A Test of Our Tolerance

Is religous freedom limited only to religions we like?

Tolerance is a strange thing.  We seem to believe in it right up to the time we’re called upon to practice it.  Then we can find all sorts of rationalizations for intolerance.    The latest controversy is over  the proposed Cordoba  Center,  a Muslim community center planned for a site two blocks north of Ground Zero.    The Week newsmagazine reports  53 percent of New Yorkers are opposed to building the center.

President Obama defended the right of Muslims to religious freedom in his remarks at the White House celebrating Ramadan. 

As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.  And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.  This is America.  And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.  The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are.  The writ of the Founders must endure.

We must never forget those who we lost so tragically on 9/11, and we must always honor those who led the response to that attack -– from the firefighters who charged up smoke-filled staircases, to our troops who are serving in Afghanistan today. And let us also remember who we’re fighting against, and what we’re fighting for.  Our enemies respect no religious freedom.  Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam -– it’s a gross distortion of Islam.  These are not religious leaders -– they’re terrorists who murder innocent men and women and children.  In fact, al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion -– and that list of victims includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11. 

I don’t believe the principle that Americans are free to worship as they play was subject to revocation based upon the results of a poll.  It’s really simple for me: either we believe in religious freedom or tolerance or we don’t.    It is important to remember that it was Al Qaida whom attacked America on September 11, 2001, not the Islāmic faith. 

Rep. Peter King (R-NY) said President Obama is “wrong.”

“It is insensitive and uncaring for the Muslim community to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero,” King said in a written statement.

“While the Muslim community has the right to build the mosque, they are abusing that right by needlessly offending so many people who have suffered so much,” he said. “The right and moral thing for President Obama to have done was to urge Muslim leaders to respect the families of those who died and move their mosque away from ground zero. Unfortunately, the president caved into political correctness.”

King was challenged by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) who sided with the President.

“As the member of Congress who represents Lower Manhattan and Ground Zero, I commend President Obama’s statement on the Cordoba House and his support of our First Amendment rights of freedom of religion and separation of church and state,” Nadler said in a statement Saturday.

“Government has no business deciding whether there should or should not be a Muslim house of worship near Ground Zero. The United States was founded on the principle of religious liberty and tolerance, and it is equally important 234 years later that we uphold this principle.”

Some have suggested President Obama should have his mouth shut and said nothing about the mosque near Ground Zero.   I would hope those same people are equally critical of Sarah Palin, Rep. Peter King and Sen. John Cornyn who says he will make this an issue in the November elections.    What a surprise that the usual right-wing reactionaries are always looking for yet another opportunity to exploit anti-Muslim fear for their own political advantage.

Why do we ignore the moderate Muslims, but fear the radical ones?

In a country of 348 million people why do we have such an irrational loathing for 2.6 million American Muslims?    Was Osama bin Laden so crafty as to know  17 terrorists could paralyze an entire nation in fear?

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf is perhaps the leading scholar on Islam in the West.  He has served as an adviser to both President George W. Bush and the Arab League.  Shaykh Yusuf  is the co-founder of Zaytuna College in Berkely, California and was a co-signer of  A Common Word Between Us and You, a 2007  open letter from leaders of the Muslim faith to leaders of the Christian faith.    

Shaykh Yusuf has some words I sure wish all of those fine folks worked up into a lather would ponder before they rushed to judgment.

People have to be exposed to Muslims, just experience Muslims; talk to them. Reach out, read about Islam, try to find out about it. There are 20,000 Muslim physicians in the United States, Americans putting their lives in the hands of Muslims every day. You’re going under and the anesthesiologist is a Muslim, right? He’s looking out for you. He doesn’t want you to die in that operation because you’re an infidel. He’s doing his job. As is your pediatrician who’s trying to heal your child. And the mechanic who’s fixing your car? He’s not putting a bomb in your car. It’s Abdullah, the guy down at the Chevron station, right? I mean it’s one-fifth of the world’s population for God’s sake– one out of five people is a Muslim.

Muslims have been an almost entirely benevolent force in the 20th century. They did not wreak the havoc the Western powers wreaked on the world. They have not come anywhere near to the environmental degradation that we’ve done to the planet. So I think Muslims need to be seen in the proper light. They’re mostly decent, hardworking people, people with deep family values, and they want to live in peace. My experience on this planet, almost 50 years, is that if you treat people with respect, they tend to treat you with respect.

How many times have we  heard of the need to reach out and work with moderate Muslims against radical Muslims who have corrupted and perverted Islam to further their own hate-filled agenda?   Now would seem to be as good a time as any to start.

No one will ever forget how one terrible day in September changed how Americans viewed the world.  If  America does not hold fast to its core principles when they are put to the test, the world will view us as broken by our fears instead of  remaining strong and true to the courage of our convictions.