As some of you may know, I have a degree in Religious Studies, not that it matters and not that it commands much respect. For better or worse, we live in a country in which people can essentially label themselves as Reverends or gurus or spiritual teachers without having any formal education in the discourse of religion, let alone a bachelor’s degree in the subject.

And to me, that is okay.

Regardless of your faith, religion is usually considered to be something one can only gain and appreciate through ritual and personal experience, something that one can only truly comprehend after extensive practice, study, and commitment. Sure, you can be born and immediately confirmed into a religion, without ever having the opportunity to make your own independent decision, but either way, considering we are all free-thinking, sentient beings, I believe religion is something you must grow to understand. And I’m speaking as someone who was raised a Methodist and baptized before I could talk- which, personally, I believe to be a meaningful ritualistic acknowledgment and gesture. If your faith instructs that you will be damned to eternal hell unless you participate in the ritual of baptism, among other things, it makes sense that we should baptize babies, at least as an insurance policy. And I’m not attempting to sound crass or flippant; it is a powerful ritual.

And I believe in the power of ritual– physically, psychologically, and physiologically.

Forgive my slight digression, but as a college student, I studied the physiological and sometimes neurological effects of both glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and kriya yoga. While I could never make claims about the religious validity of either practice (in my estimation, such would be a judgment of personal faith and not objective science), there is no question that both practices can induce an intense and powerful euphoria, experiences that some consider to be clarifying and deeply spiritual. The same type of experiences can be found in all of the world’s religions: Whirling dervishes, sweat lodges, tantra (not necessarily the dirty kind), Kabbalah, and even baptism.

I didn’t study religion to become a preacher or a reverend or even a guru, though I think “guru,” at least in the West, is the most hilariously intimidating title one can bestow upon oneself.

I studied it because I was and remain genuinely interested in the ways in which human beings collectively interpret their own existence and purpose. In many ways, to me, religion represents the most fascinating component of the human psyche: the hope for eternal life or reincarnation, a conduit for the absolution of sins, an attempt at explaining the very nature and fabric of our universe and our existence.

When I was a freshman in college, shortly after my father passed away, I decided to major in Religious Studies. One weekend, a professor of mine invited a group of students over to her home for an informal get-together, and I remember speaking with a senior named Moriah, who was also majoring in Religious Studies. She told me that the more you studied, the less you believed. It was an intimidating proposition. I hadn’t decided to study religion as a way of destroying my beliefs; I had hoped that in my studies, I would reaffirm them. I firmly rejected the notion that the more I learned, the less I would believe.

As a high school student, I taught Bible Study. I even had the chance to preach a couple of sermons behind the pulpit at First United Methodist Church in Alexandria. I never wanted to become a preacher, however. I majored in Religious Studies because, frankly, I thought it was the most important conversation that human beings had ever had. I wanted to know more.

With all due respect to my friend Moriah, I think she was wrong. The more you study religion, the more you recognize how little you actually know and how little you could possibly know about religion. For a serious scholar, an in-depth education in religion should not inspire atheism; to me, it should inspire awe. It shouldn’t lead to any definitive answer; it should result in even more questions– healthy, thought-provoking, insightful questions about the very purpose of human life.

To borrow from the religious lexicon, we are indeed blessed to live in a country that celebrates the freedom of religion as one of its central rights. We are fortunate that our country does not ban people from practicing and worshipping their faiths, whether by themselves or in a congregation of like-minded practitioners. This isn’t merely a right of all Americans; freedom of religion is absolutely critical to our identity as a country.

You may believe it is insensitive for a group of Muslim-Americans to plan a place of worship blocks away from Ground Zero in the highly-condensed neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, but with all due respect, in expressing and giving legitimacy to that opinion, you are implicitly suggesting that the Muslim faith, itself, is somehow culpable for the actions of a handful of radical terrorists who simply exploited their own faith as a way of justifying murder. David Koresh did the same thing. So did Jim Jones. Both men used Christianity to justify and legitimize the mass murder of Christians.

