By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services
As every sixth-grader knows, pilgrims originally came to these shores in search of religious freedom. Too bad we don’t still practice it.
Even in colonial days, many Americans showed they believed in religious freedom — but only for themselves. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was, notoriously, established as the civil arm of the Puritan religion. Only church members could hold public office, and dissenters or nonbelievers were banished.
Over the years, Catholics, Jews, and Christians have all experienced some form of discrimination. But never has religious intolerance been so publicly and shamefully displayed as it is today, by opponents of an Islamic Cultural Center proposed for Lower Manhattan. You know, the project Sarah Palin has asked Muslims to “refudiate.”
Palin and other Islamophobes put forth three main arguments against the project: that the Ground Zero mosque will be built on sacred ground; that Muslims are being insensitive; and that everybody would go away happy if only Muslims would build their mosque someplace else. Embarrassing, isn’t it?
First, the facts. We’re not talking about a mosque. We’re talking about a cultural center, sponsored by Cordoba House, which would include historical exhibits, an auditorium, a swimming pool, meeting rooms — and yes, a place of worship, or mosque. Created on the site of an existing building where Muslims already meet for prayer services.
The center would not be built at Ground Zero, but two blocks from Ground Zero. On Park Place, a busy commercial street, which is anything but hallowed ground. Indeed, at the same distance from Ground Zero today you can find an off-track betting parlor, a McDonald’s, Burger King, and Dunkin’ Donuts, an Irish pub, hotels, apartment buildings, a pizza joint — and a strip club.
OK, it may not be holy ground, others concede, but Muslims are not being “sensitive” to the feelings of the 9/11 victims’ families. Why go forward with this project, they protest, when 70 percent of Americans think it’s wrong?
Imagine. By their logic, right or wrong is now determined by public opinion polls. God save the Republic! I dread to think of what might happen in parts of the country where 70 percent of the people think interracial marriage is wrong, or integrated schools. By that rule, we’d still have slavery in this country. And, by the way, if the “feelings” of some 9/11 families are allowed to dictate land-use decisions two blocks from Ground Zero, how far does their veto power extend? Over all of Lower Manhattan? The entire island? The entire state?
None other than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put forth the final, fallback argument. “The First Amendment protects freedom of religion,” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley in a statement. “Senator Reid respects that but thinks the mosque should be built someplace else.” Granted, he’s up for re-election (which makes people say crazy things), but Harry Reid knows better. If we really believe in our constitutional rights, surely they apply everywhere — and not just in somebody else’s backyard.
But, of course, we should not expect logic in this debate because it’s not driven by facts or reason. It’s driven by pure hysteria, whipped up by demagogues like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, who leap at any occasion to fan the flames of bigotry in order to score cheap political points.
By using Ground Zero as an excuse to oppose the community center two blocks away, Palin, Gingrich and others dangerously perpetuate the lie that all Muslims belong in the same camp as the 19 terrorists who carried out the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That’s especially nefarious in this case, since Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the head of Cordoba House and main sponsor of the proposed Islamic Center, has served as an adviser to the FBI and the Bush White House on combating Islamic extremism.
They also reinforce the impression that the United States is engaged in a war on Islam, instead of a war on terror: a fallacy that President Bush, to his credit, tried hard to knockdown.
Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden vowed that he would continue his attacks on this country until he had driven a wedge between America and Islam. But even Osama bin Laden probably never expected to get so much help from Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich.
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