The Ground Zero mosque

How much anti-Muslim prejudice exists in America today? An objective observer might note how little general anti-Islamic feeling there has been since 9/11. Two miles from where I am writing sits the mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, that had connections to the 9/11 highjackers (Washington, too, was hit on 9/11, by the way, which many forget). Nearby, in a Home Depot parking lot, John Allen Mohammed – the radical Muslim convert who terrorized the capital with Lee Boyd Malvo – shot and killed a woman during a 2002 sniper’s spree that left ten dead. Yet if you walk into the 7-Eleven on the corner and see a Muslim clerk, he’s smiling and so are you, without any tension, let alone prejudice.

The recent statement by the planners of a mosque near Ground Zero that the opposition is like a cancerous anti-Semitism appeals to American guilt and worldwide Muslim sentiment. But it will backfire. People here know it’s false and will resent it. In Europe, subterranean anti-Semitism and fear of radical Islam may get it some traction. It’s already inflamed jihadist opinion, which will lead to further resistance here. But it will not do Muslims anywhere much good.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard enough about the mosque. But the problem for me is that what I’m hearing doesn’t seem to address the main question. When NY Mayor Bloomberg says it’s a tragedy if 9/11 results in the loss of religious liberty – as if Islam were being curtailed here – I feel like I’m listening to a political class that’s taken leave of its senses. To put the matter baldly, some of us now think America is merely a matter of legal precedents, not a human community.

Two things are clear: 1. in America, religious liberty is an unshakeable right and houses of worship may be built, allowing for local zoning laws and other reasonable restrictions; 2. there is reason for doubt whether the mosque should be built, as last week even President Obama was forced to acknowledge.

Liberals have suddenly discovered a virtual absolute right for religion – primarily Islam – to be assertive anywhere, any time. Strange, because the Left has for decades sought to minimize religion in the public square. But maybe the new attitude is not so strange – or new.

I think the mosque is a very bad idea for several reasons, as do some American Muslims. They have not been as visible in the mainstream media, but they know that many Americans – about two-thirds – find the mosque grossly offensive. Most Americans are not bigoted towards Islam, but they are not stupid either. The mosque will enable extremists to boast that they have planted a flag at a key redoubt – which the vast majority of American Muslims oppose as well.

Beneath the public political division, however, lies a much deeper one, which has more to do with the West than Islam. The defenders of the mosque typically invoke rights language and regard their cause as a kind of crusade. Clearly, they do not condone Muslim treatment of women, strictness of life, condemnation of homosexuality, or spiritual beliefs. In fact, in international forums, these are the very things that progressives most deplore and work to short-circuit.

So why the enthusiasm? Because the overriding value for them – and even for Christians like Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama now – is tolerance, defined in a particular way. We do not see the same passionate defense of, say, Catholic bishops or evangelical Christians or even pro-America boosters because they are all part of the traditional order that, in the standard liberal paradigm, has to make room – for gays, lesbians, illegal immigrants, and now Muslims. It matters less, evidently, what openness and tolerance are towards, so long as it is not towards America’s traditional religious and political institutions. Opennes has become the supreme and almost sole public virtue. Once that is clear, you can understand why Feisal Abdul Rauf’s proposed mosque can be cause célèbre for a segment of our culture, though he called America “an accomplice to the crime” of 9/11, while a preacher like the late Jerry Falwell attempting similar “healing” would be ridiculed.

The deepest question is perhaps this: what if the sponsors were not professed moderates, but radicals? Or what if the operation is likely to turn radical or is already secretly so? We do not like local or federal officials determining permissible and impermissible forms of religion. And democracies don’t do well with such fundamental threats, since we tend to assume that people basically want to live and let live.

But there are painful precedents. Queen Victoria built a London mosque in gratitude to her Muslim subjects who were loyal during the nineteenth-century tumults. It became a kind of tony establishment Islamic center for over a century. Today, it sells radical literature and videos, and promotes militancy.

We don’t know if this remains a distant or immediate threat in NYC. Frankly, if the jihadists were smart, and many of them are, what better place to give potential recruits a thrill about the future caliphate – the world united under Muslim political rule – than to gather at the very place where you have struck America a murderous blow? Whatever the intentions of the proponents, there’s no simple way around certain truths that make this a deeply social rather than a merely legal question.

It’s unfortunate for the 99 percent of Muslims who abhor extremists as much as we do to be embroiled in such matters. But that’s part of what it means to belong to a civil order in addition to a regime of rights. You promote healing by going beyond the bare law, by showing sensitivity and generosity in concrete ways to those in legitimate and deep distress, which you claim to appreciate. There are mosques all over America and even New York City. To place another one at the moment so close to Ground Zero is a bad idea for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.           

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.