THE ISLAMIC CULTURAL CENTER NEAR GROUND ZERO
Controversy surrounds plans to build an Islamic cultural center with a prayer room at 45 Park Place (the site of the former Burlington Coat Factory) just two blocks from the World Trade Center site. This event, like many others in our history (perhaps most notably when Nazis march in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods or Ku Klux Klan members parade about in minority neighborhoods) call upon Americans to determine, fundamentally, whether they believe in the First Amendment rights of those who hold religious and political views contrary to their own.
It would indeed be ironic, a singular triumph for the totalitarians who oppose our Constitution of liberty, whether al-Qaeda, Taliban, or petty tyrants the world over, to see us provoked by dissenting views to abandon our respect for and defense of individual liberty (for the freedom of speech and religion) actuated by the same basic prejudice that motivates them.
Obfuscation of facts is a tool used by those whose bias overwhelms prudent judgment. The cultural center and prayer room planned for 45 Park Place is not a mosque or house of worship for Muslims. The Center’s Imam, however, is a person who has made bizarre, inflammatory statements concerning alleged United States complicity in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Imam Faisel Rauf told 60 Minutes just weeks after the September 11 attacks: “I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened but United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.” Odious as Imam Rauf’s views may be to the majority of Americans, he is fully protected in his right to state them. Were we to present views critical of state dogma in Taliban controlled Afghanistan or in other countries where free speech is forbidden, we might well be incarcerated (or worse). Yet he, having the great privilege of living in a land that defends freedom of speech and press, may speak as he pleases on matters of politics and religion (and for that, whether he admits it or not, he owes a debt of gratitude to this great land).
The terrorist acts that occurred on September 11 were an assault on the very values of freedom on which our country is based. They were spawn by petty men whose hatred for free people and detestation of religious pluralism is antithetical to our most basic concepts of liberty, those ensconced in our institutions of freedom—our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, and our Declaration of Independence. Those petty men are dogmatic adherents of a theocratic dictatorship of their own creation, opposed not only by free people in the West but also by theocracies in power within their own region of the world. They are brutes, not unlike other petty criminals, not unlike the Mafia and not unlike the kingpins who rule international drug cartels. They are puffed up in the creative imaginations of some who would associate them with far more power and ability to effectuate their ends than they actually possess. They are a threat to Americans lives and property but a threat we can, and eventually will, destroy. Their ideas, however, shorn of the violence, are protected speech under our great Constitution of liberty.
We must not make the terrible mistake of presuming American citizens who are of the Islamic faith or who hold views contrary to our own are undeserving of the full protection of our First Amendment. We were founded on the opposite premise. Early in the American Republic, Thomas Jefferson and the Jeffersonian Republicans faced the mighty horror that stems from governmental intolerance of dissent. Censored by the odious Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 that forbad Americans from criticizing President John Adams, the Federalist Congress, or even federal law (a revival of seditious libel despite a First Amendment intended to end that restraint on speech), the Jeffersonian Republicans succeeded in defeating their Federalist opponents in the Presidential election of 1801 and in restoring protection for freedom of speech. In their victory, the Republicans did not retaliate against the Federalists by silencing those who would silence them—the very danger of political control over speech. Rather, in the eloquent words of Thomas Jefferson in his first Inaugural Address, the rights of the minority are to be defended in America and errors of opinion are to be proved through open discussion:
“All . . . will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression . . . . If there be any among us who wish to dissolve this Union or to change its Republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
In short, far from proving weakness, we prove our greatness, our faith in freedom, by defending the legal right of Imam Rauf to have his Park51 (formerly known as the Cardoba House) Islamic Cultural Center two blocks from ground zero. We prove that in the United States those whose religious and political views dissent from the majority are protected, so long as they do not violate the equal rights of others. Peaceful study of Islamic texts, of the Quran and of the teachings of Imam Rauf and others is the right of those who wish to so partake and is a fitting tribute to the freedom of those who bravely gave their lives for this country on September 11, 2001, before and since.
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We should rededicate ourselves to the basic principles of freedom of speech and religion. We must defend the rights of those in the minority to dissent equally with those in the majority to support the orthodox view. While we may take legal action against those who plan the destruction of human life and property even when those who act profess they are doing so in the name of religion, we must respect the right of people to dissent in peaceful ways from religious faiths and political views held by the majority. Let Imam Rauf have his Islamic Cultural Center, let him hold views antithetical to the majority of Americans in ways that would not be possible were the theocracy he so admires established here, let that hypocrisy be the source of free criticism of him, and let him thereby stand as a tribute to freedom of religion and speech.
� 2010 Jonathan W. Emord - All Rights Reserved