Anti-Muslim rhetoric recently ratcheting up in New York City
seems but a symptom of a nationwide disease of Intolerance
Sunday, August 15, 2010
by Richard E. Berg-Andersson
As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country: that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable; the principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and will not be treated differently by their Government, is essential to who we are; the writ of our Founders must endure.--
It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of Ground Zero. While the Muslim community has the right to build the mosque, they are abusing that right by needlessly offending so many people who have suffered so much. The right and moral thing for President Obama to have done was to urge Muslim leaders to respect the families of those who died and move their mosque away from Ground Zero. Unfortunately, the president caved into Political Correctness.--
Thus has the political gauntlet been laid down that will now overshadow much else that will take place as we continue to head towards the 2010 Midterm Elections this coming November.
Just in case there is someone out there reading this piece who doesn't know just what is being discussed here, a few salient facts, if I may:
A Muslim organization called the Cordoba Institute wants to build an Islamic community center- which will include a place for Muslims to worship (hence a "mosque")- on Park Place in Lower Manhattan, New York City. The proposed site of this Islamic community center/mosque is two blocks north of the northernmost edge of the former World Trade Center site- now known, seemingly forever, as 'Ground Zero' re: the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Many (but, assuredly, not all- perhaps not even most) "9/11 families" (these being those families which had lost members in the attacks of that day in New York City) are vehemently opposed to this project, largely on grounds that the building of such an Islamic community center (which, from hereon out, I will refer to as "the Lower Manhattan mosque"- if only to keep things simple) is, somehow, an insult to the memory of their departed loved ones and, therefore, offensive to at least those 9/11 families who have so complained: as a result, blocking the building of the Lower Manhattan mosque has become something of a cause celebre in recent weeks and months.
The plan put forth by the Cordoba Institute first had to be approved by the local Community Board: Community Boards are, in essence, arms of the New York City Mayor's Office addressing issues involving so-called 'Community Districts' into which each of the City's 5 Boroughs are divided; there is a Community Board for each such 'Community District' in the City (while New York City may well still have more than a few "ward-heeling pols", it has- long ago- dispensed with traditional city 'Wards'-- in effect, then, these 'Community Districts' have replaced 'Wards'). Among its many other functions, a Community Board acts as the City's equivalent of a Zoning Board or Board of Adjustment, receiving applications for site usage and, where necessary, approving (or not) zoning variances.
Earlier this summer, the Community Board in question (that for Manhattan's Community District 1, which has jurisdiction over most of Lower Manhattan) held rather raucous public hearings on the plan- hearings during which angry and heated exchanges took place- yet approved it unanimously. Opponents of the plan then took their case before the City's Landmarks Commission- on grounds that the building on the site which would have to be razed in order to make way for the Lower Manhattan mosque (it is a rather non-descript cast iron warehouse built in the late 19th Century) should have the status of an Historic Landmark, worthy of preservation (the argument in favor of such preservation was that the building had sustained collateral damage from debris resulting from the 9/11 attacks [such an argument, if accepted as valid, would also have the concomitant effect of extending 'Ground Zero' several blocks on all sides from the actual borders of the World Trade Center site that was attacked on 11 September 2001])-- the Landmarks Commission demurred, noting that there was nothing noteworthy- from the perspective of its significance to the history of Architecture- about the structure in question.
Thus, as I type this, two City agencies have now passed judgment on whether the Lower Manhattan mosque should be constructed and both have approved.
Before I tackle the political aspects of this whole dispute (after all, it would be these very political aspects that would be the main thrust of a Commentary on this website to begin with), I will first- however briefly- turn to the constitutional/legal issues involved:
Besides the rather familiar words of the opening portion of the United States Constitution's First Amendment- that Congress shall make no Law respecting an Establishment of Religion, or prohibiting the Free Exercise thereof- there is an even more significant (not to also mention: much more germane) constitutional provision, one likely not all that familiar to many now reading this piece, this being Article I, Section 3 of the New York State Constitution, the opening portion of which reads
The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed in this State to all mankind.
