the freest city

A few days ago, a New York City commission cleared the way for the construction of a mosque and Muslim community center not far from the World Trade Center. The question of whether the city’s government should have let that happen has sparked an intense local and national debate about freedom of religion. Does the painful memory of 9/11 somehow override Muslim Americans’ right to worship in that neighborhood?

This story grabbed my attention not only because I lived in New York for such a long time, but because I’m currently living and working seasonally in the Muslim world — in the United Arab Emirates. I work closely with Muslims. But this is nothing new; I was working closely with Muslims for years in New York. I remember one of my Muslim colleagues telling me about how he was working across the street from the World Trade Center on 9/11. He said it’s still hard to talk about it, but the anniversary is a very important day for him every year. This was a guy who only wanted to talk about football — American football that is; a steak-and-potatoes kind of guy from Brooklyn, about as New York as you get.

What about this paranoid rhetoric about Islam from these sneering, divisive politicians and pundits, who seem to be getting bolder the less sense they make? In a recent entry about turmoil in the Australian government, I claimed I’m not interested in politics. Here I am getting into it again I guess. But can freedom of religion be considered “politics”? Isn’t it more important?

Honestly I don’t know why this is even a conversation. Last I checked, Americans are free to worship as they choose. Period. Well, aren’t they? George Orwell wrote, “In times of crisis repeat the obvious.”

If any Americans are worried about one particular religion and whether it supposedly stands in contrast to all of their ideals — well, that’s probably a trickier issue than most people are willing to admit. If you look closely and read the fine print, every religion is opposed to American consumerism and imperialism, or should be. Like, maybe every Christian should declare a holy war against Halliburton? So maybe we don’t want to go there.

But on a more day-to-day level, it’s not even worth fussing over. All of the hate and panic is not only harmful, it’s silly. Of the 1.5 billion or so Muslims in the world, most of them are just like us — duh. Or they would like to be just like us if they had the economic opportunity. (But maybe that’s another place we don’t want to go.) I’ve spent time in a Muslim country that has a good economy and is at peace — and surely the two go hand in hand. To those who think they hate Muslims without having met any, and assume they’ve all signed up for a jihad against America, I have to say: I’ve met your enemy, and he’s driving a Dodge and pumping Jay-Z on his way to McDonald’s. He wouldn’t want to do away with America — America is where his iPhone was designed and where Inception was produced. (He’s very keen on seeing it this weekend if it’s not sold out again).

Mike Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, staunchly defended the rights of the building’s owners for months against the hurt feelings of some 9/11 victims’ families — as well as some very unsavory characters from the right wing who didn’t care about New York before it became a queasy symbol of terror (and the War on Terror). Considering the emotion in play this might have been considered brave or politically risky. But he stubbornly phrased the debate in the simplest terms of private property and individual liberty — rights that it would be disastrous to compromise no matter how momentous the circumstances, rights that are as American as Mamoun’s Falafel. He also rightly and winningly cited New York as a traditional outpost of tolerance — “the freest city on Earth.” As if to say, “Hey, this is New York. This is how we do things. You don’t like it, get outta here.”

I like Mike. I’ve always been fine with him as mayor. One reason for this is he’s often fought hammer and tong for things I happen to care about. A couple of years ago he pushed hard for a proposal that would have limited private cars on the island of Manhattan — it would have been a bold step forward in making New York more sustainable and pedestrian-friendly. Unfortunately the bill was shot down by shortsighted politicos from upstate who were afraid of offending their fat, SUV-driving constituents. Bloomberg was so furious about this betrayal he couldn’t speak to the media that day. I liked that human touch. It showed again in the debate over the mosque. According to observers he was very passionate and involved, and eagerly sought an opportunity to address the public on the issue.

He got his chance on the day of the commission’s unanimous vote in favor of the mosque. Mayor Mike is often considered an awkward and prickly fellow, and no great orator, but this is widely being hailed as a great speech, probably the finest he’s ever delivered. Apparently he wrote a lot of it himself. It’s not long, not very grandiloquent. It’s beautifully direct, even forceful, but astute; and frames its argument with a sense of history, plenty of emotion, and the noble and urgent concept of unity between faiths.

(You can also read the speech here.)

For those genuinely concerned about how the mosque and those who will worship there fit in with American values, it’s all here, with the Statue of Liberty playing backup. If the Mayor of New York’s reverence for the sacrifice of the policemen and firemen who died that day for the freedom of all won’t convince you, what will?

On September 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than four hundred of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked “What God do you pray to? What beliefs do you hold?”

The attack was an act of war — and our first responders defended not only our City but also our country and our Constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very Constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights — and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.

Of course, it is fair to ask the organizers of the mosque to show some special sensitivity to the situation — and in fact, their plan envisions reaching beyond their walls and building an interfaith community. By doing so, it is my hope that the mosque will help to bring our city even closer together and help repudiate the false and repugnant idea that the attacks of 9/11 were in any way consistent with Islam. Muslims are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith and they are as welcome to worship in Lower Manhattan as any other group.

For those who are simply bigoted and will remain so anyway, you’ve only got one argument, and it’s not a very good one: Islam = terror.

I’m reading a book about Abraham Lincoln right now — all right, so it’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but still — and this speech recalls old Abe’s spirit. Not only because of its brevity, deceptive simplicity, and power. This is not a very popular stance Bloomberg is taking; a majority of New Yorkers are opposed to it. But it’s the right stance. Occasionally it’s necessary for politicians and other leaders to make unpopular decisions to uphold the greater good. Lincoln’s whole presidency was defined by this. As Larry Flynt of all people said, “Majority rule only works if you’re also considering individual rights. Because you can’t have five wolves and one sheep voting on what to have for supper.”

One of the villains opposing the mosque repeated the refrain that the World Trade Center is “sacred ground.” Yes, and so is every mosque. And so is Wounded Knee. And so is my grandma’s backyard. All ground is sacred. As Bloomberg says to conclude his speech, “There is no neighborhood in this city that is off limits to God’s love and mercy.” It’s an astonishingly direct affirmation from a modern politician and, along with the way he chokes up while he’s speaking, shows his passion and determination for this “critically important test” of religious tolerance. Good on ya Mike. Blessed are the peacemakers.

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1 comment so far

  1. Ally on

    Great post.
    Did you see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X58RPS665V0
    Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter trailer.


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