2010-08-14

Ground 0

There has been considerable discussion and hand-wringing over the intentions to build an Islamic Cultural Center and mosque near the site of Ground Zero, where the terrorist attacks of 9/11 took place nearly a decade ago. The reaction has been predictable; moderates and liberals have generally supported the proposal, while right-wing bloggers have practically fallen all over themselves to protest the "victory mosque." One might think that, given my uniformly negative feelings on religion, that I'd be strongly opposed to the plan, but my view is actually more nuanced than that.

There are substantial legal and ethical reasons to support this effort. First of all, there's no legitimate legal basis on which to prevent the erection of this center. As a staunch First Amendment supporter, I bristle at the idea of blocking the construction of a religious center simply because the majority is opposed to that religion. That goes even in obviously special circumstances like this - Constitutional freedoms are not supposed to be voided just because of unique circumstances. A group recently tried to get a nearby building certified as a Historical Landmark to block the mosque, a fairly transparent attempt to get around the law. I recognize the group's right to construct this center, just as I recognize the right of Christian groups to build churches in Iowa, silly as I may personally find both endeavors.

I find it interesting to look at the people who most strongly oppose the mosque; "conservative" politicians and others aligned with the christian right. An interesting test would be to see how these opponents would react to a proposal to build a church near Ground Zero. I imagine they would all favor that, which to me represents a hypocritical view of the situation. As an atheist, it's easy for me to apply a uniform, consistent policy to the procedure; if christian groups are allowed in, then so should be muslim groups. Of course, I think an all-secular monument is 100 times better of an idea, and I would object strongly were any public funds applied to either christian or muslim centers near Ground Zero (or anywhere), but I maintain that it's important not to discriminate on the basis of religion here.

Fareed Zakaria makes the point that if America is to encourage a reform effort in Islam, and a shift away to the fundamentalist views that so depressingly often lead to terrorist activity, then a center such as this is a logical place to start. Not only does the mosque's leader extol a far more moderate and peaceful version of Islam than, say, the people who brought down the Twin Towers, but the presence of the center there would demonstrate tolerance for Islam in the Western world.

It's here where my views on the matter shift a bit to the opposition. The notion in the previous paragraph strikes me as overly optimistic. Personally, I don't see such a center effecting any positive change between the Islamic world and the American mainstream (yes, I know there are muslims in America, but for the purposes of this discussion it's useful to recognize that America is mostly Christian). In fact, we're already seeing how divisive even the idea of this mosque is. It's difficult for me to imagine this bringing about any positive dialogue at all - it's not like Christians and Jews are going to be checking out the local mosque as they pass through New York on their way to Ground Zero. I certainly would have no interest in going.

In fact, if I was an Islamic leader purposely trying to cause conflict between Islam and predominately-Christian America, building a mosque at Ground Zero is exactly what I would do. Though it may indeed have noble intentions, that's much different from actually being a wise move, and this plan does to me seem needlessly provocative. This is a case where supporting one's right to do something and their intentions in doing so is considerably different from thinking that action is a good idea.

Neither the mosque's sponsors nor those opposed to it seem to have taken much time to consider the motivations and feelings of the other side. The group trying to build the mosque seems totally unaware how sensitive people might be to the presence of an Islamic center in this of all places, and seems to have deliberately chosen a controversial spot to make a statement. There's a real lack of self-awareness in this effort. Those opposed to the mosque aren't taking a real long-term view of America's role as a leader in individual religious freedom either, and themselves aren't particularly sensitive to the marginalization felt by many muslims in the Western world. Allowing this building won't spark a whole lot of productive dialogue, but I think it would serve as a gesture of goodwill. Many of those opposed to the mosque are putting emotion before reason, as a situtaion like this often pushes people to do.

The best solution, as I hinted earlier, is to keep the Ground Zero monument entirely secular. I know, that's my solution to everything, but in a situation like this where religious involvement is so apt to inflame passions, it seems especially appropriate. Let's not forget or minimize the fact that the root cause of the 9/11 tragedy was Islam. Certain commentators are fond of describing Islam as a peaceful religion and characterizing those responsible for the deaths that day as extremists, but even a cursory glance through the Koran finds dozens of incitements for the devout to kill infidels. It's nice to want "moderate Islam" to prevail, but it's neither factually nor historically correct to suggest that the religion is at its core peaceful or inclusive, though some of its practitioners may be. Given what happened 9/11 and the motivation behind it, the best thing to do would be to simply leave Islam, Christianity, and other religions out of any commemoration of the event. But, if religion is to be allowed, I'd like to see Americans support the mosque's right to exist and to please not cause trouble at the site. I'll do the same.

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