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A defining moment for religious liberty in America

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Charles C. Haynes
August 28, 2010

The angry and increasingly ugly debate over a proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan—misleadingly dubbed the “Ground Zero mosque” by the news media—raises troubling questions about the future of religious liberty in the United States.


An astonishing one-third of the American public, including 53 percent who identify as Republicans, believe Muslims do not have the constitutional right to build a mosque at the proposed site, according to a poll released this month by The Economist.


Even more disturbing, 34 percent say there are some places in the U.S. where it is not appropriate to build mosques, though it would be appropriate for other religions to build houses of worship. Fourteen percent believe that mosques should not be permitted anywhere in the U.S.


If this mosque debate is any measure of our national commitment to religious freedom, then these poll results are not encouraging.


Propaganda works. The drumbeat of anti-Islam messages this summer—often conflating Islam and terrorism—on talk radio, the Internet and at political meetings around the country has apparently convinced a good slice of the public that American Muslims do not have the same rights as people of other faiths.


The wholesale condemnation of Islam as inherently evil and violent, a viewpoint once confined to the political fringe, has become part of the mainstream discourse in New York—and has been repeated time and again at other anti-mosque rallies this summer in California, Tennessee, Connecticut and elsewhere.


Although it should go without saying, let’s be clear: American Muslims enjoy the same protection for religious freedom under the First Amendment as people of all other faiths. The Muslim community group in Manhattan has a constitutional right to build an Islamic center and mosque two and a half blocks north of Ground Zero.


More level-headed mosque opponents do recognize that right, but then go on to argue that it would be insensitive to put the Islamic center that near “hallowed ground.” Although no doubt sincere, this argument implicitly accepts the notion that Islam itself—and not extremists who distort Islam—is at the root of the evil perpetrated on 9/11.


The best way to counter the al-Qaida version of Islam is not to move the Islamic center, but to build it as representation of authentic Islam—and a symbol of the American commitment to full religious freedom and interfaith understanding.


Lest we forget, many American Muslims belong to families (including some of the “9/11 families” so often invoked in this debate) who have been in this country for generations—and consider themselves just as “American” as any of their neighbors.


Since the 9/11 attacks, Muslim leaders in the U.S. have repeatedly condemned the terrorists who claim to represent Islam and have tried to educate the public about the true teachings of Islam. (For more about how American Muslims see this debate, visit www.groundzerodialogue.org.)


As reported recently in The New York Times, a two-year study of mosques in the U.S. conducted by scholars at Duke University and the University of North Carolina “concluded that contemporary mosques are actually a deterrent to the spread of militant Islam and terrorism” because mosque leaders “had put significant effort into countering extremism by building youth programs, sponsoring anti-violence forums and scrutinizing teachers and texts.”


Rather than banning mosques—or moving them elsewhere—American communities should be welcoming them as allies in the campaign against extremism.


Attacks on Islam in America are not only wrong and dangerous, they are also devastating to millions of American Muslims who also care deeply about this country, especially Muslim citizens serving in the military. I received an e-mail this week from one of them, a soldier stationed in Afghanistan. Writing about the anti-mosque protests, he says this:


“As a Muslim in the U.S. Army—what has been hardest to endure is the insulting comments about my religion and those who practice it—Do we not deserve the right to worship freely and mourn for the people who died on 9/11? They were our countrymen, too.”


He goes on to ask the question every American needs to ask whenever our ideals are sorely tested: “Do we really believe in and support the Constitution of the United States for the good of all?”


If we are unwilling to protect the right of every American to religious liberty, then we have no business sending this soldier to risk his life in the name of freedom and democracy.


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at theNewseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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