This is significant for two reasons: first, that it goes all the way back to New York's original Constitution of 1777 (that is: even though New York State has now had 4 different Constitutions in its history, the very wording of this provision has been carried over, unchanged, into each and every one of them) and that the use of the phrase "to all mankind" renders null and void any claim to either primacy or predominance by so-called 'Judeo-Christian tradition' ;
second, that the Greater City of New York of 5 Boroughs- first formed and incorporated by the State of New York effective 1898- is but a creature of that State (local Civil Divisions [counties, townships, municipalities, etc.] of a State of the American Union do not have "sovereignty" as has such a State, the State being the "unitary" jurisdiction in the American federal system) and, therefore, must conform to the requirements of the New York State Constitution even more so than those of the Federal Constitution.
Simply put: as regards its preventing the building of a mosque, the City of New York, legally, can't simply do so because a Muslim place of worship might happen to offend the sensibilities of non-Muslims no matter how strongly they might feel about such an Islamic community center being so close to (or, perhaps, now even within an ever-broadening concept of just what might constitute) 'Ground Zero'. Since, in the State of which the City is both a part and creature, Freedom of Religion "shall forever be allowed in this State to all mankind" (including Muslims), the City is not constitutionally permitted to apply any such "discrimination or preference".
(This, by the way, puts all good pay to such drivel as former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich [R-Georgia], oft-mentioned as a potential candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, saying that the President Obama's statement, as quoted at the head of this piece, is not about Religious Liberty.)
And, speaking of "drivel": there is that very argument that an Islamic cultural center/mosque would be offensive to the memory of those who died in and around the World Trade Center (not to mention those who also died in the Pentagon outside of Washington, D.C.) back on 11 September 2001. For: is a woman in traditional Muslim dress walking along Church St. outside the site of the World Trade Center- or, for that matter, inside the terminal of the PATH 'Tubes' underneath 'Ground Zero' (I personally witnessed both just this past Saturday- 14 August 2010)- offensive to their memory?; if so, are we now going to adopt rules that do not allow those who might be so openly Muslim to even walk the streets of the City "in the shadow of Ground Zero" (to here borrow Congressman King's words as quoted at the head of this piece)?
More to the point: when the 9/11 Memorial at 'Ground Zero' is finally completed, will it be at all offensive to the very memory of those who died there on 9/11 for a woman in traditional Muslim dress to even contemplate- perhaps even pray as regards- the deaths of her loved ones (keep in mind that Muslims died there on 11 September 2001 and I'm not here including those who carried out these heinous acts!-- just as there are Muslims who have taken a bullet for me and my Country in both Afghanistan in Iraq since 9/11)? It is altogether interesting that, in being so filled with hubris- where not also abject arrogance- whilst demanding that their loved ones' memory not be at all defamed, there is little- if any- cognizance taken of the potential offense such hubris/arrogance might give to a Muslim who also lost loved ones on 11 September 2001!
And this now brings me to the political ramifications of all this and I might as well start with the hubris and arrogance of one Congressman Peter King, for it well underscores the symptoms of an even greater disease:
Congressman King talked about President Obama "cav[ing] in to Political Correctness"-- but just exactly what is "Political Correctness"? Let me explain to all of you reading this- especially those of you who read my Commentaries and who happen to live outside the United States of America (and I know you're out there: I may have not necessarily had the time to respond to all your e-mails to me over this now over a decade The Green Papers has been on the Internet, but please know I do read them all), particularly to those of you to whom English is not your first language)- what "Political Correctness" really means:
when someone, in America, says "Well, at least I don't feel I have to be 'politically correct'", here is the correct translation: "Well, at least I'm free to be a jerk"...
and, guess what? In America, the individual is free to be a jerk! It is one of the side effects of Liberty, which includes the right to not have to like, among other things, someone else's religion.... thus, anyone here in the United States of America who doesn't like Islam in general- or Muslims as a group- is certainly free to not so like it and/or them... in other words, if an American so wants to be a jerk- hey! Vaya con Dios...
the question that well begs, however, is this: should jerks such as this be elected to serve in public office?
