Build a mosque, burn a bridge?

It is with great regret that I write this first entry not with hope for a brighter future, but rather with fear of a societal regression. The controversy that has erupted over the proposed construction of an Islamic community centre in the vicinity of Ground Zero in New York risks pushing us back into the depths of religious intolerance, depths from which the human rights movement has been fighting to lift us.

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is undeniable, and without doubt one of the most fundamental rights in a fully functioning democracy and human rights-respecting society. The notion that one individual can hold and express a set of beliefs runs to the very core of what is means to be human and the thought that one religion or belief should be given precedence over another is troubling, to say the very least.

Freedom to manifest one’s religion, however, is not without its limitations. The manifestation of one’s faith is limited to the extent that it cannot impinge upon the rights of others in the enjoyment of their rights, but when a state intervenes to limit the manifestation of one religion, that limitation must be absolutely necessary and it must interfere with the right to the minimum extent necessary for the purpose of protecting the rights of others. If it is not a necessary intervention, the interference cannot be justified. And, if the restriction placed on the manifestation is more than what is absolutely necessary for the purposes of protecting others, it will result in a violation of the right freedom of religion of the group subject to the limitation.

As at today’s date, there is one religion in particular that is receiving rather more attention than others: Islam.

In recent weeks there has been growing controversy over the proposed plans to build a 13-storey Islamic community centre two blocks away from the site of the former World Trade Center buildings. A sharp debate has arisen within the American public, with the news media fanning the flames on both sides. And, there are two clear sides to this debate: one that is for the construction of the community centre, and one that is absolutely against it.

Those who are for the centre argue that those proposing the construction have a right, just like every other American citizen of any other faith, to freely practice their religion and to do so wherever they see fit. This assumes that they should be able to construct a community centre, which will contain a Muslim prayer space, on private property and in accordance with the law.

A further compelling argument for the construction of the centre relies on the fact that the main purpose of the cultural centre is inter-faith dialogue, which will help raise awareness about Islam and perhaps put to rest some of the fears and mistrust that many have towards the religion.

Those who oppose the mosque put forward numerous arguments, which vary in their persuasiveness. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, opponents of the centre argue that it is too close to the site of the biggest terrorist attack in America’s history and, because it is essentially an Islamic community centre celebrating the religion that inspired the 9/11 hijackers, it is insensitive to the memory of those who died in the September 11 attacks and their families. The same people argue that the construction of the community centre is going against the will of the majority of American people.

Secondly, some news channels have also queried the moderate nature of the founder of this project, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, quoting statements he made shortly after the September 11 attacks in which he stated that American foreign policy may have been an accessory to 9/11. This and other statements of the Imam have been adopted by certain media personalities in the US to portray him as a radical Muslim, and not a moderate, peaceful Muslim.

Third, some of the more concerned opponents of the mosque have suggested that its construction is seen by the Muslim world (and its developers) as a monument to the victory that was 9/11 – an act of triumphalism, as some have called it, celebrating another Muslim conquest.

There are other reasons given for opposing the construction, but for the purposes of this entry, I will concentrate on the three above, as they are perhaps those most frequently cited.

My personal position is that any individual should be able to freely practice their religion and, if a Christian house of worship can be in the same area, there is no good reason why an Islamic prayer space should not. If the construction of this centre is not going to interfere with the rights of other religious groups and if they comply with all relevant planning and zoning laws, there can be no legitimate objection from a human rights perspective, in my opinion.

The initial suggestion of those opposing, which I have outlined above, is an important idea. The feelings of others certainly do need to be considered, but they cannot be used to limit the valid right of others to manifest their faith. Many of the opponents of the cultural centre have said that it is too close to the site of the attacks, too close to “hallowed ground” and that it rubs salt in a still gaping wound. But the question must surely be then, how far away is far enough? Further, the suggestion that the community centre is offensive because it celebrates the religion that inspired the terrorists relies on the link between the radical Islamists responsible for the attacks of September 11 and the religion of Islam, but ignores the distinction that must be made between all other Muslims who are peaceful, tolerant and simply want to practice their faith in peace. The proposal may be offensive to some, but many things are offensive and are still allowed to persist. Many individuals would find a gay pride parade offensive, but none of us would deny them their right to freedom of expression.

The argument that the sentiment of the majority should prevail is also categorically incorrect from a human rights perspective. The specific idea behind human rights is to protect the minorities so that they too can manifest their faith and enjoy their fundamental rights and freedoms. If we simply capitulated to the will of the majority on every issue, minority groups would only have protection of their rights when they coincide with those of the majority.

The second argument mentioned above concerns the “extreme” nature of the Imam at the centre of the proposed construction. Two statements are fundamental in this regard. One concerns the idea that America’s foreign policy was an accessory to the crime of 9/11, while the other relates to a quote about America being the most Sharia compliant nation in the world. Personally, I fail to see how these statements can in any way have an impact on whether or not the community centre gets approval to be built. The only purpose this sort of argument can serve is to foster mistrust of the Imam, and Muslims in general, and spread fear of the introduction of Sharia law in America. But, what part of the American constitution allows for religious law to take over? What part of the American population would vote in a referendum for the adoption of the Islamic Sharia in America? There is a clear separation of church and state in America and it is unlikely to be stripped out of the constitution any time soon and, at any rate, by the construction of an inter-faith community centre in New York. Again, the right to freedom of thought and conscience means that we are all free to believe what we want. The Imam may want strict Sharia law (which he doesn’t, but we’re setting up a hypothetical scenario here), but this would not be adopted in American in any event. It would require amendments to the American Constitution and the foundations of American society, which are not going to happen. So, Americans can rest easy in the knowledge that even if the Imam did hold extreme views, they wouldn’t be able to topple the American way of life as we know it.

I think that the third objection to the community centre – that it is an act of Islamic triumphalism – can be addressed in a similar way to the alleged radical views of the Imam, in the sense that this objection really only serves to foster fear and intolerance, and would have little impact on whether or not the site gets the go ahead. What is perhaps most alarming about this argument, though, is that it is purely speculative, with no evidence being provided to support this claim, and again only serves to foster mistrust and intolerance of Muslims. A tenuous reference to historical acts of Muslims who built mosques and shrines at the sites of their great victories is the only source of support proponents of this claim offer and, in the humble opinion of this author, it is unconvincing at best.

On September 11, 2001, thousands of people died in a devastating act of terrorism. But we need to also remember that the real name of Islam, the Islam of my friends and their families, was tarnished. Building a community centre should be a way for us to build a bridge with real Muslims, the Muslims who lived with us before September 11, without mistrust.

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