Jonestown

Frankly, when I hear people speak against the proposed mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan, it sounds like nothing more than egregious and self-righteous religious bigotry, masquerading under the banner of “sensitivity.” I’m sorry, but sensitivity towards whom? Many of the victims of 9/11 were practicing Muslims, and others, like former George W. Bush Solicitor General Ted Olson, whose wife was killed on 9/11, have defended this project.

Put simply, why do we have to be sensitive toward intolerance and ignorance about a religion that is shared by more than a billion people?

These are our neighbors, our colleagues, and in many cases, our families and friends. We don’t live in a monolithic culture; we are all fortunate to live in the United States of America.

To be sure, the decision to construct a mosque that isn’t even viewable but is close to Ground Zero is inherently controversial and provocative.

But despite the controversy, this is America. And in America, we have the Constitutional right to practice our own religion. We have a right to participate in fellowship and assembly. We have property rights in this great country.

And despite what some on the radical right may purport, we are not and have never been a theocracy. We are a democracy.

Thank God, right?

10 thoughts

  1. No serious person questions the right of those who own the property, assuming they comply with all applicable zoning ordinances, permits, environmental impact statements, and all of the ordinary, routine things that are required to build an equivalent building of another faith, to construct a Mosque at the proposed site.

    However, it is incredibly naive to believe that it will not be seen as an absolute triumph among our enemies, the Islamofacists. This is the price of freedom. The Klan is allowed to march and say the hateful things they say, within reason. The American Nazi Party exists, as does the American Communist Party. The irony (and strange, quirky beauty of America) is that an American citizen can hold membership in both of those political parties at the same time.

    That freedom works both ways – every union worker and contractor in New York should be free to decline bidding or working on the project. Any neighbors should likewise be free to open non-Muslim friendly businesses, eg taverns, sausage shops, etc. The right to offend others should be open to all Americans, regardless of the wisdom or propriety of such actions.

    If it turns out that our enemies financed the deal or participated in any way in it’s construction or operation, we should be free to seize it and pulverize it, or give it to the USO or DAV.

    G-d Bless America!

    1. Ace, I do not think it is appropriate to conflate Nazism or the Ku Klux Klan with this particular group of Muslims. I have seen no evidence that they are nefarious or are being financed by “our enemies.” This type of vapid speculation, to me, exemplifies the kind of hasty and hurtful generalizations that have formed the basis of much of the outspoken opposition: A mosque in a multi-cultural, densely-populated city like New York, in a country that believes in the fundamental right of freedom of religion, could somehow be viewed as “an absolute triumph” by a group of fundamentalist terrorists who seek to govern as strong theocratic totalitarians?

      In many ways, taking away that fundamental right would make us no better than our enemies. If our enemies think this represents a “triumph” for them, then, well, the joke’s on them. America should not simply pay lip service to freedom of religion; America should ensure that this freedom is fundamentally protected.

      The truth is that this proposed mosque and community center is NOT on Ground Zero. It’s two and a half blocks away, next to a Burlington Coat Factory, and when it’s built, you won’t even be able to see it from Ground Zero. Moreover, because of the traffic patterns in this particular area, chances are that if you are headed to Ground Zero, you’d have to go out of your way to pass by it.

      To me, the saddest thing about this debate is that it’s been completely manufactured, hyperbolized, and exaggerated by people like Sarah Palin, the woman who coined the term “death panels”– and not because she cares about Lower Manhattan, not because she was moved to speak out by the “grassroots” or by a majority of New Yorkers… but because she and others saw a political opportunity, an opportunity to force Democrats and Obama to stand up for the freedom of religion (and property rights) in defense of Muslims.

      Calculated bigotry.

      And unfortunately, so many of us have allowed this narrative– Muslims=the enemy– to shape our understanding of the current global conflicts; it’s far easier to blindly oppose and ignorantly criticize than to be open and receptive to someone else’s worldview or religion. When we fall trap to defining our conflict on religious terms, we are defining our conflict as a religious war– a war about supernatural supremacy and not economic reality.

