The whole Ground Zero mosque/Islamic prayer center has been in the eye of heated debate in the US for the past few weeks, threatening to become yet another political fire-storm for a floundering Obama administration.
At the heart of the whole debate, it is a very straightforward issue. The US constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right of free expression. Provided the proposed mosque meets city zoning laws, there is really nothing one can do to prevent it from being constructed. The US constitution, unlike the Indian one, very rightfully does not consider “not hurting of sentiments” to be a conditionality of constitutional rights, since “protected behavior”, by its very definition, is one that hurts someone or the other which is of course why it needs to be protected through constitutional guarantees in the first place. Given that, the legal rights of those constructing the mosque are absolutely supreme and those who have a problem with it (even though they be the majority) can either try to change the US constitution or suck it. Simple.
What however is murky is whether the decision to have a mosque near the 9/11 site is politically and morally “correct”. Again I stress that notions of right or wrong should *not* be allowed to influence the inalienable rights guaranteed by the constitution (even “hate speech”, as long as it does not provoke violence, is allowed under the First Amendment though it might not be “right”) but there is nothing that should prevent us from debating whether the building of this center will serve a larger good.
What had made the issue so confusing are the two parties arrayed on both sides of the fence—one which engages in a campaign of bare-faced bigotry and the other which creates strawmen, demolishes them and then say “Aah see what smart boys we are”.
The FUD-mongerers, representatives of the Christian right, are represented by the usual suspects—Newt Ginrich, Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, Glen Beck and their medium of hate namely the Fox channel. Their aims are solely political—- galvanizing the angry masses at a time of economic uncertainty, tapping into the pervasive ignorance of a large section of the American population about Islam and brown people in general. The goals are to prevent mosques from being constructed anywhere in the US and the 9/11 mosque is simply a small part of a larger agenda to demonize an entire religion and raise the laughable bogey of the Islamicization of America. When they say “Would the Saudis allow a church near Mecca” they, in a back-handed way express their admiration for the bigotry of Islamic states, by wanting to mirror that intolerance in the US of course in a diametrically opposite way.(In India, we hear analogous arguments as to why we should be more like Pakistan).
On the other hand stand the so-called liberals. Their primary rhetorical weapon, besides wordplay (like how it is fashionable to refer to the building as Park51 or Islamic study center instead of a mosque even though their website says it houses a mosque) has been to create strawman arguments. As an example, they take the statement “This is hallowed ground”, show that there are strip clubs near the 9/11 site and ask “Does this seem like a holy spot?” Of course, they sidestep the fact that the people who attacked WTC did not do it in the name of lap-dancers, which makes the analogy quite besides the point.
As another example of intellectual handwaving, William Dalrymple scolds Americans for not knowing the difference between secular Baathists and radical Salafists (of course he doesnt say how the secular Baathists had over time adopted radical Islamic rhetoric to shore up their regimes in places like Syria and Iraq making the distinction sometimes academic) and then says that since Imam Rauf, the brains behind the 9/11 mosque, is a Sufi he is by extension an enemy of radical Islam quite forgetting the many historical instances where Sufis have engaged in aggressive proselytism as instruments of some of the most radical Islamists . This is *not* to say that Imam Rauf is a radical Islamist but claiming that he is not one simply because he is Sufi is a generalization which one would hope respected historians, while chiding others for generalizations, would not make.
Of course the biggest strawmen have been the humbug personalities of Ginrich and Palin and Murdoch—- lay bare their barely concealed bigotry, hypocricy and unravel their specious rhetoric (a very easy task) and immediately you have your “gotcha moments” (Jon Stewart thrives on this) and your argument is proven—that being that constructing the mosque is the right thing to do because the opponents of the mosque are douchebags.
For me of course the question that should be the starting point of all debate about the “correctness” of the whole thing has to be— what is the reason behind the Imam and his unnamed foreign backers’ stubborn determination to construct not a mosque or a mosque in Manhattan but a mosque as physically close to Ground zero as possible, even in the face of easily anticipated public dissent?
Is it because the symbolism of a mosque in such a location would be perceived as a vindication of the ideals of American secular pluralism and make the green-bandana-ed men in Pakistan and the Middle East bow their heads in shame and introspect as to how they deal with other religions in their own country, thus bringing peace and goodwill?
Or is it because the noble Imam wants to create a political lose-lose situation for the US? If the mosque is not constructed in the face of popular opinion, it will be seen as an expression for US intolerance of Islam in the Arab world, and further strengthen the perception of civilizational conflict that Osama is so fond of. And if the mosque is constructed, it will be seen as a triumph of Islam in the Islamic world which in turn would ossify Islamophobia in the US, strengthen the hands of the Christian bigots, splitting the sides even further apart.
In conclusion, the problem I find with the mosque project is that it is a needless controversy whose only end-result will be to divide and strengthen the hands of extremists on both sides, no matter what happens. However it still needs to be built because, if it is not, then the US and its culture of secular tolerance loses its high moral ground. And that would be a horrible thing to have to come to pass.