The tempest stirred by plans to build a mosque near the site where the World Trade Center once stood contains the elements of the debate that has divided and yet defined the nation since the days before it was a nation. Those elements include the exclusivity of religions, the plurality of culture, the response to a threat from without and the continuous stretching of the capacity of the American spirit to embrace change.
The Islamic place of worship is of course no different from a Unitarian church or a Masonic lodge in that it will be used by a group of people who hold specific beliefs and values. Those offended by a mosque near the site of the 9-11 attacks would be hard-pressed to explain the implied conflict.
Because the 9-11 terrorists were Muslims, does that implicate a religion of some 1.5 billion followers? By this logic, a VFW hall should not be built near the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City because Timothy McVeigh was a veteran.
There have been predictable reactions from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and others who seize on such issues to underscore their vigilance against the nation’s enemies. And the mosque question has been used by New York GOP gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio in a way that would have made Sen. Joseph McCarthy proud. Mr. Lazio has asked his Democratic opponent Andrew Cuomo, who is also the state’s attorney general, to investigate the funding sources for the mosque.
“We seek a clean accounting of all the funding sources for this mosque,” Mr. Lazio said. “Where did the $5 million come from that were used to purchase the land? Where will the $95 million in addition come from to build the mosque? Who is behind these investments? What is their purpose? What is their goal? What is their intent?”
Mr. Cuomo responded unequivocally. “What is the country about, if not religious freedom? What is this state about, if not religious freedom? Well, religious freedom except, ‘I don’t like this religion.’ But then, there might be another government, and they won’t like Catholicism, or they won’t like Judaism, or they won’t like Christianity, then what?”
Religions are inherently exclusive. Christians don’t believe Muslims have the same access to God, just as Jews don’t believe Christians have the God question answered correctly. But from the days when the Plymouth colony was settled, America has been a place where people are able to express their spiritual beliefs, regardless of how well-accepted they are by others. The nation, especially in recent decades, is a potpourri, not a melting pot of culture. Attempts at establishing a mainstream culture that deserves to be on Main Street more than other “outsider” cultures are doomed to fail.
The site of the toppled towers has been dubbed ground zero. Yet the phrase ground zero might also refer to the place where Americans continuously reaffirm their belief in a nation that allows divergent, even conflicting beliefs about God, and does not use such beliefs to cast their fellow citizens as enemies.