I suppose that, in at least some senses, being a politician just about requires that one be a jerk, as running for public office itself brings to mind at least the thought 'I can change things... if only because these other shlubs I'm running against sure can't!" ;-)
Seriously, though: once elected (or appointed by someone who has been elected), politicians and other public officials do take Oaths of Office that require them to at least "support and defend" the Constitution of the United States (only the President of the United States, as I've pointed out before on this website, takes an Oath to "preserve and protect" as well as defend it, however)-- if a State official, they must also support and defend the State's Constitution and, if the Mayor of a large city with a Strong Mayor system of governance, he/she must also support and defend, not only the Constitutions of Nation and State but also the city's Charter (which well explains New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's support for the building of the Lower Manhattan mosque). Thus, the comments made by Congressman King- as quoted at the head of this Commentary- are altogether disturbing in light of the fact that, now in his 9th 2-year term in Congress, he has taken the Federal Oath to "support and defend", amongst other things, the Non-Establishment and Free Exercise of Religion clauses of the Federal Constitution on at least nine separate occasions!
But there is something even more fundamentally disturbing going on here and it has little, if anything, to do with mosques being built (allegedly) "too close" to New York's 'Ground Zero' (though it may well underlie the "real" reasons for much of the opposition to the Lower Manhattan mosque- reasons that have little to do with offending the sensibilities of at least some of the aforementioned 9/11 families):
The key to all this is in another comment made by former Speaker Gingrich in response to President Obama's statement as quoted at the head of this piece, in which he said the following: There is nothing surprising in the Presidentís continued pandering to radical Islam. Now, gentle reader, compare this to what the President himself said- thus: I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country: that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. To which Gingrich countered: What he [the President] said last night is untrue and inaccurate. (Keep in mind that, as I have already demonstrated above, the Constitution of the State of New York- over and above whatever the Constitution of the United States might say on the subject- requires exactly what the President here says-- hardly, then, "untrue and inaccurate"!)
Note well that Gingrich's comments originate from someone being "talked up" as a possible future President of the United States!
And just what is the very gist of those comments?-- what herein is the "coded message" to potential Gingrich supporters? In short, that all Islam is "radical Islam"... why this interpretation on my part? Because Gingrich is here arguing that enforcing Federal and State constitutional provisions as regards Freedom of Religion for Muslims in general is mere "pandering to radical Islam" (why?-- because to such as Gingrich and those who support him a Muslim in America can't help but be "radical"-- put another way: no matter how vehemently a Muslim might protest that he or she is not at all radical but, rather, simply- like most other immigrants to this county and their first-generation children- "trying to get over before they go under" [to here borrow a phrase from the late James Brown], no such protest need to be taken seriously since, to a certain elite [one of which Gingrich himself is a part], all Muslims are- by very definition- radical. Indeed, the very problem Muslims in the United States so regularly face- especially since the horrific events of 9/11- is that they can never ever prove, to the general American public, they are not radicalized due to the simple fact that so many Americans (who are, for the most part, wholly ignorant about Islamic religion and theology, history and culture [though I myself am not one of these]) think of "practicing Muslim" and "radical Islam" as synonyms... it is to these that the Peter Kings and Newt Gingrichs of the American political spectrum are- in fact, no less than in deed- pandering (note well that King's own comments have the "Muslim community" [that is: the Umma-- all Muslims] seen as being behind the building of the lower Manhattan mosque!)...
then again: why even bother trying to better educate the American People when one is so completely engrossed in such a cynical bid for victory in a Federal Midterm Election?
Granted that- being a typical American politician (no less than is President Obama himself)- Gingrich has, within his own verbiage, given himself at least some "wiggle room" so as to allow either he or his supporters to opine that he did not specifically say- nor at all mean to give- the meaning which I am herein attributing to his comments: but political commentaries such as my own are, in the main, not at all about what someone simply says but, in fact, much more about what is really meant (else, why write on how one perceives what someone says in the first place?-- after all, we already know what was said: why, then, bother repeating it? No, instead: commentaries, such as my own, are exegetical expositions on the meaning of what someone has said)...
and *I* say, to Mr. Gingrich and his supporters (here using the phraseology of 'Judge Judy' Sheindlin): "don't pee on my leg and tell me that it's raining"!
