Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What about the Mosque?

President Barack Obama, who began his administration by using the power of the presidency to inject his thoughts on a local police matter in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has now decided that he should make clear his position on local zoning issues in New York. Subsequently, Nancy Pelosi, exercising a combination of paranoia and authoritarian zeal that would warm the heart of Richard Nixon, made the current President seem almost sensible by suggesting that opponents of the construction of a mosque near the site of the World Trade center should be investigated. While Democratic mindlessness on this issue may be the most threatening, it is hardly monopolistic: Newt Gingrich's thought that New York's decision on the matter should be reflective of Saudi Arabian values has been widely quoted. At this point, the debate, as too often occurs, has degenerated into name calling, with "bigot" and "unAmerican" being the terms of art utilized by various proponents and opponents with a rather tenuous claim on seriousness.

What shall we make of all of this?

The local issue of the construction of a mosque in New York has now gone fully national, with the President and the Speaker of the House having weighed in favorably regarding it, and the Democratic Senate Majority Leader having joined in opposition most of those Republicans who have cared to opine. Bucking elite opinion as represented by the President and most of the traditional media, roughly 2/3 of the American public say they oppose it. Such a high majority against should give pause to those who would simply dismiss opposition as evidence of bigotry or the rejection of First Amendment freedoms. Surely, over the course of history American majorities have been profoundly wrong about many things, and the First Amendment has been litigated with much controversy. However, while Americans disagree over the details, broad acceptance of the right to freedom of religion is a deeply held belief. That 2/3 of the public disagree with the construction of the mosque might imply that other questions are involved here. And, indeed, they are.

The biggest mistake of proponents of allowing the mosque to be built is the presumption that they are arguing a First Amendment freedom of religion issue. They are not.

Opposition to the mosque ultimately is not based on its status as a religious facility for those of Islamic beliefs. Rather, opposition is based on concern as to what the facility might become. No one cares if people gather near ground zero to pray toward Mecca. Americans care a great deal about the prospect that the grounds might become a rallying point for people who view 9/11 not as a travesty, but as a cause for celebration.

Those behind the construction of the mosque could partially alleviate those concerns by making clear, unequivocal statements as to the reasons they are so interested in building in that location. To ask them to do so is entirely reasonable. While the reasons are different, it is a burden borne by other religious groups building or expanding facilities all across the country.

While proponents of the mosque are correct in pointing out that extremists do not represent all Islam, the concern over what the mosque could become is not an unreasonable fear. Indeed, even if the leadership of the mosque holds moderate views -- a point that seems to be in dispute -- it still is conceivable that radicals will regard the area as a staging ground for anti-American protest. Would even Nancy Pelosi deny that possibility? Would she stake her reputation on it?

Religious freedom is no small issue to ignore. Indeed, even the non-religious should recognize it as a subset of freedom of conscience and, thus, foundational to all other freedoms. Even so, those running the city of New York would be acting reasonably if they decided that this facility should not be built so close to ground zero.

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