On Friday night, the President of the United States plunged into the long-simmering controversy surrounding a proposed Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan, mischaracterizing the underlying issues while avoiding a clear position on the project itself. In his carefully prepared remarks to a religious Muslim audience, Mr. Obama chastised opponents of the Mosque for disregarding time-honored principles of religious liberty, and interfering with freedom of worship for Muslims. The next day, he insisted that he never meant to express an opinion on the wisdom or suitability of the specific site for the new center, implying that he might even sympathize with calls for its relocation.
In the process of his unfolding explanations, the president seemed to be arguing with phantoms, or with straw men. None of the prominent critics of Cordoba House deny that Muslims deserve the same freedom as other religious groups to build houses of worship to serve their adherents.
But no faith community can use religious liberty as an excuse to build whatever they want wherever they want it. All major projects – whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or secular – must pass tests of suitability and, in some cases, change plans to accommodate community concerns.
In the case of this particular project, the widespread discomfort goes far beyond worries of direct connections with Al Qaeda or other radicals.
No, all Muslims aren’t the same, but all Mosques are the same, in one important sense at least: they all celebrate Islam. They exalt its teachings, traditions, history and adherents.
Yes, American Muslims enjoy a right to celebrate their faith in their mosques.
But it remains wildly inappropriate to celebrate and glorify one particular faith at the scene of one of the most notorious crimes in its history.
The lot Imam Rauf has selected holds no sacred meaning for Muslims, but profound significance to the families and friends who lost loved ones in the immediate vicinity. Only one important event in Islamic history ever occurred near the site proposed for the most ambitious Muslim center in the nation – and that event involved the mass murder of 3,000 American innocents.
If moderate Muslims seek to build on this particular site they should be a mourning monument to the fallen, with explicit acknowledgement of the twisted, evil theology that motivated their killers. It shouldn’t be a glitzy, 13-story, triumphal structure that aims to become the most visible national center for Islamic faith and culture.
The insistence on creating such a building on such a place sends a dishonest, disturbing message: that Islam itself bears no special connection to the attacks of 9/11, and that the Mosque’s planners feel no shame over their co-religionists who planned and executed those crimes.
There’s only one other possible interpretation of the stubborn refusal to relocate the project, and it’s even more alarming: that in some way, the mosque builders aren’t ashamed at what occurred at Ground Zero, they are actually proud of it.
This relates to the understandably complex reaction of even some sane, decent Muslims to the revolting misdeeds of the radicals who share essential elements of their faith. Yes, they’re all horrified by the bloody deeds of Osama and his henchmen but those crimes brought Islam back to the center stage of world events, ending the sense of irrelevance and impotence. In a similar way, the Cordoba House project is an effort to bring new prominence and attention to a religious faith that claims 1% of the U.S. population (according to the best available figures) – an effort that is successfully using the public controversy and sense of outrage to achieve its over-arching goal of seizing the spotlight.
Muslims of every orientation should feel shame and regret at Ground Zero – even those Muslims who never endorsed or sanctioned jihadist terror. All Christians feel ashamed at sites where their clergy and crusaders twisted the faith and perpetrated horrors – even if those atrocities occurred hundreds of years ago. No contemporary Christian would propose a gleaming, soaring new religious structure adjacent to the site of some bloody pogrom or massacre visited upon innocent victims in the name of Christ.
Scenes of horrific carnage should never become the focus for pride and glorification of the creed that inspired the mass murderers. Those sites must honor the dead, not their killers.
The determination to go forward with the controversial mosque, and the president’s dismissive tone in defending those plans, both try to deny or erase the connection between Islamic teachings and the terrorists who murdered in their name.
In his speech on the subject, Mr. Obama stoutly declared, “This is America” – as if only one side of the argument represented true American values.
Actually, one of our most important national traditions involves the emphasis on personal responsibility and accountability. Any effort to ignore (or, even worse, to glorify) the connection between Islam and the crimes of September 11th is an insult – and an assault – on that proud American principle.