What Would Our Founding Fathers Say About the 'Ground Zero Mosque'?

What Would Our Founding Fathers Say About the 'Ground Zero Mosque'?
Parvez Ahmed

In Huffington Post. Aug 23, 2010

In the debate over the Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero in New York, two competing arguments have emerged.

The supporters of the Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero (called the Park51 project) have argued that the First Amendment gives American Muslims the right to build a house of worship wherever they wish so long as the project complies with local ordinances. Some proponents also assert that building a mosque near Ground Zero is a statement that America is not turning its back on the fundamental value of freedom of religion despite religious fanatics abusing a religion to perpetrate a crime against humanity.

The detractors of the Park51 project principally base their opposition on erroneous links between the terrorism being committed in the name of Islam by a handful of fanatics and the faith of Islam as peacefully practiced by the vast majority of Muslims. Opponents have drawn encouragement from various polls that show that nearly 7 in 10 Americans oppose the project. Opposition from some, but not all, families of 9/11 victims has also been cited as a reason.

The debate was already rancorous, but when President Obama weighed in on the controversy by affirming the right of the Park51 planners to build their mosque on a site of their choice, the decibel level from the partisan opposition went up a notch. The opposition have obfuscated several pertinent facts, which, if known, could convince the vast majority of the American public to change its opinion. How many Americans know that Muslims were among the victims of 9/11? How many Americans know that a mosque already exists near Ground Zero? How many Americans know that American Muslims have unequivocally condemned 9/11? How many Americans know that al-Qaida has killed and targeted more Muslims than people of any other faith?

Either Muslims have the right to practice their religion or they do not. Raising questions about the "appropriateness" of the project or its "wisdom" are indirect ways to infringe on the freedom of religion. Is the First Amendment sacrosanct or is it subject to a popularity contest? Our founding fathers anticipated this conundrum and laid out clear markers that we should use to guide our views.

George Washington, in a letter to the Jews of Rhode Island, affirmed the essential nature of America, "a Government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance -- but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship." But today we have government officials openly giving sanction to bigotry.

In 1784, George Washington, seeking to hire craftsman for Mount Vernon, said, "If they are good workmen, they may be of Assia [sic], Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans [Muslims], Jews, or Christian of any Sect -- or they may be Atheists." Thus the foundation of America was based on meritocracy. On merits, the Park51 project has cleared all hurdles. No other consideration should stop the project from moving forward.

Ben Franklin wrote in his autobiography, "[S]o that even if the Mufti [Imam] of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service." Whereas Franklin was welcoming of foreign imams, today an insidious propaganda has opened up against a stalwart American imam.

Thomas Jefferson, who owned and read a copy of the Quran, wrote in 1816, "The most sacred of the duties of a government [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens." Today government officials are dictating where private citizens should erect their houses of worship.

In 1797 the U.S. Senate approved the Treaty with Tripoli, noting, "As the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Musselmen [Muslims]." Today President Obama, who emphasized this point in his Cairo speech and again reiterated it during the iftar dinner at the White House, is being mercilessly attacked for standing with America's founding values.

John Locke, whose writings influenced our founding fathers, wrote, "Nay, if we may openly speak the truth, and as becomes one man to another, neither Pagan nor Mahometan [Muslim], nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion. The Gospel commands no such thing." Is it not ironic that one of the biggest opposition to the Park51 project is coming from religiously conservative groups?

Park51 has a right to pursue the building of this mosque. Its proximity to Ground Zero does not provide any rational reason to pull back. However, given that we live in an imperfect world where the public is prone to episodic bursts of cognitive dissonance, it is better for Park51 to seriously explore an alternative location so long as the new location can effectively serve its constituents. (Reports indicate that the developer is open to such an idea.) They should do this to honor the peace over pride principle well illustrated by Prophet Muhammad during the signing of the Treaty of Hudaybiyah, where he compromised by voluntarily giving away his rights in order to gain peace. An imperfect peace is preferable to a righteous conflict.

If Park51 were to relocate the project, will the opponents then turn their energy to support the other mosque projects around the country that are facing bigoted opposition? Will opponents repudiate the church in Florida that is planning to burn the Quran on the 2010 anniversary of 9/11? Will Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich educate their supporters on the reality of the American Muslim community, which is described in the Pew 2007 Survey as being "decidedly American in their outlook, values and attitudes?"

Guest column: What would founders do about New York mosque?

Guest column: What would founders do about New York mosque?
Parvez Ahmed

Florida Times Union, Aug 18, 2010.

The supporters of the mosque near Ground Zero, called the Park51 project, have argued that First Amendment gives American Muslims the right to build a house of worship wherever they wish so long as the project complies with local ordinances.

Some proponents also assert that building of a mosque near Ground Zero is a statement that America is not turning its back on the fundamental value of freedom of religion despite religious fanatics abusing a religion to perpetrate a crime against humanity.

The detractors of the Park51 project principally base their opposition on erroneous links between the terrorism being committed in the name of Islam by a handful of fanatics and the faith of Islam as peacefully practiced by the vast majority of Muslims.

Opponents have drawn encouragement from various polls that show nearly 7 in 10 Americans oppose the project. Opposition of some, but not all, victim families of Sept. 11, 2001, have also been cited as a reason.

When President Barack Obama weighed in on the controversy by affirming the right of the Park51 planners to build their mosque on a site of their choice, the decibel level from the partisan opposition went up a notch.

However, in this debate, the opponents have obfuscated several pertinent facts:

- How many Americans know that Muslims were among the victims of Sept. 11, 2001?

- Or a mosque already exists near Ground Zero?

- Or American Muslims have unequivocally condemned Sept. 11, 2001?

