05 August 2010

Now about that mosque...

“In the mid-1650s, the small Jewish community living in lower Manhattan petitioned Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant for the right to build a synagogue, and they were turned down. In 1657, when Stuyvesant also prohibited Quakers from holding meetings, a group of non-Quakers in Queens signed the Flushing Remonstrance, a petition in defense of the right of Quakers and others to freely practice their religion. It was perhaps the first formal political petition for religious freedom in the American colonies, and the organizer was thrown in jail and then banished from New Amsterdam.

“In the 1700s, even as religious freedom took hold in America, Catholics in New York were effectively prohibited from practicing their religion, and priests could be arrested. Largely as a result, the first Catholic parish in New York City was not established until the 1780s, St. Peter's on Barclay Street, which still stands just one block north of the World Trade Center site, and one block south of the proposed mosque and community center....

Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.

This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan.

Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11, and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values and play into our enemies' hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that," - NYC mayor Mike Bloomberg

I dislike the necessity of politicians still resorting to making the "otherwise the terrorists win!" argument to appeal to our sentiments on this issue. But the point still stands: What business is it of ours where religious institutions build and who they are? If we wish to make it our business, then what does that say about us that we may condemn a disfavored minority and abandon a core principle of American value (and indeed, one of our most respected values at that) when we find displeasure in the actions of a few of that minority?

Should I then get to commence to demanding the condemnation and destruction of all Christian churches on the basis that the ridiculous statements of Pat Robertson are offensive, ill-informed, and mean-spirited? Or that I should get to register my objections to their placements and have them obeyed? What if it wasn't just me making that objection and instead was a large proportion of the population, perhaps even a voting majority that was able to control where and what religious practices were acceptable? These are very tenuous waters for the religious among us to tread. The present cultural or social supremacy of Christianity (or Judeo-Christianity more broadly) in America is not and should not be considered as a guaranteed aspect of the nation or as the bedrock of its foundations. Consider the counter-factual scenario that we were instead a largely Muslim country, with a church proposed to be built? Would we desire that our nation should resemble some third-world Islamic nation, and profess its intolerance and impatience with this trivial faith within their midst? Or should it instead resemble a nation at peace with its values, and recognize that however misguided we feel others to be in their choice (or in some of us, absence) of faith, we generally should have little to fear from it. Where it becomes an active practice of hatred and abuse upon others, it is indeed a cause of concern (which is as much true with Islamic fanatics as the Christian ones). Where it is instead a passive practice of orienting people toward one another in our broader and diverse societies, I don't see what the problem is.
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