Islam and ground zero

Posted Aug. 23, 2010, at 6:40 p.m.

As the national debate over the proposed construction of an Islamic center in New York City near ground zero has become increasingly heated, it has moved further away from reality. The results, sadly — but predictably — are being seen around the country in harassment of Muslims and vandalism of their property.

Allowing the situation to spin further out of control will benefit no one.

While it is understandable that many Americans feel a connection to ground zero and want it protected as a sacred place, some perspective is in order. The site of the proposed Islamic Center is not in the 16-acre site called ground zero. It is about two blocks away. It is not visible from ground zero and the site of the former World Trade Center won’t be seen from the center.

The proposed 13-story building, which will replace a Burlington Coat Factory that has been closed since the Sept. 11 attacks, will not loom over the area. Within about the same distance from ground zero there are already fast-food restaurants, bars, an off-track betting parlor and strip clubs — hardly what one expects when one hears terms like “hallowed ground.”

There are two other Islamic centers near ground zero and Muslims have been praying near the site of the World Trade Center for decades.

Another common refrain is that a mosque should be built near ground zero when a Christian church can be built in Mecca. The presumed message is that we won’t be open to Islam until Islam is open to us.

This misses the point that America has long been respected because of its openness to — and constitutional protection of — differences in opinion, culture and religion. An Islamic center can be built near ground zero because our Constitution requires that the government not stop it simply because it is unpopular.

A more compelling argument is that the backers of the center should have the respect and decency to build somewhere else. Why then are the same voices criticizing the ill-named “Ground Zero Mosque” not calling on the members of the Westboro Baptist Church to stop picketing the funerals of U.S. soldiers?

The Founding Fathers realized that not all speech would be popular and that some would be condemned. But they were clear that the freedoms they enshrined in the First Amendment were to be protected, no matter their popularity. Allowing the freedom of some — say Muslims who want to gather to pray — to be curtailed, they warned, was the beginning of the end of those freedoms.

Those who say this isn’t about Islam, but about proximity to ground zero must look around the country. A plan to build an Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., has been opposed by the local Tea Party and became an issue in primary campaigns there. “Not welcome” was spray-painted across a sign announcing the site as the future home of the center; another was smashed. A Baptist church recently opened across the street without incident.

Just as most Muslims are moderates and were as outraged by the Sept. 11 attacks as those of other religious faiths, not all Americans are anti-Islam. But, by allowing a loud minority to hijack this issue for political gain, the silent majority loses, and America loses.

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