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Elliot Leven


By Elliot Leven, September 20, 2010

Much ink has been spilled about the mosque at “Ground Zero” (the former site of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center).  Some say it is wrong to build a Muslim place of worship on such “hallowed ground”.  President Obama cautiously waded into the controversy by suggesting that it would be wrong to block the Muslim centre from lower Manhattan, but Obama carefully avoided commenting about the proposed site near Ground Zero.

Actually, it would not be just a mosque; it would be an Islamic community centre including a mosque along with offices, meeting rooms, a swimming pool and other facilities. 

And actually, it would not be at Ground Zero; it would be two blocks away.

And actually, it would not be on ground which could even remotely be considered hallowed; it would be around the corner from an off-track betting parlor, and near several liquor stores.

But more importantly, blocking the Islamic centre would fly in the face of human rights and the core values of an open society.

It’s true that all of the 9/11 criminals were Muslims.  It is also true that they believed they were acting for religious reasons.  It is also true that a few American Muslims actually applauded their crimes.

But the vast majority of American Muslims are law-abiding citizens who never in a million years would hijack airplanes or commit mass-murder.  Some of the 9/11 victims were actually Muslims.  In short, if New York Muslims want to build a community centre, they should have an absolute right to build it anywhere they want, subject only to regular zoning laws.

The argument that the centre should not be built because there is no guarantee that, someday, some preacher might preach an extremist message in it, is specious.  Firstly,  America is supposed to believe in free speech, subject to criminal and civil laws. (For example, counselling criminal conduct is itself a crime under certain circumstances.)

Secondly, Muslims have no monopoly on offensive speech.  Some of the most vile and hateful anti-gay speeches in America are delivered in churches.  It should also be remembered that, until not so long ago, many southern churches opposed equal rights for black Americans.

How about sensitivity to the families of the 9/11 victims?  Yes, these families have suffered and they deserve our respect.  However, they do not have the right to veto New York building decisions on irrational grounds. As noted, some of these families are Muslim, and they deserve as much respect as the Christian, Jewish and other families.

The 9/11 criminals had a narrow, intolerant, parochial, self-righteous world-view.  America and other democracies (including Israel) purport to stand for exactly the opposite set of values: open-mindedness, tolerance, and diversity.  I say “purport” because democracies do not always live up to their stated ideals.  But the ideals are nonetheless noble and worth fighting for, not just when it is easy to do so, but specially when it is emotionally difficult.

Allowing the Muslim centre to go ahead would be sending a powerful message to the world:  America really does stand for open-mindedness, tolerance and diversity.  Such a message would actually honor the memories of the 9/11 victims.

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