The Issue is Islam–and Religious Freedom

Some folk continue to say that the question in the case of the Cordoba Initiative project in Manhattan is the proximity of a mosque to “Ground Zero,” not the building of a mosque per se. They say the issue is sensitivity, not religious freedom. A couple of Canadian Muslims even claim the plan is a deliberate provocation. On that matter, I trust the judgment of my friend Jill Carroll, who is a friend of Daisy Khan (wife of Feisal Rauf).

But the preponderance of the evidence suggests overwhelmingly that the issue, in fact, is Islam. This is not the only mosque that has met with opposition–the same scene has been played out countless times around the country, as the New York Times reports (via Religion Clause).

At one time, neighbors who did not want mosques in their backyards said their concerns were over traffic, parking and noise — the same reasons they might object to a church or a synagogue. But now the gloves are off.

In all of the recent conflicts, opponents have said their problem is Islam itself. They quote passages from the Koran and argue that even the most Americanized Muslim secretly wants to replace the Constitution with Islamic Shariah law.

These local skirmishes make clear that there is now widespread debate about whether the best way to uphold America’s democratic values is to allow Muslims the same religious freedom enjoyed by other Americans, or to pull away the welcome mat from a faith seen as a singular threat.

“What’s different is the heat, the volume, the level of hostility,” said Ihsan Bagby, associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky. “It’s one thing to oppose a mosque because traffic might increase, but it’s different when you say these mosques are going to be nurturing terrorist bombers, that Islam is invading, that civilization is being undermined by Muslims.”

This isn’t just among conservative Protestant groups. Community pressure also led to the Archdiocese of New York to cancel a contract to sell a former convent to a group wanting to convert it into a mosque.

I think Mayor Michael Bloomberg is right–not only is Islam the issue, but so is religious liberty. He surveyed New York’s history of intolerance toward new religions:

“Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish. And it is a freedom that, even here in a City that is rooted in Dutch tolerance, was hard-won over many years. In the mid-1650s, the small Jewish community living in Lower Manhattan petitioned Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant for the right to build a synagogue – and they were turned down.

“In 1657, when Stuyvesant also prohibited Quakers from holding meetings, a group of non-Quakers in Queens signed the Flushing Remonstrance, a petition in defense of the right of Quakers and others to freely practice their religion. It was perhaps the first formal, political petition for religious freedom in the American colonies – and the organizer was thrown in jail and then banished from New Amsterdam.

“In the 1700s, even as religious freedom took hold in America, Catholics in New York were effectively prohibited from practicing their religion – and priests could be arrested. Largely as a result, the first Catholic parish in New York City was not established until the 1780’s – St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, which still stands just one block north of the World Trade Center site and one block south of the proposed mosque and community center.

He further said,

“Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values – and play into our enemies’ hands – if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists – and we should not stand for that.”

We demonstrate the depth of our commitment to freedom when we support the freedom of those with whom we disagree. Lots of Americans disagree with Islam. Some express that disagreement by citing American values. But if they really believe in those values, including freedom of religion, they will extend that blanket of tolerance to Muslims. Otherwise, they expose themselves as hypocrites–and put all of our freedoms at risk.

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