Democracy Isn’t Easy

The Ground Zero mosque: a challenge for the system.

Site of planned Ground Zero Mosque 311 AP (photo credit: Associated Press)
Site of planned Ground Zero Mosque 311 AP
(photo credit: Associated Press)
WHAT AN UNCOMFORTABLE place these Muslims have put us in – the ones who want to build a mosque and a Muslim community center right at the site of the World Trade Center, where 3,000 Americans were murdered by Muslim terrorists on September 11, 2001.
It would have been less challenging for all of us if they had planned to move to some abandoned lot near the vast cemeteries in Queens. But they didn’t. Democracy is never easy and here is a test of our ability not just to pledge allegiance to our flag but to act as real Americans.
This is not a question of freedom of religion, since no one is denying this congregation the right to worship in their own way. It is not a question of separation of church and state, since the state is not enacting laws against the imam and his followers.
It is a more subtle, but equally important matter, of how we think about those who are different from us. It is about how we view the minorities who live and work and pray among us.
Abe Foxman’s Anti-Defamation League and others are protesting the proposed site of the mosque because of a claim of insensitivity to the feelings of the families who lost their loved ones in the attack on the Twin Towers. But what is this sensitivity about? Surely, it assumes guilt by association, and is a code word for profound distrust, incorporating blanket accusations against all members of another religious group. But the anger stems from the actions of a few and that is a very dangerous way to judge whole communities. Jews of all people should know that, and the Anti-Defamation League should not be pandering to this collective fear.
In fact, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who leads the proposed expanded mosque project, has preached and talked at the request of the Bush administration on the importance of tolerance and religious diversity.
He has worked for our State Department under the Obama Administration. He is not our enemy and his congregation will not have contacts with or sympathy for Al- Qaeda. While we can understand the rage and the grief of the September 11 families, the rest of us must remember that Muslims are as varied in their beliefs and characters as any other group, and if we think back to what was said in America about Jews and Irish and Italians, we can only be ashamed that so many in this country once fell into such ugly prejudices against masses of immigrants, who seemed different in dress, habit and faith from the mainstream.
Some Muslims have selected the intolerant and fanatical preachings from their religious texts and others have not. We should not confound the groups and assume the worst of all Muslim peoples.
Some have disgraced their religion with violent acts, which others would never contemplate. The acts of a few religious fanatics are an aberration the world has seen often enough. Baruch Goldstein, Yigal Amir and those who encouraged them also perverted their love of God into slaughter.
Violent Muslims are clearly the enemy, but we must not assume that all Muslims are harboring murderous thoughts. If we do so we weaken the foundations of our country and strengthen those whose definition of America may not include us Jews. We also show the world an intolerant America willing to abandon democratic principles when emotions rise. How can we expect the world to respect our democracy when we ourselves crumble when it is tested? There are millions of Muslims around the world, and it cannot be good for America if they all feel humiliated by us.
It is true that when the Carmelite nuns built a place of worship within steps of Auschwitz, most of us were angry at their presumption in attaching themselves to our tragedy, which had been partly triggered by years of anti-Semitism preached from the pulpit. Moreover, the Catholic Church is a unified organization with a pope at its head. A pope who protected his own but was silent about the murder of others. It is not the prayers of Catholics, which caused objection, but the presence of a united church organization that had not acted when action was needed. The Muslim world has no such central organization and there are as many Muslim belief systems as there are trees in the forest.
It makes me very sad to have the Jewish organization that was formed to combat prejudice and confirm the American dream turn against an innocent group of human beings wanting to live with their traditions and their way of worship, just as we do in so many synagogues around New York City.
I say that, knowing we swallow a bitter drink when we protect the choices of Muslims, many of whose members are truly our enemies here, in Israel and in the Arab world. Galling as it is, we must not let the enemy turn us into bigots. Otherwise, in the end, we will destroy ourselves.
Contributing editor Anne Roiphe is a novelist and journalist living in New York.