Religious Freedom at “Ground Zero”: A Sea Change Perspective
• Jim Kenney (Thriving in the Crosscurrent: Clarity and Hope in a Time of Cultural Sea Change)
"It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are 20 gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg."
• Thomas Jefferson, "Notes on Virginia"
"Is there any reason to oppose the mosque that isn't bigoted, or demagogic, or unconstitutional? None that I've heard or read.”
• Michael Kinsley, The Atlantic
The proposal to build an Islamic cultural center some two and a half blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center was at first hailed by many progressives and conservatives alike as a gesture of healing and an expression of American cultural resilience. But not for long. Recently a war of words has broken out polarizing families of victims of the 9/11 attack and the broader American populus alike.
Originally entitled “Cordoba House” (in celebration of the coexistence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Cordoba, Spain from the 8th through the 11th centuries), the project envisions a community center with performance space, sports facilities, a restaurant, a bookstore, etc. While the center would include a Muslim prayer area, the presence of the wide range of community services, organizers maintain, precludes the center’s being a mosque. It has been likened more accurately to a Jewish Community Center. One of the buildings that would be replaced by the new construction currently houses a mosque. Near the site of the WTC attack, Park 51 is not at Ground Zero; but that has not prevented the spread of the viral term, “Ground Zero Mosque.”
Opposition to the project has, for the most part, been spurred by the American political right. Charles Krauthammer, Newt Gingrich, and Sarah Palin (popularizing the inaccurate and misleading “Ground Zero” identifier) have all been heard from, while defenders of the First Amendment, like Michael Kinsley (above), have weighed in. Democratic politicians have reacted to the political heat, with Harry Reid, Howard Dean, and even Barack Obama defending the principle of religious freedom, while suggesting to varying degrees that the Islamic cultural center might better be built elsewhere. Feelings are strong on both sides of the debate. The families of 9/11 victims are understandably divided, with roughly equal numbers opposed to and in favor of the proposed center. And, while most American Muslims support the project as an important step toward reconciliation and interfaith understanding, a number of Muslims have expressed concerns about perceptions of cultural insensitivity on the part of the organizers.
Today, while New Yorkers oppose the project by almost 2-1,residents of Manhattan support it, in a recent poll, at the 53% level. Tellingly, even opponents overwhelmingly affirm the constitutional right of the Muslim community to carry on with the work. Residents of the neighborhood in which the center would be built have strongly supported it. It would seem that opposition varies directly with distance from 51 Park Place. That, of course, is an artifact of aggressive political manipulation of the issue.
None of this is surprising, Thoughtful Americans can find themselves on either side of the controversy. Seizing on the issue as a way to score some easy political points is also par for the course. Given the national trauma occasioned by the 9/11 attacks and two subsequent wars, it all makes a kind of tragic sense.
But what does the whole dispute mean in terms of the idea that we’re living in a period of a dramatic “sea change” in cultural values, a change for the better? Isn’t the rise of angry intolerance a sign of cultural retrogression? Doesn’t the apparent rise of “Islamophobia” in America signal a return to religious and cultural intolerance or even to a sort of racialism?
My answer is No. The “Ground Zero” ferment offers, on one hand, a clear demonstration of progressive values-shift and, on the other, a classic example of the creation and intensification of an anti-evolutionary eddy. The controversy highlights a major change in the attitudes of average Americans toward other religions, including Islam. In a recent Time Magazine poll, while 61% opposed building a “mosque” on “Ground Zero” (unsurprising, perhaps, given the misleading rhetoric that has filled the airwaves and countless web pages), fully 55% believe American Muslims to be patriotic citizens and an equal number would favor the construction of a mosque within two blocks of their own homes. This is the shift that tells the story. The majority of polls seem to suggest that opposition to Park 51 can be equated to real antipathy toward Islam and Muslims in only about 20% of respondents. For the rest, the concern seems to have more to do with perceived insensitivity and the stirring up of painful memories.
Imagine a conversation with your grandparents about the rights of “other” religious communities? How similar would their views be to your own? Now imagine (or actually have) that conversation with your own children or grandchildren. Can you discern any signs of progressive cultural evolution—of the decline of intolerance and the growth of interfaith openness? I think most of us are very likely to find exactly that. And how might such conversations have differed even 30 years ago?
One of the most important concepts developed in my book, Thriving in the Crosscurrent, is that of the eddy—a cultural “whirlpool” of stubborn and even angry resistance to progressive values-shift. When mainstream thinking about important issues begins to change, some of us find our core identities threatened. The emergence of values like gender equity, universal human rights, and religious pluralism can be a shock to those who have not had the opportunity or the occasion to reflect deeply on such matters. And when identity is at stake, reactions range from discomfort to disorientation and from resentment to anger and even violence. Islamophobia in some regions of the country is clearly on the rise, but interfaith respect and mutuality have been growing all over the land for the past 40 or more years. Informed respect continues to trump ignorance and intolerance. Eddies of resistance can slow but never stem the incoming tide. And that, I believe, will prove to be the case with the “Ground Zero” swirl.
The outcome most to be desired—and most expressive of the spirit of sea change—has already begun to take shape in calls for dialogue between those who advocate Park 51 and those most directly affected by the 9/11 tragedy. Many family members of victims have called for mutual respect and calm. That call is likely to resonate with those closest to the scene, as a genuine opportunity to overcome the forces of intolerance (and the political expediency that generates them) becomes more apparent every day.
Charles Wolf, whose wife, Katherine, perished in the attack on the World Trade Center, hopes that authorities won’t give in to the clamor and change the site, giving extremists of various persuasions an excuse to lament American “intolerance.” Movingly, he writes,
"The powers of evil were piloting those airplanes," and now “here is where we're falling into the terrorists' trap ... trying to tear each other apart. Good people fighting other good people — does that sound like evil at work?"