November 1, 2010

On "Ground Zero mosque," religious freedom is... simple (originally posted Aug. 6, 2010)

(with Joseph K. Grieboski)

The motto atop the Anti-Defamation League’s website reads, “To stop the defamation of the Jewish people… to secure justice and fair treatment to all.”What could compel such a venerable institution to set this aside and oppose an Islamic coexistence center and mosque located two blocks from the World Trade Center site?

According to ADL’s National Director, the anguish of those who lost loved ones on 9/11 “entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.” America is a free country, where everyone and anyone is entitled to a bigoted position. But the rest of us need not follow or even pre-empt those positions.

While it is difficult to measure how much an organization like the Anti-Defamation League represents American Jews, it is fairly easy to judge whether it is true to its own prime directive.

"The potential implications of this decision for general religious practice in this country are significant and disturbing." – This 1997 statement by the Anti-Defamation League reacted to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was unconstitutional. In the same statement, the ADL leadership said, "We are particularly disappointed with this decision since RFRA merely sought to restore the 30-year-old standard requiring states to show a 'compelling interest' in order to justify a restriction on an individual's free exercise of religion." Subsequent legislation has been found constitutional, so the ADL got its wish.

It remains difficult to imagine how any human rights or religious-oriented organization could find the time to come out against a religious facility devoted to coexistence. Many of those politicians opposing the Cordoba House would usually insist that outsiders allow local government to decide matters from abortion and gun rights to the delineating of electoral districts. Religious freedom is no less of a right under the U.S. Constitution. ADL's National Director told The Jerusalem Post, “The fact that there are bigots who espouse a position that you have doesn’t mean you’re a bigot.” But it does impose a responsibility to recognize that "nuanced" messages work to bolster the bigots at the expense of their targets. The first step in promoting reconciliation is calling on the bigots and those reinforcing them to stand down. Full stop. No nuance. Loud and clear.

Saying that bigotry is bad but it's better if the mosque is moved so as not to offend victims' families, even those who may be “irrational or bigoted,” is too nuanced for the real world of a mid-term election year.

The fact is, ADL has no standing to oppose or support Cordoba House. It represents neither the families of 9/11 victims nor the residents of Battery Park. Its input has not been sought by any zoning board or Islamic organization. Perhaps it decided in this case that the cause of religious freedom is best served by opposing the establishment of a religiously based institution, that the anger of some Americans trumps the religious rights of others.

Had local authorities denied rather than approved the plans for an Islamic interfaith center near Ground Zero, civil rights groups might have been obligated to take a stand… in support of constitutionally protected religious rights.

For those truly seeking to promote reconciliation, the first step should be calling on the bigots to stand down, not encouraging the moderate Muslims to look uptown.

Candidates as far away as North Carolina and Alaska have seized on the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” as a potent draw for campaign contributions and national visibility. When the ADL warns against interpreting its opposition as a green light for bigotry, it at once acknowledges and enables exactly that reaction. It also diminishes its own venerable brand in the fight for religious freedom and American values.

Human rights organizations need not take a position on every liberty under the sun, especially not when it means arguing against constitutionally guaranteed rights. When the ADL takes time out of its busy day in order to question those promoting tolerance and demanding free exercise of their faith – when the champions of religious freedom and equality advise giving in to extremists and political opportunists – it is a dark day for all religious communities, for those seeking to keep religion out of their lives, and for those hoping to live in an America true to its principles.

Nor is it necessary to list the many Muslims – office workers and first-responders – who were killed when the Twin Towers collapsed, or those who have given their lives in the U.S. campaign against Al Qaeda. No one’s service or tragedy should require Americans, let alone a local community, to set aside fundamental religious freedoms upon which our nation is predicated.

Concerns have been raised about connections between Cordoba House and Muslim extremists. Yet, so far, the only “extremism” associated with the Cordoba House is among some of the vocal and unrelenting non-Muslim opposition.

Demanding that the Cordoba House prove it has no ties to extremists imposes an assumption of guilty until proven innocent, and it smacks of selective prosecution and intimidation. If some Americans don’t get that message, whether through ignorance or bigotry or partisan politics, then it’s organizations like ADL that should be explaining it to them.

Joseph K. Grieboski is Chairman of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy. Shai Franklin is a Senior Fellow of the Institute.

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