Do you support the building of an Islamic community center at Ground Zero? I wouldn’t be surprised to hear this question or a similar one asked during a 2012 presidential debate.
The effort to build a mosque near Ground Zero has recently become something of a national issue thanks to a Tweet by Sarah Palin. Of course, Palin is far from being alone, which prompted defenders of the proposal. Among the best of these is Robert Wright’s A Mosque Maligned. Wright takes on several critics of the community center and makes them look, well un-American. He accomplishes this in two easy steps (or at least he makes them look easy). The first is simply to examine their reasoning, which turns out to be little more than guilt by association — and very loose association at that. This, Wright reminds us, is in the same style as the infamous witch hunts of Joseph McCarthy. Wright’s second move is to base his support for the mosque on our war with Al Qaeda.
“Bin Laden would love to be able to say that in America you can build a church or synagogue anywhere you want, but not a mosque. That fits perfectly with his recruiting pitch — that America has declared war on Islam. And bin Laden would thrill to the claim that a mosque near ground zero dishonors the victims of 9/11, because the unspoken premise is that the attacks really were, as he claims, a valid expression of Islam” (emphasis added).
This is the war of ideas: Bin Laden’s intolerance vs. the U.S’s freedom of religion. Al Qaeda targets adherents of other religions, we respect the rights of all adherents. An open and shut case. I really like it. It reminds us of the first principles of our social contract that binds us together in this huge dysfunctional family we call the United States.
I like it and yet I can’t help but notice that the positive basis of Wright’s argument is war. What motivates this simple act of fairness? War. This seems terribly ironic when one considers that the debate (at least on the surface) is about the location of a community center that has the stated purpose of promoting tolerance and reconciliation. Aren’t reconciliation and compassion the reasons that many people of faith would give in support of the mosque? Wouldn’t most Americans agree that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us? One might argue that Wright comes close to this with his appeal to the First Amendment and its standard of equal respect.
Still, why not begin with an appeal to reconciliation? The community center is intended to be a symbol of our refusal to be alienated from one another by terror, hate, and fear. Why then, allow ourselves to be divided by our deepest and most sacred beliefs? Indeed, wherever we Americans find meaning and purpose, don’t many of us believe in the path of reconciliation and peace? What could be more American?
Perhaps Wright assumed that if he began with an appeal to reconciliation, he’d be written off as dangerously naive. I suspect that many of my fellow Christians would oppose Wright’s position but also that they would be even more resistant to it if he had grounded it on reconciliation. Wright, ironically, offers a more humane position based on war than that of many Christians, whose entire lives are supposedly based on peace.
Similarly, some on the Left would likely judge my question (What could be more American?) to be hopelessly naive. America, they insist, is an Empire dedicated to perpetual war. My question, however, is intended less as a descriptive statement than an aspirational one. If it sounds naive, consider a President who governed a nation at war with itself and still managed to speak of “charity for all.” If it continues to sounds naive, consider an African-American minister who after being stabbed, beaten, and wrongly jailed, still spoke of black children and white children living in peace together. If it still sounds naive, consider the imam and his vision of a welcoming community center around the corner from a place where madness consumed the hopes of thousands. What could be more American?
DAVID TRUE is associate professor of religion at Wilson College, Chambersburg, Pa.