At a White House dinner on August 13th, President Obama defended the building of a mosque in lower Manhattan on First Amendment grounds. As I see it, the president was correct about the constitutional issues involved, but he was myopic about the context, i.e., the effrontery of building a symbol of Islam at the doorstep of the site where terrorists killed in the name of Islam.
September 11th lives for residents of downtown New York. The World Trade Center site is a constant reminder of human malevolence. It also speaks to political incompetence and of politicians compromised by double-dealing and arrogance.
While the site shows signs of rebirth and a tribute will be built to remind Americans of the 2,800 innocent people who lost their lives there, an insult deep and penetrating is being launched two blocks away, on Park Place, where an Islamic group is building a mosque that will overlook the World Trade Center site.
Mayor Bloomberg and the Downtown Community Board approved the mosque’s construction, citing freedom of religion arguments. What they overlooked, however, is far more persuasive than First Amendment defenses.
Freedom of religion, like any freedom, is not absolute; freedom is defined by its limitations. Indians are not free to use peyote indiscriminately in religious services, because drug use violates the law of the land. And a religion that promotes hate or is an incitement to violence should be and can be curbed.
In the case of the downtown mosque, several questions remain unanswered. For instance, if a mosque can be built anywhere, why is it being built adjacent to the former World Trade Center? Although denials abound, the title of the mosque — Cordoba House — reveals a great deal. In Cordoba, an ancient city in southern Spain, Muslims built a mosque on the site of a Catholic church in order to celebrate the Muslim conquest of Spain. That same symbolism may be evident at the New York site as well.
It is also instructive that the origin of the $100 million that has been allocated for the project remains unknown. My guess is that the mosque is being funded by Saudi petro dollars. If true, this mosque is likely to promote Wahhabism — the most radical brand of Islam.
The promoters of the mosque say that they are Americans who love their country and eschew violence of any kind. Yet they refuse to condemn Hamas and refuse to recognize it as a terrorist organization.
What this episode reveals is a form of liberal myopia: an unwillingness to recognize the optics in this situation. For Muslims who deplore the West in general and the “Great U.S. Demon” in particular, this mosque is a symbol of victory. It shows that America doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude to resist its enemies. Building a mosque at Ground Zero is like building a Shinto temple at the Arizona Memorial or a Nazi cultural center at Auschwitz. There are lines to be drawn on the matter of taste, patriotism and appropriateness that transcend reflexive adherence to the First Amendment.
As far as I know, no one is arguing against the construction of mosques. But when a religion promotes hate against other faiths, believes apostates and other believers are less than human, argues against the separation of church and state, and is eager to undermine the Constitution, an argument can be made that this religion engages in sedition and should be banned or, at least, censured.
At this point, the politicians have spoken. The mosque most likely will be built. But for those of us who reside downtown, that building will not be an expression of tolerance but a wound on the city and the nation. It will represent despair; it will serve as a permanent insult to those New Yorkers who lost their lives less than a decade ago.
In the midst of sacred territory there will be a constant reminder that those who despise our way of life and everything this republic stands for can use our hard-fought liberties to desecrate this land. No matter what Mayor Bloomberg says, this is what New Yorkers will be reminded of whenever they pass the mosque on Park Place. As significantly, this is also what radical Muslims will see whenever television cameras pan to this religious edifice. What a shame; alas, what a disgrace.
Herbert I. London is President of Hudson Institute. He is professor emeritus and the former John M. Olin Professor of Humanities at New York University. And he was responsible for creating the Gallatin School of Individualized Study in 1972 and was its dean until 1992. This school was organized to promote the study of “great books” and classic texts.
Herbert London is a graduate of Columbia University, 1960 and the recipient of a Ph.D. from New York University, 1966. In 1989, Dr. London was one of the Republican candidates for Mayor of New York City. In 1990 he was the Conservative Party Candidate for Governor of New York garnering more votes than any third party candidate in the state’s history. In 1994 he was the Republican Party candidate for New York State Comptroller losing in a close election.