Who’s Inside the Muslim Box?

Religious freedom vs. wisdom

President Obama, after saying that building a mosque at Ground Zero fit our “commitment to religious freedom,” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/13/AR2010081304357.html) backtracked, saying he wasn’t commenting on the ‘wisdom’ (http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/cgi-bin/mte-admin/mt.cgi) of building it so close to ‘hallowed ground.’

A Fox News poll showed that while 61 percent of Americans believe that Cordoba House has a constitutional right to build near Ground Zero, 64 percent believe it is not appropriate to do so. (http://www.foxnews.com/us/2010/08/13/fox-news-poll-percent-think-wrong-build-mosque-near-ground-zero/)

Does Obama’s hedging show a lack of ethical convictions? Does Hamas’ endorsement change the debate? (http://voices.washingtonpost.com/plum-line/2010/08/breaking_hamas_sides_with_obam.html) What is behind public opposition to the site? Can you believe in religious freedom but not believe the mosque is appropriate?

When people argue over religion, they tend to forget a simple question: Is it better to be happy or to be right? In societies that practice religious toleration, the answer falls to the side of happiness. Being right on matters of God is left up in the air. That’s a good practical reason to remind people that, of course, anyone who wants to build a mosque has the right to do so, even if questions of zoning, local acceptability, and so on also enter the picture. In the case of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf , a moderate cleric who has openly divorced himself from political issues, he can tolerantly be seen as a force for good — he describes himself as a bridge builder between cultures.

Anyone who tries to make hay out of this issue wants to battle over who is right and who is wrong. Politicians fan public controversy for their own gain, and it’s dubious if they contribute to anyone’s happiness. President Obama deserves credit for making a sane, measured, adult statement about the proposed Islamic center — that has always been his style. His later clarification, in which he said that he wasn’t endorsing the center or agreeing with the wisdom of building it, gave Republicans a wedge for some flip-flop rhetoric. The kerfuffle is just that. Hamas also saw something to gain by wooing Obama, very clumsily, in their endorsement of the project, but it’s an obvious ploy, as is the right wing’s cry that Obama, Rauf, and Hamas are on the same page.

Moderate Muslims chafe at being put into the same box with jihadis and other extremists. Right wingers jump into the box with them, however, because it holds any kind of close-mindedness, propaganda, xenophobia, and intolerance. That’s one of the perpetual ironies of such self-righteous clashes. Both sides need each other, and in their declared hostility they pretend not to notice that each is pulling one end of the same rope. It’s a sign of life returning to normal that most Americans aren’t interested in joining the tug of war. With a majority saying that the imam has a right to build his center, the 39% who disagree or have no opinion amount to the same percentage, more or less, that Republicans, Tea Partiers, and the right in general manage to attract at this moment. In tough times, when people are unsettled already, offering a bogey man works.

If the same Islamic center had been proposed before 9/11, it wouldn’t have attracted the slightest notice beyond zoning hearings. If it had been proposed the day after 9/11, one shudders to think about what Rauf would have been exposed to. But people are in a shadow zone right now, worried about terrorists, suspicious of Islam despite their best intentions, and jumpy about the Muslims among us who are doing nothing more dangerous than seeking a place to worship in their own way. Beneath the surface, it’s really our own consciousness that remains in uncertainty. One looks forward to the day when Muslims are not forced into the same box with their irate counterparts on the opposite side. That box is too full already.

Published in the Washington Post On Faith