      I’m not a Muslim, but in my opinion, if they want to build this mosque, they have a right to do so. And if to our “enemies,” it represents a “triumph,” then it’s only because people like Sarah Palin were defeated in their attempt at circumventing the Constitution and local zoning laws and ordinances. For Islamo-fascists, it would be a hollow victory, to be sure.

      1. I guess it is just my constant practicality. Innocent Muslims died on 9/11, as did Christians, Jews, people of other faiths, and people without any particular faith. If a Mosque was destroyed in the attack, I would have zero issues with it being rebuilt.

        However, jihadists do this all of the time. They specifically choose sites of particular victories to build mosques. The original title of this mosque was going to be “Victory”. If these are radical islamists doing this, they should be stopped. There are mosques already in Manhattan. While this one might not be within sight of “Ground Zero” (and I’m not sure about that – if the buildings were still standing, you could see them all the way in Central Park) the call to prayer over loudspeakers will be audible at the site.

        I have no problem with the call for prayer – I heard it multiple times a day in Gjilan, Kosovo, from at least two different mosques. The Saudi-funded radical mosque was on the outskirts of town because right-minded Albanian muslims by and large rejected the Islamo-fascist agenda. The mosques in town were frequented by pro-American Albanians who I knew were our friends.

        I will reiterate what I said above: The property owners have the right to do this. As long as no steps are taken by any governmental entity to assist them any more than what would be done for a church, synagogue, temple, cathedral, etc. for another faith – there is no valid, legal reason to stop it. However, the “Ground Zero” mosque (and it will be known as that FOREVER if it is built) is the worst idea since Greedo shooting first.

  2. I think the biggest problem with this debate is that many Americans, especially many New Yorkers (which, let’s face it, all you have to do is watch a few episodes of Cash Cab to know that a lot residents of the ‘Capital of Earth’ don’t exactly have what you’d call much of a ‘world view’ or knowledge of much outside of their NYC lives), don’t separate terrorist from Muslim.

    Following the end of the Cold War, America found itself in an odd conundrum. After 50 years of always being able to measure the world in a schoolyard-esque ‘Us vs Them’ dichotomy, we found ourselves without an enemy. Many anthropologists and social scientists would point out that a populace as part of the nature of societies tends to function best when they do in fact have an enemy — someone to pass on the blame of whatever they can’t control in their daily lives to. Just like the classic quote that if God did not exist, man would find need to create him, if/when a society has no clearly defined foe, forces within that society will (and throughout history have) surely manufacture one. Even within the confines of American culture, look at the current gay rights debate. In the absence of black vs white conflict, the very groups within our society who fueled the racial fires of the 20th century, basically manufactured the idea that there was some massive gay threat (something that was news to most gay people I would think who up to that point likely considered themselves part of those groups suddenly attacking them). When you look at some prominent groups in our region like say the SBC, they actually use almost word for word attacks (and quotes of scripture and justification and fear tactics) in attacking gays and argue against gay rights and marriage as they did previously in attacking blacks and arguing against their civil rights and interracial marriage. Sometimes when you need a fight, you have to come up with an enemy before your ammo goes bad.

    9/11 brought to the US the shock of a new type of threat we had thus far experienced only twice in modern memory (although terrorism certainly has been an actively used tool in our domestic arsenal since the early 1700’s). Perviously we had been shocked by the failed WTC attack of the early 90’s which really did little more than let us know as a public that in fact there were Muslim extremists and some of them didn’t like us. Prior to 9/11 when we talked about terrorism we talked about Timothy McVeigh and the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. This was terrorism, it was homegrown, American, and it was horrible, and from a standpoint of reasoning and justification, it was totally unfathomable. When Al Qaeda took our global terrorism virginity that day (the rest of the world has been dealing with this for decades), we found ourselves stunned, appalled, and looking for someone to blame. We needed an enemy.

    That enemy should have been terrorists.

