By Reynold N Mason JD
Last week as Americans commemorated 9/11, Muslims across America were conflicted. Ramadan, this year ended on 9/11. Good people of the Muslim faith were afraid that any celebrations on their part would be misperceived by angry Americans. Celebrations of Ramadan were cancelled from Fresno, California to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. And to compound the matter, the simmering issue of the mosque at ground zero flared anew because of the proposed Koran burning by a Florida pastor on 9/11. For months now the controversy surrounding the building of the mosque near ground zero has raged, dominating the headlines and providing fodder for the pundits. This issue will not just fade away and our leaders, religious as well as political, need to confront it head on. A few weeks ago, I opined in this space that like all Americans, Muslims are entitled to lay claim to religious freedom, including the right to build their place of worship on private land. But the opposition has been vocal and fringe elements have occasionally crossed the line into violence.
‘Americans are angry’ said one radio talk show host speaking of the mosque controversy, “more than 68 per cent of Americans oppose the mosque at the proposed location”. There were anti-Muslim flare ups in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and in Carlton, NY, where youths harassed worshipers at a mosque and fired a gun disrupting services. Americans are demanding the imam pull up stakes and leave town. Governor Patterson of New York even offered an alternate site on state land. When the governor’s proposal was turned down by the imam, immediately, the motives of the mosque sponsors were looked upon with suspicion. “Why in the name of commonsense “, asked one pundit, “would the imam want to proceed with the mosque in the face of such angry opposition?” This must mean the mosque is intended as a triumphal symbol, marking the place of a great Islamic victory over the infidels. We should bear in mind that the unpopularity of the cause is not the metric by which we measure our constitutional freedoms. The civil rights act of 1964 was even more unpopular. Southern states opposed it, and southern democrats voted against the act in congress 87 to 7 . Southern republicans were opposed 10 to 0.
Americans of every stripe have voiced their concerns. And while those opposed to the mosque have a point, (the site is a virtual grave yard of loved ones lost on 9/11) We must bear in mind always, that Muslims are under no obligation to alter their plans just because we do not wish them to build their mosque near ground zero. And they are under no obligation to cotton to the demands that they choose an alternate site. Rosa Parks was offered an alternate seat on the bus in 1955. Who, in retrospect, would argue, in spite of the cost in blood, that Rosa parks made the wrong decision? Who today would dare argue that those nine black students, who braved angry white mobs and defied governor Orval Farbus to integrate Central High School in Arkansas should have, for fear of reprisals, remained safely at home? Who would today claim that James Meredith, the first black to enroll at the University of Mississippi should have stepped aside, despite the riots that broke out following this historic event? Americans were even angrier then and a good many expressed that anger in senseless violence.
Those who stand in the way of the mosque are just as guilty as Alabama Governor George Wallace who, in 1963, stood in the way of Vivian Malone and James Hood, two blacks attempting to enroll at the University of Alabama. America is too large and too diverse a nation for cultural and religious issues to be always resolved smoothly or without conflict. Neither the mosque nor the Muslims who propose it are a menace to the republic. We can profit from the examples of our own history. Each conflict in our history has seen America emerge stronger and more cohesive, more respectful of the differences in culture and creed that make us unique. The issue of the mosque near ground zero is just one more test of yet another part of the great engine of diversity that drives this country. For blacks, it was civil rights and today for Muslims, it is the incendiary issue of religious freedom that is dividing Americans of every stripe.
Despite pretentions to motivations such as respect for the 9/11 victims, the plain truth is that bigotry has dominated the issue of the construction of the mosque near ground zero. America needs vocal support of the embattled Muslims, not muted voices afraid of political fallout. Principled voices, if they are raised above the guttural level of this fratricide will be the ones that determine whether the present squabble over religious freedom will be an asset or a liability. As Rabbi David Saperstein put it “We know what it’s like when people attack us physically, verbally and others have remained silent…..” Simply asserting their first amendment right to freedom of religion is unavailing to Muslims because of the unprincipled and bigoted opposition to the construction of the mosque. They face foes every bit as determined as the proponents of Jim Crow in the old South. This is a standing invitation to fair-minded people to heed Rabbi Saperstein’s counsel and prove that religious freedoms in America are safe from assault. If this challenge is met, our freedom will be far more certain, and less vulnerable to attack by the forces that seek to divide us. We must put ourselves in the position of those who believe differently from us and consider what they must feel when their appeal to the first amendment is rebuffed simply because of their faith.
This crisis has a silver lining. Unless grounds of religious freedom are fully and often tested and discussed, freedom of religion will become just dogma. Not the living, breathing truth. It will harken back to the dark days of the American past when, despite the often repeated words “all men are created equal” in the minds of most Americans enslaving an entire race could be rationalized. Like children repeating the 12 times table by rote, we would have no idea of the true meaning of the religious freedom gifted to us by our founding fathers. This crisis presents us another learning opportunity, an opportunity to burnish and strengthen the freedoms we all cherish in the crucible of public debate.