And, if what I perceive not be at all clear enough, Gingrich then finishes off with his take that the controversy over the building of the Lower Manhattan "is not about Religious Liberty"... ah, yes, the last gambit of the purest scoundrel: 'I have purposely done something untoward but I will attempt to mitigate this by claiming it was never done in the first place' ("and, if you don't believe me, just ask me!" [;-)]):
here, the Responsibility Cult within certain quarters of the Republican Party US has well belied its own standards (under which is strongly decried the failure of others- whom these generally oppose on political, legal/constitutional and sociocultural grounds- to "take responsibility" for their thoughts and actions, "values" which such conservatives see as so sorely lacking in value)... for they themselves have failed to take all due responsibility for their own bigotry- where not also abject hatred!
and, sadly, it's all too typical: blogs and websites so regularly attack Islam but ever disclaim: "these comments are not intended to offend Muslims" (well, buddy, you just did anyway!); a well-known blogger who is most shrill on the subject pays for ads on the side of New York City busses that ask 'have you had a fatwa against you for having left Islam?' or 'Why There?' when it comes to proposed location of the Lower Manhattan mosque-- when said busses run through New York City neighborhoods with large Muslim populations, these Muslims are offended and the person behind those ads plaintively asks 'why?' when (of course [;-)]) no offense was at all intended; the spokesman for a self-described Christian legal group opines, at one of the public hearings on the matter, that building the Lower Manhattan mosque would be the equivalent of putting up a monument to "kamikaze pilots" in the middle of Pearl Harbor and, thereafter, sees nothing at all wrong with such a statement (judging from interviews given to the local media)-- in fact, instead takes umbrage at the fact that there are those who might even take umbrage! (why? very simple-- any Muslim who might be offended by the analogy cannot possibly be a "true American" in this guy's eyes: since all Muslims find- or, at least, should find- offense in such statements, all Muslims must then be, to him and his ilk, un-American, radical Jihadists but mainly... uh... scary!)
And this is really what it's all about: that very Fear Itself which, long ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said was that which was "the only thing we need to fear"...
but it is also very much about "Action confused with Accomplishment":
Look, I well understand the simmering anger that flows from the attacks of 11 September 2001... *I* am angry!... as I myself wrote on this very website in the immediate wake of 9/11, *I* was well familiar with the World Trade Center complex which was an important part of my own life in so many ways throughout most of its original existence... but, unlike that within a healthy chunk of the Right, my anger- at least- is not at all misplaced!
Islam did not attack America on 9/11... and, if anyone should tell you otherwise, they are lying to you.
and I here repeat (in the style of the Apostle Paul in the first chapter of his Letter to the Galatians):
Islam did not attack America on 9/11... and, if anyone should tell you otherwise, they are lying to you!
("Let them be anathema", indeed! [herein borrowing the phrasing in Galatians 1:8 and 9 as found in the Douay-Rheims Version which has been, to Roman Catholics, what the King James Version has been to Protestants, a venerable- highly regarded- translation of the Holy Bible])
Who attacked the United States of America on 11 September 2001? Minions of a radical, fringe element of Islam- a group known as al-Qa'eda and its associated affiliates...
and who yet threatens America in particular and the West in general? Not only al-Qa'eda and its associated affiliates, but also rogue elements of Jihadism in general along with various and sundry al-Qa'eda "wannabes", neither at all directly affiliated with that particular group...
but the Muslim World as a class? Hardly!... indeed, there are whole sections of the Muslim World that have no inherent interest in Jihadism or its aims (such as they are [what modern Indonesian, for example, would really want to be under the governance of a restored Arab Caliphate?-- especially as the future of Indonesia is more closely connected to that of the other Pacific Rim countries?]).