    That enemy should have been terrorists and the fight against them should have been justified by demanding an end to such destruction. This was not however the route taken by our leaders. Instead, they converted the anger and sorrow of 9/11 into a chance to finally give the government and society something it had been so strongly pining for since the breakup of the Soviet Union — an enemy. That enemy would not be terrorists. It would be Islam. Rhetoric may have still been directed at specific factions within extreme Islamic groups, but mostly this quickly became Judeo-Christian ‘us’ versus Muslim ‘them’. We needed an enemy and we found one.

    We should not pretend that this is not the dynamic that was created following that dreadful day. It was. And, it is still the dynamic at play today in opposing this Islamic religious center.

    ———————————

    Out of curiosity I googled “churches near Oklahoma city bombing site” and got a huge number of hits discussing the fact that Timothy McVeigh was Catholic. His cohorts were all evangelical protestants and catholics and such as well (ya know, the ‘us’). With McVeigh being Catholic, no one complained when the federal government spend millions of dollars to repair damage to the cathedral near the bombing site. Neither did they complain when christian memorials and prayers were added to the bombing memorial. Nor did they demand removal or deter future construction of christian churches there. Here’s a map of current churches near the site:

    http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=church+near+620+N+Harvey+Ave,+Oklahoma+City,+OK+73102&sll=35.472973,-97.51703&sspn=0.008528,0.01929&ie=UTF8&split=1&rq=2&ev=zo&hq=church&hnear=620+N+Harvey+Ave,+Oklahoma+City,+Oklahoma,+73102&ll=35.472274,-97.51615&spn=0.008528,0.01929&t=h&z=16

    So honestly, how do you justify one action in one case and a totally different action in another?

    1. you conveniently ignore the fact that although mcviegh was baptised a catholic, he was not practicing and actually considered himself an agnostic. the 9/11 terrorist commited thier acts in the name of thier religion. most americans dont consider this a case of legality, but morality.

    2. Drew, all of that said, I believe that a recent poll reveals that a majority of New Yorkers favor the construction of this mosque and community center. I’m not sure Cash Cab represents an adequate cross-section of New Yorkers.

      And to Dan Cook, forget about Tim McVeigh. There are many examples of radicalized Christians committing murder on behalf of their distorted beliefs. Again, look at Jim Jones.

      In this particular case, the truth is that freedom of religion should be considered to be both “a case of legality” and of “morality.”

      1. That was pretty much my point that there exists a double standard here, not because it’s traditional, rooted in the constitution, or anything else, but simply because certain people have tried to create the idea that America is some sort of quasi-theocracy and that the religion of the US is christianity. These are the same guys who tossed “under God” into the pledge of allegiance and the same ones who fight to have “In God we trust” on every dollar, dime, and quarter. They like to talk about separation of church and state as long as that separation is beneficial to their own churches. Yet, they want congress to codify their particular dogmas as law every chance they get. They’ve basically tried to sneak christianity in as a state religion and they view Islam as a threat to that, then unfortunately sell it as ‘unamerican’.

        If someone were trying to build a christian church these people wouldn’t care. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if they haven’t tried to construct one of those silly Cajundome sized mega churches complete with things like burning qurans and such as part of their marketing.

        @Lamar regarding the Cash Cab comment…not meant to reflect the views of everyone in NYC, but just as a reflection on the closed-minded view and lack of world view that a certain vocal chunk of New Yorkers have and gladly loudly share with everyone.

    3. If a Christian Identity or other white supremicist “christian” group wants to build a church overlooking the Murrow site, let me know. I will present a cogent, rational argument as to why they can do what they want on private property, but it is a terrible idea – trouble with a captial “T”, which rhymes with “P” and that stands for “pool”. At least as bad an idea as the “Ground Zero” mosque.

    1. Yes, that is from Robert Preston’s finest scene (my favorite from the particular film) in his outstanding film career.

      I use that scene to illustrate for my children as to how government and corporations manipulate public opinion and/or consumer tastes.

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