The proposed Ground Zero mosque should be a straightforward ethics issue, but it is not. Now it is bound up in a thoroughly confusing debate that confounds and blurs law, ethical values, history, rights, and human nature. Everyone is right, and everyone is wrong.
Yes, it’s an Ethics Train Wreck, all right. This one is so bad I hesitated to write about it—ethics train wrecks trap commentators too—in the vain hope that it would somehow resolve itself with minimal harm. That is obviously not in the cards, however; not when the Anti-Defamation League weighs in on the side of religious intolerance, thus forfeiting its integrity and warping its mission. The wreck is still claiming victims, and there is no end in sight.
In New York City, government officials seem certain to approve plans for an Islamic complex, which will have as many as 15 stories and would include a prayer space, a performing arts center, a pool and a restaurant, all to be located just a couple of blocks from “Ground Zero,” the site of the doomed World Trade Center towers. Prominent Republican figures, conservative columnists and radio hosts, the families of 9-11 victims and many member of the public are vociferously opposing the project, saying that it is offensive, hurtful, insensitive, and even “a celebration of America’s defeat and the victory of the Muslim world.” Newt Gingrich articulated the emotional response of many Americans when he said, “The World Trade Center is the largest loss of American life on our soil since the Civil War. And we have not rebuilt it, which drives people crazy. And in that setting, we are told, why don’t we have a 13-story mosque and community center? The average American just thinks this is a political statement. It’s not about religion, and is clearly an aggressive act that is offensive.”
Those who support the Center, notes the New York Times today, “seem mystified and flustered by the heated opposition. They contend that the project, with an estimated cost of $100 million, is intended to span the divide between Muslim and non-Muslim, not widen it.”
Mystified? Really? Would these same people have been “mystified” if Pearl Harbor had been abandoned by the U.S. Navy after World War II and veterans objected that the site had been chosen for a Japanese embassy, museum and cultural center? How about the objections of Holocaust survivors if a German military museum and Nazi veterans’ monument was located on the site of the Auschwitz prison camp? Would it be mystifying if the citizens of Atlanta objected to a William Tecumseh Sherman statue in the center of town? How about transferring the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library from Independence, Missouri to Nagasaki? Or the Enola Gay to an exhibit in Hiroshima? Would all of this really be mystifying?
How about a branch of the “King Richard the Lionhearted Royal Library” in Mecca? Would that ring those Golden Rule bells?
Muslims who do not see the problem are naive—incredibly naive, in fact. So incredibly naive are they that they can hardly object when some people conclude that they are being willfully, recklessly, heartlessly and foolishly insentive. Oz Sultan, the programming director for the center, told the New York Times that the complex was based on Jewish community centers and Y.M.C.A.’s in Manhattan, and will have a board composed of Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders. “We are looking to build bridges between faiths,” Sultan said.
Well that’s just swell, Mr. Sultan. You are building a prominent monument to the same religion that led a fanatic to murder 3,000 innocent Americans right where he killed them. That is guaranteed to hurt a great many people, cause resentment, and provoke anger, and no rational person should expect otherwise.
Here’s an idea: build the center somewhere else.
But Mr. Sultan and his group don’t want to build it somewhere else, and as tasteless, insensitive, needlessly provocative and yes, stupid as this is, it is something they have an absolute right to do. These are Americans, and the Constitution allows American to do many mean, thoughtless, irresponsible things without restrictions based on race, religion, gender political views or country of origin. What the Muslims want to do is wrong, but stopping them will also be also wrong. If New York’s politicians were not inept, they would have been able to agree on an appropriate monument by now that would have made even a near-by mosque less of an issue.
The Anti-Defamation League should have sided with the Muslims, just as the A.C.L.U sided with the Ku Klux Klan when they wanted to march through Skokie. Placing an Islamic complex so close to Ground Zero is offensive for many of the reasons its critics say it is. The ethical course would be for the Muslims to be empathetic and do the right thing. If they insist on doing the wrong thing, however, the rest of us are obligated to be respectful, not just of them, but of our own principles.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel angry and hurt too. If the Muslims respected the victims of 9-11 as much as the Constitution requires us to respect their religion, there would be no mosque near Ground Zero.