The American media, and to a lesser extent the world media, focus on symbolism at the expense of underlying reality. And sometimes they can’t even make sense of the symbolism. The artificially generated controversy over a proposed mosque within about two blocks of the site of the 9/11 attacks is illustrative of this ignorance.
The “liberal” media, which can’t pass up a chance at controversy, has allowed conservatives, who often claim to be defenders of Philadelphia freedom, to shriek that this is not an issue of religious freedom but one of callousness and insensitivity in putting a mosque near the former site of the World Trade Center. The conservatives, however, were certainly leaning on government to use its power to prohibit the building of the mosque using zoning rules, a clear violation of the founders’ intent to ban any law “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion.
Meanwhile, liberal President Barack Obama, in speaking about the mosque, first defended religious liberty, implied that opposition to the mosque violated such freedom, and then later seemed to back off by saying that he wasn’t commenting on the wisdom of building the mosque – just defending the right of a construction permit. Another liberal, Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, also defended religious freedom theoretically, but insisted that the mosque should be built somewhere else. These comments flung the door wide open to conservatives to use public pressure to preempt the building of the mosque.
Yet conservative opposition to building the mosque is based on ignorance. Even if erecting the mosque is insensitive to the pain of 9/11, which I would argue that it is not, the Constitution doesn’t require people or groups to be sensitive to others’ concerns in order to enjoy religious freedom. For example, some Christians hold Jews responsible for killing Christ, but that does not preclude Jews from worshiping freely in the United States. Furthermore, the mosque is being proposed by the Cordoba Initiative, which is dedicated to improving Western/Islamic relations and promoting interfaith dialogue, and the leading person behind the project is from the most liberal and tolerant group in Islam, the Sufis. Lastly, two long-standing mosques are already in the neighborhood of “ground zero.”
Some proponents of building the mosque argue that mainstream Muslims should not be punished for the actions of militant Islamists. Since zoning laws or public pressure have not been used to prohibit the construction of evangelical Christian churches near the sites of abortion clinic bombings, these advocates have a good point. Moreover, not allowing this mosque to be built, whether because of government zoning restrictions or mere public pressure, could help radicalize moderate Muslims around the world. Muslims around the world pay close attention to how American Muslims are treated, because they fear a “war of civilizations” between the Christian and Islamic worlds. When they hear Newt Gingrich say that the mosque would be an example of Muslim “triumphalism,” they are fearful of such a cross-civilizational conflict or may be more likely to become radicalized and say “bring it on.”
Most important, stifling the construction of this mosque would further add to the delusions of the American public about the causes of the 9/11 attacks. Radical Islam had less to do with those attacks than retaliation for long-standing American meddling in and occupation of Arab and Muslim countries. At the time of the attacks, those delusions were fostered by then-President George W. Bush, who, while professing that he wanted no war against Islam, blamed the attacks on al-Qaeda’s jealousy of American freedoms (you know, the ones opponents of the mosque are trying to subvert). Osama bin Laden’s adamant denial of Bush’s assertion, and the al-Qaeda leader’s repeated statements that American intervention in and occupation of Arab and Islamic countries motivate his attacks on the United States, have not yet penetrated the psyche of the American public. Neither has empirical research done by Robert Pape from the University of Chicago, which shows that suicide bombing has a lot less to do with religion and more to do with throwing out foreign occupiers (especially democratic occupiers).
So the media’s and public’s attention to trivia, such as the creation of a third mosque in the neighborhood of “ground zero,” crowds out a national discussion that is sorely needed about why terrorists are heinously attacking the United States in the first place. Perhaps then the contributory negligence of the U.S. government would be exposed to its own people, and an unnecessary, outdated, expensive, and dangerous interventionist foreign policy would be reined in.