- Or al-Qaida has killed and targeted more Muslims than people of any other faith?

Either Muslims have the right to practice their religion or they do not. Raising questions about the "appropriateness" of the project or its "wisdom" are indirect ways to infringe on the freedom of religion.

Is the First Amendment sacrosanct or is it subject to a popularity contest? Our Founding Fathers anticipated this conundrum and laid out clear markers that we should use to guide our views.

George Washington, in a letter to the Jews of Rhode Island, affirmed the essential nature of America, "a government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance - but generously affording to all liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship."

In 1784, Washington sought to hire craftsman for Mount Vernon and said: If they are good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa or Europe. They may be Muslims, Jews, or Christian of any sect - or they may be atheists.

Ben Franklin wrote in his autobiography, "so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service."

Thomas Jefferson, who owned and read the Quran, in 1816 wrote, "The most sacred of the duties of a government [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens."

Park51 has a right to pursue the building of this mosque. Its proximity to Ground Zero does not provide any rational reason to pull back.

However, given that we live in an imperfect world where the public is prone to episodic bursts of cognitive dissonance, it is better for Park51 to seriously explore an alternative location so long as the new location can effectively serve its constituents.

They should do this to honor the peace- over-pride principle so well illustrated by Prophet Muhammad during the signing of the Treaty of Hudaybiyah.

An imperfect peace is preferable to a righteous conflict.

If Park51 were to relocate the project, will the opponents then turn their energy to support the other mosque projects around the country that are facing bigoted opposition?

Will opponents repudiate the church in Florida that is planning to burn the Quran on the 2010 anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001?

Will Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich educate their supporters on the reality of the American Muslim community, which is described in the Pew 2007 Survey as being, "decidedly American in their outlook, values and attitudes?"

Looking for common ground in lower Manhattan

Now that the developers of the Muslim community center known as Park51 have secured their legal rights to continue development, what can we do to help heal the tensions that arose in its wake?


BY PARVEZ AHMED, AUGUST 9, 2010
in AltMuslim.com

That most Americans are fearful of Islam and distrustful of Muslims is not new. Most polls show that 1 in 2 Americans have a negative view of Islam. Thus, it is not surprising that a majority of New Yorkers acting on such perceptions oppose the construction of an Islamic community center and mosque called Park51, two blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood. Opponents of Park51 have often cited the negative public sentiments as a reason why American Muslims should voluntarily give up their right to freedom of religion. That argument was most vocally articulated by the storied and iconic Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which opposed the mosque construction, explaining that “ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right.” The ADL’s leader, Abraham Foxman, went on to assert that the anguish of the victims of 9-11 “entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”

Supporters of the project, however, have also been full throated in their support. Jewish Rabbis such as Arthur Waskow and Christian leaders such as Bob Roberts have decried the opposition. However, the most articulate defense came from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In a speech for the ages, Mayor Bloomberg succinctly framed the issue saying, “Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.”

Mayor Bloomberg drew attention to an often ignored fact when he said:
“Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11, and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans... 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. In fact, they have been worshipping at the site for better, the better part of a year, as is their right.”

Perhaps the boldest stance was taken by Newsweek columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria, who returned an award he had received from the ADL in 2005. He urged the ADL to reverse its decision and refuted its arguments by wondering aloud, “Does Foxman believe that bigotry is OK if people think they're victims? Does the anguish of Palestinians, then, entitle them to be anti-Semitic?” He then went on to mount a practical defense of Park51, noting that “if there is going to be a reformist movement in Islam, it is going to emerge from places like the proposed institute. We should be encouraging groups like the one behind this project, not demonizing them. Were this mosque being built in a foreign city, chances are that the US government would be funding it.”

Park51 was intended to bring people together, but unfortunately it is fueling divisiveness. The developers of Park51 were perhaps guilty of “insensitivity” - not for choosing the proposed site, but rather for not better anticipating the sometimes understandable but often contrived opposition. The opponents, on the other hand, may have a few legitimate concerns but overall are misguided in their opposition. Arguing against the core American value of religious freedom while purporting to protect America makes the opposition irrational and hypocritical.

Now that Park51 has won its legal rights, how can it win the hearts and minds of fellow New Yorkers, at least those who are willing to be fair? And how can the ADL gain back the moral high ground? First of all, cooler heads must prevail. The ADL should withdraw its opposition without giving up its right to ask the developers of Park51 to be sensitive about the pain being felt by so many people of good will. In return, Park51 should also take steps to address legitimate sensitivity.

Next, Park51 should pledge to not accept any foreign funding. While they have the right to seek donations and support from all legitimate sources - including foreign ones - it is better to make this institute an all-American effort. In the best traditions of Prophet Muhammad, who allowed a Christian delegation to pray at his mosque, Park51 could dedicate space for Jewish and Christian prayer services. During the 8th century, the Cordoba Mosque in Spain set a good example of religious traditions sharing worship space. Why not recreate such convivencia (coexistence) in New York, where the Statue of Liberty beckons all to freedom?

Some people will never be convinced of the moral legitimacy of Muslims seeking a place of worship in some proximity to Ground Zero. Yet many may change. Giving that moderate center a fair chance rests partly with the developers of Park51. However, putting their vision into practice will also require the support of a broad cross section of civic and religious leaders. Groups like ADL and leaders like Newt Gingrich will serve America better by seeking ways to positively engage with projects like Park51. Strident opposition and fear mongering are not the answer. A vast common ground does exist, a point that one of the main leaders of the development effort, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, evokes in his book, “What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America.” There is no better way to defeat the morally bankrupt ideology of al-Qaida than to seek that common ground.

Professor Parvez Ahmed is a Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida. He is also a frequent commentator on Islam and the Muslim American experience.