Monday, August 16, 2010

American Values and the Ground Zero Mosque

I am sorry to say that personal illness has kept me off this blog for far longer than I expected. (I actually do not plan to return to regular posting until around Labor Day.) However, an issue has arisen that I feel compelled to address immediately, shaky health notwithstanding.

One would have to have lived under a rock for the last couple of months to not know about the recent disputes regarding the proposed building of a Muslim house of worship about 600 feet from the site of the destruction of the World Trade Center by Islamic extremist terrorists in New York City on September 11, 2001. This is the Ground Zero of 9/11, the site of the murder of over 2,700 people by terrorists inspired by radical Islam.

My first reaction, when I heard of the proposed community center, was not exactly “no.” It was “HELL no! No bloody way! Not today, not tomorrow, not any day that ends in the letter ‘-y’!” As a boy living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the 1970s, I watched the Twin Towers go up, and one bright Tuesday morning, I watched on television as the Twin Towers were taken down, thousands of innocent human beings packed within them, mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters condemned to a fiery crushing death because of some terrorists with razor blades.

This was a massive terrorist attack in my own home town, practically in my own childhood neighborhood; I was not myself for months afterward. All that has come afterwards—the dark transformation of American life and the America psyche, the economic disturbances—all stem from this incident, along with the planes crashing in Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania. Placing a mosque near Ground Zero is an insult to many of the dead and their survivors. Imagine placing a monument to the brilliant minds behind the atomic bomb (Einstein, Teller, and Oppenheimer) -- in Hiroshima: yeah, there's a point to the thing, but not there.

And then I understood one further thing.

As an American, I am morally obligated to support the right of Muslims to build their mosque wherever it is legal to do so.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the Bill of Rights (pictured) states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It has long been established that these aspects of the Bill of Rights—the establishment clause and the free exercise clause—are binding on all levels of government within the United States. Beyond that, the corresponding values that the First Amendment stands for—separation of church and state, and freedom of religion—are at the heart of what it means to be an American. If I can’t support the rights of Muslims, I can’t call myself a true American.

Look at it this way. Celebrating freedom of speech means nothing if I am just celebrating the freedom of speech that I like; freedom of speech only really means something if it means protecting the freedom of speech that I despise. Celebrating freedom of religion means nothing if I am just celebrating the freedoms of religions with which I agree; freedom of religion only really means something if it means protecting the freedom of religions with which I vigorously disagree.

Now, it is important to understand what I am saying, and what I am not saying. I am saying that the Muslims have a right to build their mosque wherever it is legal to do so, whether or not I like the idea. I am not saying that I want the Muslims to build there.

In fact, I don’t want them to build the mosque there. I think that it is astonishingly insensitive to many of those whose loved ones were killed by extremists.

The very name of the original project—the Cordoba Initiative—is intensely provocative. The name evokes the era of the Muslim rule of Spain, which lasted from the 8th to the 15th centuries, when Muslims had captured most of the Spanish peninsula and held it for centuries until they were repelled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain around 1492; I am told that, even today, there are Muslim families in North Africa that still retain the keys to their ancestors’ homes in Andalus (Spain), and that they have every intention of returning in triumph some day. (The name of the Cordoba Initiative has since been changed.)

But life in a pluralistic democracy means that I have to find a way to live with people who do all sorts of things that are legal, even if I find them objectionable or even abhorrent. That's the price I pay for having my own freedoms.

I hope that the backers of the former Cordoba Initiative choose to exercise their rights in some other way. However, if they do not, I will have to accept that peacefully. I hope that the readers of this blog, and all Americans, do the same.

This is my position on the affair. It is also, I think, President Obama’s position, which is already being distorted by his political opponents.

In the middle of dealing with our anger over 9/11, let us not forget what it means to be American. This has been one of our major challenges as a nation over the last nine years; so far, I don’t think we have done such a great job. Maybe we can start doing a better job by moderating the national dialogue about the Ground Zero mosque.

[The photo of the Bill of Rights is in the public domain (as a representation of an official U.S. government document), and was obtained from Wikipedia.]

(Copyright 2010 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)


  1. It looks like we see eye-to-eye here...I hope you feel better soon.

  2. Thank you, Alan. It's very good to hear from you, and I hope to hear from you on these posts more often. Be well.


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