Ground Zero for Free Speech

Ground Zero for Free Speech

The proposed cultural center in lower Manhattan has become the latest target of the right’s all-out attack on the First Amendment.


Park51, a k a Cordoba House, won’t be a mosque; it will be a $100 million, thirteen-story cultural center with a pool, gym, auditorium and prayer room. It won’t be at Ground Zero; it will be two blocks away. (By the way, two mosques have existed in the neighborhood for years.) It won’t be a shadowy storefront where radical clerics recruit young suicide bombers; it will be a showplace of moderate Islam, an Islam for the pluralist West—the very thing wise heads in the United States and Europe agree is essential to integrate Muslim immigrants and prevent them from becoming fundamentalists and even terrorists. "It’s a shame we even have to talk about this," says Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a longtime supporter of the project.

Apparently we do, because the same right-wingers who talk about the Constitution as if Sarah Palin had tweeted it herself apparently skipped over the First Amendment, where freedom of speech and worship are guaranteed to all. "America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization," claims Newt Gingrich, who argues that the United States can’t let Muslims build a "mosque" "at Ground Zero" because Saudi Arabia doesn’t permit the building of churches and synagogues. For a man who warns that Sharia law is coming soon to a courthouse near you, Gingrich seems strangely eager to accept Saudi standards of religious tolerance. Isn’t the whole point that ours is an open society and theirs is closed? "This is a desecration," says former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. "Nobody would allow something like that at Pearl Harbor. Let’s have some respect for who died there and why they died there. Let’s not put this off on some kind of politically correct theory." I’m not aware of any Japanese-Americans trying to build a Shinto shrine at Pearl Harbor, but what if they had? Why would that be so terrible? (Oh, and "politically correct theory"? Would that be the First Amendment? Giuliani never did have much fondness for pesky old free speech.)

And then there’s Sarah Palin, America’s Tweetheart: "Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing." Yes, peace-seeking Muslims, just crawl back into your cave and leave us real Americans alone so we can get over the terrible crime committed by people who are not you! Thirty-three years ago, the language of healing wasn’t powerful enough to keep the National Socialists of America from marching in Skokie, Illinois—home to many Holocaust survivors—and kudos to the ACLU for defending the freedom of assembly even of those worst of the worst, a position that was not at all obvious at the time. But we’ve been thoroughly bathed in psychobabble since then, so it’s not surprising that sophisticated opponents like Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, have adopted that cloying lingo: "strong passions…keen sensitivities…counterproductive to the healing process." As Foxman wrote in a statement, "ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain—unnecessarily—and that is not right."

Actually, there are 9/11 survivors and families on both sides of the Park51 proposal. Opening the center is "consistent with fundamental American values of freedom and justice for all," said the group September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. And although a Marist poll found that 53 percent of New York City residents oppose the center, 53 percent of Manhattanites support it—let’s hear it for the much-mocked Upper West Side. But even if all the survivors, and every inhabitant of the World Trade Center’s home borough, were united against it, that should not carry the day. The Constitution is not a Tylenol pill. It’s not about making hurt people feel better—or pandering to the resentments of bigots, either. Nor is it about polls or majority votes. If it were, freedom of speech would not be possible, because as Rosa Luxemburg said, freedom is "always…for the one who thinks differently." It would be nice if our elected officials, who swore an oath to defend the Constitution, got the message. Instead, we have mostly silence, with Governor David Paterson offering state land if Park51 agreed to move elsewhere. That man just can’t seem to do anything right.

What’s especially odd about the Park51 flap is that Palin, Gingrich and other right-wing opponents delight in waving the Constitution about and professing to revere its every word. They, after all, are the ones who love religion so much, they think the First Amendment is all about privileging it over secularism. Don’t tread on me with your evil humanist jackboot! The argument that religion should not be imposed on public spaces—a public-school classroom, say—has never made sense to them. In their mythology, believers are a persecuted minority because the ACLU won’t let biology teachers suggest that Earth might well be only 10,000 years old. It turns out that by religion they mean only Christianity. Indeed, Tennessee Tea Party gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey suggests that Islam isn’t a religion but a cult—as if the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are sleep-deprived runaways controlled by an evil mastermind.

The attempt by Gingrich and others to portray Park51 as part of a planned Islamic takeover of the United States is shameful and ridiculous. America is a secular democracy in which at least three-quarters of the population are committed Christians, and hedonism is a way of life. Almost nobody, even among American Muslims, is interested in the supposed aims of militant Islam——polygyny, forcing women into burqas, banning pork and alcohol and music, instituting Sharia law. Fear of Muslim rule is even more preposterous than what it has so efficiently replaced—fear of communist rule—and one day it will look just as bizarre.

By then, I hope Park51 will be a modern landmark in the city Mayor Bloomberg proudly called the freest in the world.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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