“To Mosque or Not to Mosque”
By Rick Ungar
In the 1995 film “The American President”, Andrew Shepherd, the fictional president of the United States, stands before the White House press corps and declares-
“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad ‘cause it’s gonna put up a fight. You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”
While the movie may not be one destined to go down in history as a classic, I have always loved this particular speech as it so beautifully sums up so much of what is behind the American experience.
So, you gotta ask yourself – do we want it that bad?
Are the majority of Americans who have voiced their opposition to the proposed Cordoba Cultural Center willing to accept the construction and operation of this mosque just two blocks from Ground Zero even though they are made extremely uncomfortable by its existence?
I hope so.
Because while I have great and abiding respect for the sensitivity and pain of those who lost loved ones in the 9-11 attacks, the issue before us transcends sensitivities and the wounds that remain so fresh and painful to all Americans. Indeed, the issue before us is about something far more important than how we feel – it’s about what we believe.
The question we must answer is whether we are prepared to defend and extend the very constitutional protections that permit the free and open practice of religion – even to those who bear a commonality of religion to those who launched the attacks on the World Trade Center.
I have no interest in making a ‘pitch’ for or against the proposed cultural center.
There is little I could add that we have not already heard. Tossing out the more inflammatory and outrageous statements by opponents such as Newt Gingrich, there remains a rational and reasonable opposition that acknowledges the Islamic community’s right to practice their religion but believe a more sensitive and pragmatic solution would be to move the Cordoba Center to a different, less controversial location.
We’ve heard the proponents argue that opposition makes no sense considering there is already a mosque just four blocks away from Ground Zero and nobody has complained. There also exists a mosque inside the Pentagon building – also a victim of the 9-11 attacks – which has attracted no undue attention. The area in question is currently populated by numerous porn shops and other businesses that clearly ignore the hallowed ground status of the location. And, maybe most importantly, the recognition that Muslims who want to erect the center had and have nothing to do with the fundamentalist terrorists who seek our destruction.
There are no shortage of heartfelt arguments on both sides and my voice in support of one side or the other would be superfluous.
However, there is one thing I want to stand up for and that is the overriding importance of our understanding and appreciating how many of our countrymen and women have died in places other than Ground Zero to protect each and every American’s right to practice our respective religions anywhere we wish – so long as we are doing no harm. And while feelings may be hurt by the proximity of the proposed Cordoba Center to the site of the World Trade Center attacks, the choice of location does not factor into our understanding of doing religious harm any more than placing a synagogue in the middle of a Catholic neighborhood could be considered doing harm to another.
It is equally important to me that the rest of the world see that we are prepared to accept the construction of a mosque so close to the site where Islamic fundamentalists attacked us. Why? Because how can we hope to pursuade the millions of Muslims around the world who are on the fence about whether we are who we say we are? Ultimately, the war against fundamentalist Islam will not be won or lost by terrorist attacks on American soil or Predator air strikes. These are but the battles and skirmishes in the larger war. No, the conflict will be won or lost by our ability or failure to convince the millions of Muslims inhabiting the earth that our system presents them with a better opportunity to give their families a good life.
It’s not easy to swallow hard and submit to a greater principle when the wounds of 9-11 remain fresh and open. When it comes to such feelings, logic plays a remarkably small role.
It’s about emotion – and that makes it hard.
But, as Andy Shepherd said, “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad ‘cause it’s gonna put up a fight.”
We need to be up to that fight no matter what our sensitivities may be as there is far too much at stake to give in to our emotions. At the end of the day, our emotional response is a luxury we can’t afford.
We have a country and a way of life to protect.