Yesterday both opponents and supporters of the Park51 Islamic community center project in lower Manhattan gathered for competing rallies. The New York Times was there and reported on some ugliness that took place:
Around noon on Sunday, Michael Rose, a medical student from Brooklyn, approached some of the hundreds of protesters who had gathered near ground zero to rally against a mosque and Islamic center planned for the neighborhood.
Mr. Rose, 27, carried a handwritten sign in favor of the mosque — “Religious tolerance is what makes America great,” it read — and his presence caused a stir. An argument broke out, punctuated by angry fingers pointed in the student’s face.
The police eventually removed Mr. Rose for his own safety.
Salon.com commentator Glenn Greenwald points to a video of another confrontation that took place at the same anti-Park51 rally. An African-American man wearing a cap that fit tightly over his head walked through, and members of the crowd quickly decided that he must be a Muslim and started shouting anti-Islamic slogans at him. If you watch the video at YouTube (warning: strong language, poor sound quality), you can see the hostile tone of the demonstration. The man who is singled out seems to be simultaneously angry and baffled. For what it’s worth, he denies he’s even a Muslim, but also expresses bewilderment that the crowd singled him out without knowing his opinion on the subject. But his very presence activates the deep hostility of the crowd in a way that looks downright frightening in the video.
In light of all this ugliness, it disappoints me to see that Mother Jones is reporting this morning that several commissioners from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom have come out strongly against the Park51 project. The USCIRF is federally funded and was created by Congress in 1998 to monitor religious freedom around the world and advise the president on the issue. But apparently many of its commissioners lose sight of this mission when it comes to addressing religious freedom at home. According to the Mother Jones report:
In a recent piece for National Review Online, Nina Shea, one of USCIRF’s nine commissioners (who are selected by the president and congressional leaders), wrote that instead of “a cultural center for all New Yorkers,” the “mosque” project could be “a potential tool for Islamists”—suggesting it would be a hotbed of jihadism that, among other things, spreads the literature and ideas of Islamic extremism. She compared the leaders of the Cordoba House project to convicted terrorist Omar Abdel Rahman (the “blind Sheikh”) and accused Fort Hood and Christmas Day bombing coordinator Anwar al-Awlaki. (Shea’s piece, as of Monday, was no longer showing up on the NRO site.)
Mother Jones goes on to point out that at least two of the other eight commissioners also have spoken out against the project, including Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who compared the project to a hypothetical Shinto Shrine at Pearl Harbor and believes it should be moved several more blocks away from Ground Zero.
Never mind that Imam Rauf, the religious leader behind the project, indubitably holds moderate religious and political views. Never mind that the First Amendment to the Constitution is not conditional based on which religion is asking for free exercise. Never mind that one of the lead opponents to Park51 has unabashedly and repeatedly lied about the project. Nina Shea and Richard Land are here to tell you that religious freedom doesn’t exist in lower Manhattan…or that it shouldn’t.
But while many opponents of the Park51 project claim it’s a matter of the land around Ground Zero being somehow sacred, it is nevertheless evident that—as one of the project backers, Daisy Khan, stated yesterday—the opposition has to do with hatred of Muslims more than anything else. As the Washington Post reported today, Mosque construction is facing tough opposition all over the nation, including in Murfreesboro, TN, where opponents to a local Islamic center’s expansion plans carried signs that said “Keep Tennessee Terror Free.”
It is the height of bigotry to blame an entire population for the actions of a few. Mosque opponents are acting as though Islam itself (and therefore all Muslims) attacked America on 9/11, rather than a small band of violent and hateful fanatics. When they say that building the Park51 project is “insensitive” to the 9/11 victim’s families, they are acting as though the very existence of Muslims is what’s offensive.
The conflict over Park51 points to a larger battle over our country’s future. Will the USA be a nation that respects the First Amendment, that is tolerant (and even accepting) of religious minorities, that truly practices the ideal that people should be free to practice their respective religions without interference? Or will xenophobia triumph, fanned by the flames of polarizing political and media figures, leaving the nation as a sort of exclusive zone for the one chosen Christian religion?
It’s a battle we cannot afford to lose. The Park51 project must be allowed to proceed, unhindered. Now is the time for concerned citizens to speak out in favor of the universal principle of religious freedom, which benefits all of us, no matter how we may individually feel about different organized religions. Or will secular humanists one day be saying our own version of Pastor Niemöller’s famous statement? They came first for the Muslims…