NEW YORK – Weeks into the discussion about whether a mosque and community center can and should be built near the site of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, the city of New York (and the entire country) is still hotly debating the issue.
The foremost figure in American politics, President Obama himself, jumped into the fray to offer his opinion. The first-ever Arab Miss USA, the recently crowned Miss Rima Fakih, spoke of her take on the situation, according to the New York Daily News. And now that celebs as well as locals have involved themselves, the split amongst politicians is only growing.
Tensions are high surrounding the issue, there’s no doubt about it. Hateful crimes against innocent Muslim Americans do happen here. And feelings between Muslims and Christians, Muslim Americans and non-Muslim Americans, are never more strained than when conversation trends toward September 11th, terrorism or the World Trade Center site.
There has been a lot of talk about separation of church and state, and other grandiose ideals that we as Americans say we support. And yet, as politicians so often do, most of those that spoke up said basically nothing, or at least nothing of any real substance or value. Those that interjected themselves into the debate, like President Obama, seemed originally to stand by the mosque in principal, but still without wholeheartedly supporting the project. Others straining to make their voices heard were extremists, denouncing the president and all other backers of the mosque project as radical Muslims or terrorists.
That is, until recently. Politicians on every side of the aisle and at every level of government have suddenly felt the need to come out as extremely pro- or extremely anti- mosque. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, rejects outright the idea of relocating the mosque to a less sensitive site on the grounds that we do still have freedom of religion in this country (at least for the moment). But much of the local political establishment is no longer on board. Though he held his silence throughout much of this debate, Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the New York State Assembly, has now come out against the plan, according to an August 25 article in the New York Times.
This issue is really many issues. It is about terrorism, preconceptions, mutual respect, and of course, a bit about the separation of church and state. But the aspect of this debate that is perhaps most important of all is that, at the heart of this issue, is a discussion about religious freedom, and basic individual rights and human freedoms in general. There is no need for the entire government to back the construction of a building, if the site is available for development and if the group ready to build has the funding available and paperwork in order to do it. Will we change this now, because of this one mosque, this one group? Will we now allow businesses and community groups to operate only where the religious majority says so? Will we now, as Americans, allow certain religious groups to build or not build, preach or not preach, depending on where they wish to do it? Is it possible to understand the long-term consequences of beginning such a debate?
And yet, that is exactly what we in New York have done. If we allow pure emotion, public sentiment and political panhandling during an election season to drive the response to the mosque debate, aren’t we, in essence, pushing the self-proclaimed leader of the free world to become a little less, well, free?