I don’t often put up posts about non-space politics on this blog, especially now that I have a smidgen of internet fame to my name. However, there’s something going on now that is both important and something I feel strongly about. I’m talking about all this manufactured controversy in the punditry surrounding the Islamic community center in New York City, and I am putting this post up because I strongly support the center’s construction. I have three main reasons for supporting the community center.
Reason numero uno is that there is no rational connection between this community center and the terror attacks of 9/11. Protesting its construction is pretty much equivalent to protesting the construction of churches south of the Mason-Dixon line because the KKK used to lynch people down there. The protesters and pundits are committing the logical fallacy of the sweeping generalization: the 9/11 hijackers were Muslim, therefore all Muslims are potentially to be feared. This is an extremely dangerous attitude, and it brings me to…
Reason number two: I was raised Jewish. My temple Hebrew school curriculum devoted a full year to education on the dangers of bigotry, prejudice, and otherwise singling out any ethnic, racial, or religious group. Certainly, that education focused on the experiences of Jewish people, but the lessons we discussed were broadly applicable. I have internalized many of my experiences from growing up and living as a member of a cultural minority, and I respect the needs for other minorities to practice their beliefs and gather as a community. Such things should not be made unpleasant by the actions of the cultural majority. More than that, the cultural diversity of our country should be celebrated – it is what makes us great!
It’s very easy for hate speech to come out of this, as the protesters stir up emotions. After all, their entire argument is based on emotion: even when the pundits backpedal as hard as they can to avoid sounding bigoted, they end up calling the community center’s location things like “tasteless” – forgetting that, in this sense, “taste” varies from person to person and is based on emotional responses. Even such mild-seeming criticism can lead to prejudice and bigotry. Now, I’m certainly not saying that I think the United States is on a slippery slope to an imitation Holocaust. I don’t think that is true at all. But I know that pogroms and bigotry happened well before that, and what some of the protesters are saying while assembled in a mob near the Islamic center makes me nervous. As a Jew, when I say “never again,” I don’t just mean myself.
Reason Number Three is that I am an American. I am patriotic. I believe in the American system of government and American ideals. I also think about those ideals. The founders of this country were products of the Enlightenment and the internecine prejudices of Europe; they were wise enough to know that their new country should be established without a single state religion and with built-in acceptance of all the various faiths in all the original thirteen colonies. (Remember that, in those days, the various strains of Christianity were considered as disparate and irreconcilable as Hinduism and Judaism. The colonists came from a Europe that periodically tore itself to pieces over differences between Catholic and Protestant groups – and that was between faiths that agree on basic things like who’s a god and who isn’t!) If the framers of our Constitution had wanted America to be a Christian nation, I’d think they would want to be much more obvious about it, to make sure that their intentions were clear as time passed: while Judeo-Christian philosophy certainly influenced the Constitution, that document contains exactly zero references to God, Jesus, or Christianity.Nor does it refer to any other religion.
Even a general lack of endorsement of one religion over another wasn’t enough for the newly founded states, though. Think back to high school history classes: the states refused to ratify the Constitution before the inclusion of a Bill of Rights, and the very first amendment that they demanded specifically prohibits the federal government from establishing a state religion. Not only that, but it grants individuals the right to practice any religion they like, and to assemble together for any purpose, including practice of religion. So not only is the community building this Islamic center well within their rights to do so, but we ought to celebrate what they are doing – they are exercising rights that do not exist in many countries but that we, as Americans, gladly extend to our citizens. We ought to give thanks to the founders of our country and the legislatures of the original thirteen colonies for giving us so many rights, rather than protesting the exercise of these Constitutional rights!
As a final note, let me mention that other supporters of the community center include the mayor of New York City and the families of 9/11 victims. You know, the people actually affected by the presence of the community center, and the people most likely to have a negative emotional response to it. The pundits on Fox News are using the Islamic center as a political football to try and drum up support for reactionary candidates, and I think they ought to be ashamed of their actions. Not only do they come across as prejudiced, but they seem very un-American to me. Of course, this is America – so they can keep right on saying what they’re saying. That’s one of the sticky points about any debate like this. At the very least, though, I can hope that with all the information available out there, the general populace will think critically about what’s going on before succumbing to emotional reactions.