ADL and the Ground Zero Mosque

"If the consortium wants to build it, it can build it. But it would be a very bad idea."

IT HAS NOW BEEN A FEW WEEKS since the story exploded on the pages of The New York Times and in the blogosphere about the Anti-Defamation League’s position on the proposed building of an Islamic cultural center/mosque near Ground Zero, the site of the mass terror attack on New York, in 2001.
The coverage of the story and how so many people reacted to what they thought we said, as opposed to what we actually said, is one of the more interesting phenomena surrounding this event. ADL was accused of anti-Muslim bigotry; denying religious freedom; abandoning the principles for which it stands; and joining with right-wing extremists.
It was only after a few days of misguided attacks on us that thoughtful individuals across the ideological spectrum, from the left and the right, began to articulate a better understanding of what we had said and why we were in the right. In “The Mosque Is Not About the First Amendment,” Martin Peretz, publisher of the New Republic, wrote that “the Anti- Defamation League, which fights anti- Semitism and other forms of religious bigotry, produced an admirably balanced response to the controversy, one that respected both the constitutional and historical aspects of it. While defending Muslim religious freedom unreservedly, the ADL warned that building the mosque at Ground Zero ‘will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.’In other words, if the consortium wants to build it, it can build it. But it would be a very bad idea.
In “Ground Zero Mosque Protected by First Amendment – but it’s still salt in the wound,” on the Newsweek/Washington Post blog “On Faith,” Susan Jacoby condemned The New York Times for its allegation that ADL had joined in the “rationalization of bigotry.”
Referring to ADL’s position, Jacoby said: “To be classified as bigoted for objecting to the location of this project – without denying the First Amendment right to build – is completely unjust.” It was refreshing to receive support from two serious analysts who are staunch believers in the First Amendment. It was equally refreshing that they cared about what we actually had said.
An honest reading of our July 28th statement reveals that it is entirely consistent with ADL’s defense of religious freedom: “We regard freedom of religion as a cornerstone of the American democracy, and that freedom must include the right of all Americans – Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other faiths – to build community centers and houses of worship,” we wrote.
In other words, the issue for us was not the right to build a mosque. It was the wisdom in doing so in that specific location that we questioned.
The initiators of the project presented it as a basis for reconciliation between Islam and other faiths. Given our view that rather than serve as a source of reconciliation, it would generate pain and controversy for the victims and their families, we called on the parties to seek another location.
An element in our decision-making was our experience in the 1980s regarding the building of a Carmelite convent outside Auschwitz, also for the purpose of healing. We took the position that this would be insensitive to the feelings of survivors. People then, as now, accused us of bigotry. We knew we were motivated by sincere concern. Eventually, Pope John Paul II understood and ordered the nuns to move the convent a mile away. It was a good solution which respected both the nuns’ right to pray and the pain of the victims.
We understand that there are legitimate differences of opinion on this subject. What is so troubling about much of the reaction is the questioning of ADL’s motives and intent. Our record not only in fighting against hatred, in general, but against anti-Muslim bigotry, in particular, should have led to a different set of reactions.
We have always been outspoken in opposing anti-Muslim stereotyping and bigotry, especially since 9/11. When Muslims were being targeted and condemned after the attacks, ADL took out ads in The New York Times and other major American newspapers saying, “Don’t Fight Hatred with Hatred.” When the first Muslim member of Congress was criticized for wanting to take the oath of office on a Koran, ADL publicly supported his right to do so.
When an Ohio decision barred a Muslim woman from wearing a religious garment in court, ADL decried the decision. These are just a few of many examples of ADL standing up against anti-Muslim bigotry, as we do for all religious groups.
In our view, the distortions of our position in the media are a reflection of broader trends related to today’s information technology and the polarization of society. Describing what ADL actually said would not have been much of a story. Instead, we got a feeding frenzy linking us to bigots and accusing us of abandoning our principles.
What has become clear to us is that it is more and more difficult to take non-partisan, nuanced positions in our politicized world. But for precisely that reason, it is important for ADL to continue to try to do so, maintaining principle while evaluating the real impact of events. That is what we did in the mosque affair.
Abraham H. Foxman is the US national director of the Anti-Defamation League.