President Barack Obama has stuck to his guns on the building of the mosque at Ground Zero. He supported it, he said initially. Then under attack he restated his support. No regrets about supporting the mosque, he said.
In the speech he gave at the White House Iftar dinner at the start of Ramadan (2010) Obama said the following words – absolutely rightly to anyone who believes in democracy:
” In the Virginia Act for Establishing Religion Freedom, Thomas Jefferson wrote that ‘all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.’ The First Amendment of our Constitution established the freedom of religion as the law of the land. And that right has been upheld ever since…..Indeed, over the course of our history, religion has flourished within our borders precisely because Americans have had the right to worship as they choose – including the right to believe in no religion at all.”
That religious freedom, and freedom not to believe, is clearly a crucial freedom in any society that calls itself a democracy.
Obama is right, too, when he says that there are millions of peace-loving muslims just as there are peace-loving hindus, christians, jews, sikhs, buddhists and members of other religious faiths.
All that may be true. He is also quite correct, legally, when he says members of New York’s muslim community have the right to build a mosque on “private property in lower Manhattan”.
One argument is that muslims in New York, if and when they build the Ground Zero mosque, will be demonstrating to islamicists that religious extremism is a purely negative force and that a “war against islam” exists only in their hysterical imaginations. Further, some argue that if the mosque is built it will undercut the capacity of islamic extremists to attract new recruits, taking away their argument “See, muslims aren’t even allowed to build a mosque in Manhattan.” One good article setting out those arguments is available here.
So Obama is right – the muslim community has the legal right to build a mosque and religious freedoms are precious and need to be protected.
And yet. Opposition to the mosque is not entirely a reactionary knee-jerk. For the individual in the street in New York and elsewhere in the States I’d bet it’s based more on sensitivity and concern for the relatives of the 9/11 victims than opposition to muslims or islam.
Everyone can agree – hopefully – that muslims are not synonymous with islamic extremists. Of course members of New York’s muslim community have a right to build a mosque on any land they own or purchase. But having a right to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it and doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing to do. You may have the right to rev your car up outside a neighbour’s window when you know he’s sleeping – it doesn’t mean you’re right to do it.
New York’s muslim community is well aware that – however strongly they may view 9/11 as a travesty of islamic practice – the atrocity was claimed for islam. No matter in this particular debate that moderate muslims and many non-muslims may reject that claim as grotesque and invalid. The reality is that the thousands who died were killed by people promoting their bloodthirsty version of islam and that’s why a muslim community sensitive to the huge grief and loss suffered by friends and families of the victims would do better in this case not to exercise their right to build a mosque so near Ground Zero.
Of course either ‘side’ could give way. The grieving families and friends could say: “We understand New York’s muslims are not our enemies. We welcome the mosque they want to build.” Or New York’s muslim community could say: “We understand there is an acute sensitivity because your loved ones were killed in the name of islam by people with a grotesque version of religious faith. In order not to add to your heartache we’ll site the new mosque well away from Ground Zero.”
Although either offer would show understanding, I’d say that given the wish for a new mosque on the one hand and the intense grief being suffered on the other, the onus is on the muslim community on this occasion to be gracious and site the mosque elsewhere.