But Republicans want so badly to win the 2010 Midterm Elections (and thereafter- hopefully- use it as a springboard to winning the White House in 2012) that many, if not most, of them have apparently decided to "get into bed" with those who foment bigotry and hatred (if only because these seem to be most motivated to vent their frustrations at the polls)-- those who, yes, fear but then play on that very fear in order to mitigate their fear. Of course, none of these fear-mongers can at all actually do anything about the ever-present threat of Terrorism: thus, their fear-mongering becomes a mere replacement for action, action that- in turn- accomplishes nothing (but may yet make them feel better... maybe... for they ever continue to fear, meaning they must ever continue their fear-mongering... a vicious cycle, indeed!)
And this is playing itself all over the country (again, having little- if anything- to do with the controversies surrounding the Lower Manhattan mosque):
in outlying sections of the City- the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, the Midland Beach section of Staten Island- attempts have been made (in one case, successfully) to keep mosques from being built in those neighborhoods (although part of the Greater City, each is quite some distance from Lower Manhattan)... arguments about such mosques being "too close to 'Ground Zero'" would have had no justification in either case and, therefore, were not even an issue! In these cases, it was merely the rawest antipathy towards Muslims practicing their religion in such areas that was so publicly displayed on the local TV news in recent months (signs reading "Constitution... not Sharia!" when, in fact, the Constitution is that which protects Freedom of Religion and, indeed, the sign-holders wouldn't know what 'Sharia' was if it bit them on their rear ends... but the signs looked so good on television!)
In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the site of an Islamic community center has been routinely trashed and protests against its construction have abounded: in such cases, the signs have been much worse than that I have cited in the preceding paragraph- saying things such as "To embrace Islam is to embrace Terrorism"; some Tea Party-backed Congressional candidates took part in these protests (one of them cited, on her campaign website, her support for 'Faith, Family and Freedom'- support she, obviously, was not at all willing to extend to Muslim citizens of her own State; she also decried the influence of 'Special Interests' on Government, apparently incapable of realizing that both the Tea Party movement and those protesting the building of this Islamic community center are, of course, no less special interests)... last time *I* checked a World Atlas, however, Tennessee appeared to be rather far away from 'Ground Zero' (or is 'Ground Zero' now to be expanded so as to embrace the whole country?)
And what possible message do such things send to Muslims here in the United States, let alone to the Muslim World abroad?
Simply put: if you beat a dog hard enough and long enough every time it barks, it will- at some point- cease to bark-- but you'd probably be best advised to, thereafter, sleep with at least one eye open! Likewise: nothing will create more radicals within Islam more effectively than the above tactics... my noting this is not advancing a doctrine of Political Correctness, it is- instead- Understanding Human Nature...
therefore, treating the rights of Muslim-Americans with the same dignity and respect that a non-Muslim American would demand be shown to those of himself or herself is not Politically Correct... instead, it is, quite simply: the Right Thing to Do (at least in a country which, constitutionally, promises Free Exercise of Religion)- the altogether skewed morals and misguided sense of rightness of a Congressman King (as expressed in his quote above) notwithstanding!
Now- one more thing before I close...
to be fair, there are legitimate security concerns about the building of the Lower Manhattan mosque (though none of the more strident comments against its so being built at all even address such a thing-- the opposition has, seemingly, been far more about its location being offensive, rather than at all dangerous)... its proposed location, for one, is right near the entrances to stations on two different Subway divisions (though wouldn't it make perfect sense to build such an Islamic community center close to mass transit?) but I presume that Federal, State and city agencies working on issues we have- since 9/11- lumped together under the rubric of "Homeland Security" are dealing with such concerns as regards this proposed mosque... after all, there is a provision in that same Article I, Section 3 of the New York State Constitution which states (as regards its guarantee of Free Exercise of Religion "forever... to all mankind") that the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness, or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of this State (and this provision, too, goes all the way back to the original New York Constitution of 1777). Clearly, the "peace and safety" of the State of New York- and its Civil Divisions (including the Borough of Manhattan within the Greater City of New York-- this Borough itself also being New York County, a principal Civil Division of New York State)- includes well vetting such 'Homeland Security' concerns as there might be as regards the Lower Manhattan mosque.
