Why the NYC Mosque debate is misguided

By Eric Soble

Opinions Editor

It is popular in parts of the media concerned with commentating and editorializing to claim that a debate produces “more heat than light,” or to assert that the mainstream dialogue is “fruitless.” The planned building of an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero is a case in point.

The only reason this issue is a news story is because of the disinformation circulated by the likes of Fox News and the New York Post. The cultural center will not open on September 11th, as Republican Glenn Beck claimed in August on “Fox & Friends,” nor will the center be located “at” Ground Zero as Andrea Peyser bleated in her May column. In fact, the mosque will be built on the former site of a Burlington Coat Factory, two blocks away.

None of these commentators ever mention that there is already a mosque named “Masjid Manhattan” only four blocks from Ground Zero. Nor do they reveal that the Pentagon, another site of the 9/11 attacks, offers Muslim prayer services led by an imam every Friday.

Arguments made by those who oppose the building of the center are not only misguided but utterly laughable. Newt Gingrich has expressed that Muslims should not be able to build a mosque near Ground Zero until Saudi Arabia allows the building of churches. Because our nation should be going toe-to-toe with a government that treats women as subhuman and routinely uses amputation as a punishment for robbery.

Other politicians have labeled the project as offensive to both American principles and the families of 9/11 victims, as if this designation should automatically strip the Cordoba leaders of their legal right to build. This propensity to throw a tantrum over materials or actions deemed offensive is not so far removed from the petulant and illiberal reactions to the Mohammad cartoons. It seems freedom of expression has its enemies on both sides of the clash of civilizations.

Once we get into the business of saying, “You can practice your religion, but just not there, or “you can practice your religion, so long as it doesn’t offend anyone,” we have crossed our Constitutional boundaries. Could one imagine preventing a Christian group from building churches in the south because of the lynching carried out by the Protestant Ku Klux Klan? Such an idea would automatically be dismissed as ludicrous.

I do not personally enjoy any church or mosque or consulate of Scientology being built anywhere, namely because I believe them to be against reason and critical thinking. I do not personally agree with statements made by the main architect of this project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, concerning the legitimacy of the theocratic Iranian regime. But these sentiments cannot be used in a discourse of civil liberties. Regardless of my own biases, Muslims have the right to worship and build wherever they wish.

Those who understand the U.S. Constitution and frame this debate in terms of religious freedom must also understand that tolerance is a two-way street. If Muslims in the United States begin calling for Sharia law courts and censorship of the arts, I hope my compatriots will stand in opposition to this double standard. I hope we do not equate being religiously tolerant with sacrificing secularism; these two principles are more interdependent than we think.

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