Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Hysteria Grips Nation Over the Building of an Islamic Center Near Ground Zero

A few salient facts seem to vanish amid the rampant demagoguery of Republican politicians and runaway xenophobia of the usual suspects on the right, but also among those who ought to know better, including Democrats and members of the non-Fox media. The issue: Whether a private Islamic group has the right to build an Islamic community center (not a mosque, although 2 of 13 floors are set aside as a prayer area) several blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.
  • The Islamic community center (it is not a mosque nor is it on Ground Zero) is to be built on private property, an abandoned building that once housed the Burlington Coat Factory;
  • Its religious neighbors within walking distance include at least two churches and one tiny walk-in mosque (closer to Ground Zero) that predate (one church by centuries) the 9/11 attacks;
  • The building shares space with such commercial establishments that include tattoo parlors, greasy spoons, thrift shops, and perhaps a house or two of ill-repute … It is hardly hallowed ground, but rather a fairly typical New York City neighborhood. And given all the empty storefronts, it is an area that could use development and economic activity, as Mayor Mike Bloomberg and other City leaders who support the center recognize;
  • The responsible leaders –- those who aren’t running for the hills in the face of a tough reelection –- President Obama and New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg in particular, have weighed in favoring development the Islamic community center on the proposed site.
The Republican politicians who jumped in to oppose the center on cynical political grounds have been despicable. After the President, and others, eloquently defended the constitutional right of the community center to be built, Republicans realized they could not invoke the Constitution in opposition. (The First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion, is a heavy lift; it’s the 14th Amendment they want to repeal.) So they quickly recalibrated the message to one of “sensitivity.”

John Boehner said building a mosque (it’s a community center) near Ground Zero shows “a gross lack of sensitivity to the 9/11 families and to the people who were lost.” Frankly, this demagogue couldn’t recognize “sensitivity” unless it whacked him in the balls with a nine iron. Texas Republican John Cornyn said the President’s remarks were “out of touch.” The Republican game plan is to milk this controversy as one of their typical hot button campaign issues in the Fall.

The President addressed the issue eloquently, with all due respect for the families of the victims: “Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of Lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. And the pain and the experience of suffering by those who lost loved ones is just unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. And Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.”

But, the President continued, “As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.”

President Obama reminded us that we are fighting Al Quaeda and not the 1.4 billion Muslims in the world, or the millions of American Muslims. In followup remarks one day later, the President said he would not comment on the “wisdom” of building the community center, but only on its constitutionality, which dates back to our founding. This gave Republicans an opening to attack him. From the President’s perspective, however, it’s not wise for him to further stoke right wing hysteria, manufactured or not, regardless of short-lived political consequences. Not now. There is still time to allow Republicans to overplay their hand. Some responsible Republican leaders such as Governor Charlie Crist of Florida, who will likely win the Senate seat as an independent and caucus with Democrats, said Republicans are overreacting.

Whether or not Ground Zero is “hallowed ground,” as the President said, is a matter for reasonable disagreement. I do not believe, in its present dimensions, that it is, principally because a new, titanic building is being constructed on the site. A comparison was made to Auschwitz, where 1.1 million Jews were exterminated in the Nazi gas chambers. When an Order of Carmelite nuns set up a convent in Auschwitz, Pope John Paul II ordered them to leave. Unlike Ground Zero, though, where construction to erect a new commercial financial center proceeds apace, Auschwitz stands as it did at the height of the Nazi genocide –- a stark reminder to the world of the unimaginable horror that occurred in that now-empty and desolate place.

The same can be said for Gettysburg Battlefield, that was consecrated as hallowed ground by President Lincoln and remains largely unchanged by the passage of time. Efforts to turn the area into condominium and commercial development have met with fierce opposition. Once the new Ground Zero financial center is completed and occupied on the site of the fallen towers, how much of this new, massive construction will be “hallowed ground?”

A memorial to the 9/11 victims is certainly planned. It will be hallowed ground, just as the Arizona Memorial site is at Pearl Harbor. But how much of Pearl, where more than two thousand Americans died, remains hallowed ground today? These are difficult questions, but they are not without importance. Would Auschwitz remain hallowed ground if it was razed and flattened tomorrow to make way for a mall where the camp had once stood? Once a decision is made to build over sites imbued with such meaning, do the physical parameters of the hallowed ground change? One could argue that they did not change in Auschwitz and Gettysburg, but did at Pearl Harbor, and will at Ground Zero with completion and occupancy of the new financial center.

Significantly, the area surrounding Ground Zero, as was shown, cannot be considered hallowed ground, much less be of special religious significance to one faith or the other, as the Wailing Wall is to Jews or the Stations of the Cross is to Christians in Jerusalem.

Ground Zero and its surrounding neighborhoods are not religious holy sites.

Although 68% to 32% of Americans oppose development of the incorrectly named “Ground Zero mosque”— many respondents have never been to New York City and probably regard it with suspicion or distaste bordering on all-out contempt. Those most affected by its proximity, New York City residents, favor the community center by a sizable 56%. Not surprisingly, the polling data show a great deal more ambivalence and nuance in the attitudes of the American people.

What has been lost in this ugly debate is that Muslim Americans were among those who died in the towers on 9/11 alongside Christians and Jews and every other victim. What about them? What makes them any different than the other victims?

Among the most vocal opponents of the community center using the issue for political gain, stoking hatred and xenophobia, none has been more despicable than Newt Gingrich. He compared the building of the Islamic community center to putting a Nazi sign next the Holocaust Museum. It’s probably the single most offensive thing this pompous windbag who would be president has ever uttered. Not only has he offended millions of Muslim Americans who have no connection whatsoever to terrorism, but he painted the entire Islamic faith with the broad brush of Nazism. And this, even as 17 million Pakistani Muslims face a humanitarian catastrophe in flood-ravaged lands, requiring immediate relief.

Inciting hatred and bigotry against those who cannot defend themselves is what demagogues and bullies do. The media outside Fox “News” has been irresponsible as well. This is how one arrogant, self-absorbed CNN anchor reacted. Despite certain news accounts that chose to quote one organization of 9/11 families who are opposed to the community center over others, for maximum conflict, in truth the families are not monolithic. They are divided in their sentiments. I was particularly struck by what Charles Wolf said in this excerpted news story of 9/11 families’ reactions:
Charles Wolf of New York City lost his wife, Katherine, in the attacks. “She was a wonderful girl,” said Wolf, 56.

He said he supports the Muslim community center “100 percent.”

“I'm not going to brand any group for the actions of a few of the fringe,” Wolf said. “The fact that the extremists who did this to us have now moved us in this direction through our fear and hatred, to be exactly like them ... it will come back to haunt us.”

He accused certain politicians, like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, of using the controversy over the community center to “foster a public backlash against Muslims.” Giuliani called the project “a desecration” on the conservative Jeff Katz radio show this week.

Wolf thinks that sentiment is wrong, and said Americans can't support the rights of certain groups over others.

“This country was founded on the principles of religious freedom for all,” he said. “Are we going to start denying that to people? If we start doing that we start dismantling the values this country was founded upon.”
In the final analysis, religious freedom is not subject to “sensitivity” or bigotry. It is a right conferred to us by the Constitution. Whether or not an Islamic community center (and mosque) should be developed near Ground Zero is a local not a national, or presidential, or congressional decision. The decent, American thing to do is reject the hate of Newt Gingrich and stand with Charles Wolf and the memory of his wife, who died on 9/11.

The message here is that we will always remember and honor the victims of 9/11. But life and living must, and should, go on.

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