However, absent any overt connection to Jihadist Terrorism, there appears to be no merit to the main thrust of the arguments of those opposed to this particular mosque's erection.
'WHY THERE?'... because there are a lot of Muslims working, where not also living, in Lower Manhattan (again: I saw a lot of same just this past Saturday morning) and, when called to Prayer, these need a convenient place in which to practice their religion as (and so President Obama has himself made clear) they have every right to do.
Were only the alleged "constitutionalists" within certain elements of the Republican Party US willing- and/or able- to even understand this!
To make things even worse, however: you now have more than few New York State Democrats (these- led by outgoing Governor David Paterson- seem to be trying to find a way to be against the mosque without being seen as anti-Islam [good luck! ;-)]) now falling all over themselves seeking a "compromise" solution to the controversy surrounding the Lower Manhattan mosque (such as moving the mosque to another location farther away from 'Ground Zero' [which merely puts these Democrats into the political "ballpark" of such as Congressman King: "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em?" ;-)]) and there seems to be more than a little "OMG! We could actually lose the next elections!!" behind all this as well... of course, when both Major Parties begin taking this position, preservation and protection of Freedom of Religion goes right out the window!
Former Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee (and, like Newt Gingrich, a potential candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination), has called on people to "refudiate" (her word) the erection of the Lower Manhattan mosque... in the end, however: I simply don't get what the big deal really is. *I* first became familiar with New York City in the Fall of 1961- soon after my Mom and my stepDad became engaged and they began looking for apartments into which they (with childhood me, of course!) could move once they were married the following Spring (we ended up living on Staten Island, as it turned out)-- note to Governor Palin: this was all before you were even born!
The New York City I have known for now nearly half a century has always been a place of multiple cultures and races, ethnicities and religions-- a place of tolerance of difference, even where reluctantly- perhaps, at times, begrudgingly- given (or, as one of my friends very recently- where not also succinctly- put it: as a "high population density place, too much conflict and it would explode")... thus, the appearance of such conflict here (regardless of raw feeling engendered by the events of 11 September 2001) is not at all something that bodes well for the rest of America.
Yes, 'tis true New York (even if its denizens might think otherwise [;-)]) is not America... then again, as was pointed out by Max Lerner in his America as a Civilization (penned now more than a half century ago) "neither is anywhere else" (thus, neither Congressman King's Seaford, Long Island nor Governor Palin's Wasilla, Alaska is "America" either: like Manhattan, they are no less merely part of a greater whole)... and, if such intolerance (or bigotry or even hatred) is itself tolerated in urban centers such as New York, then what must be the even higher level of such intolerance, bigotry and/or hatred in suburban and rural areas- or even other, albethey smaller, metropolises- out there amongst the American markwards in which religious and ethnic/racial tolerance might not so necessarily be required nor, at times, even the least bit desirable?
It was precisely to reduce the chances- let alone the obviously adverse effects- of hatred, even violence, that might well be engendered by what the Founding Fathers would have called Sectarianism that the Freedom of Religion provisions of the earliest State Constitutions- and, then, what became the First Amendment of the Federal Constitution- were originally adopted. Thus: the rump Constitutional Convention of the Provincial Congress of New York- among other similar bodies throughout most of the "original 13" in the immediate wake of American Independence- adopted its language (as noted above, preserved in the New York State Constitution to this very day) preserving Freedom of Religion "forever... to all mankind" for that very reason.
This latest controversy over the Lower Manhattan mosque- along with the other similar controversies elsewhere I have cited in this piece- are evidence that the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath (an "aftermath" that has lasted nearly nine years now) are now sorely testing this long ago resolve. But when political leaders choose to cower (while, at the same time, 'kow-tow'ing to the baser forces within domestic Politics) rather than to stand up for such long-established constitutional principle, the whole underpinning of such as Freedom of Religion is in real danger.
On this one issue, therefore, President Obama seems (if only for the time being!) to have come off a far better human being than those who might decry him on this particular front.