Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The ground has shifted

This isn't a topic I ordinarily write about, but the growing opposition to the construction of the mosque located several blocks from the World Trade Center is too remarkable to pass comment. Anti-Muslim sentiment in America is not exactly noteworthy. Subtle but not undamaging forms of racism, the kind that can easily remain either unknown to or concealed by the person practicing them, the racial profiling of people boarding airlines or the difficulty of the brown-skinned kid with a funny name to make friends or get a job is not difficult to believe. More overt forms of racism practiced at the extremes, a few signs at rallies or disgruntled web postings, aren't outside the realm of common experience in 21st century America. All of these are problems, but none are unprecedented.

"To bigotry no sanction," George Washington promised the new Republic would give to its Jewish citizens, in a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport. What is remarkable, what I have never before seen in the years I have made that Republic my home, is that we have given bigotry that sanction. We, at least not all of us, have not met these protests with the scorn and derision they deserve. We've given the bigots a place at the negotiating table, the ears and publicity of our press, and the sanction of discussing their concerns as legitimate. We have made the free exercise of religious liberty of a group of our fellow citizens a matter of political debate and social sanction, not a sacrosanct right.

Perhaps I am being too pessimistic. Certainly much of the coverage I've seen has treated it with the scorn it deserves; it's not as if I'm the only one to notice the absurdity of the current situation. Yet The League of Ordinary Gentlemen is just about the model for reasonable, learned discussion, an affable group of ever-so-slightly libertarian leaning fellows who can almost always be counted on give the moderate position on any issue its fairest shake. In a post largely critical of the protests against the mosque, believing it to be creating the war of civilizations that Al Qaeda seeks to create, Mark Thompson has this to say:

I don’t have any real problem with those who take offense at the decision to build this project a few blocks from Ground Zero, and particularly those who take such offense having had deep ties to New York on 9/11/01... I can sympathize with the position advanced by some that, whether or not the project should be permitted, the property owners should choose not to build it in the proximity of Ground Zero.

This sounds immanently plausible. No one, least of all someone writing in a sex positive feminist tradition, ought to be commenting on the reasonableness or unreasonableness of certain responses to trauma. Who's to say how you'd feel if you'd lost someone in the attacks?

The apparent sensibility of this opinion is what, more than anything else, is ominous for the future of religious freedom in our country. Set aside the fact that it seems as if the New Yorkers who would be most affected by the attacks and by the mosque being built by and large support its construction. We've just claimed that it's a reasonable response to grief to blame the members of an entire group for the actions of a small subset of them. We're taking it as read that some dislike of the Muslim community for the actions of their most unsavory is justified. Most importantly of all, we've made it the responsibility of religious minorities not to offend the sensibilities of those opposed to religious freedom. The bigots have a place at the table. Their concerns are justified.

If this is the moderate position- construction of the mosque ought to be permitted under the first amendment, but it's insensitive of the people building it there, if belief in full social sanction for religious toleration has been pushed to the moderate and extreme left... I just don't know. Sometime between 9-11 and today, the ground shifted beneath my feet. I scarcely recognize the polity promised to me in 7th grade civics classes, one that never quite lived up to its ideals but tried its best. Where did my America go?

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