Thomas Jefferson himself was perhaps the single most important individual in creating this pillar of American life, striking one of the decisive historical blows for religious freedom with his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This ground-breaking piece of legislation separated church and state in Virginia and served as a model for similar efforts elsewhere. It also helped inspire James Madison when he wrote the Establishment Clause to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which separated church and state throughout the nation. Fittingly, Jefferson asked in his will that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom be one of only three achievements listed on his tombstone.
Regrettably, many Americans in our time seem to believe that religious liberty should apply only to their own religion, and not to others. Many unscrupulous politicians, particularly those allied to the Religious Right, are always on the lookout for some otherwise innocuous event that they can exploit in an attempt to whip up such bigotry, and they have recently found one in the proposed construction of an Islamic community center (not a mosque, as has been frequently reported in the media) in southern New York City. Called the Cordoba House, it will not be very far from the where the World Trade Center stood before it was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks.
The Cordoba House sounds like exactly the kind of community center that southern Manhatten needs more of. It will have a performing arts center, a restaurant, a pool, and various other ammenities. All of its facilities will completely open to the public, regardless of religious affiliation (rather like a YMCA). The project's organizers have met all the construction criteria, have all the necessary licenses, have jumped through all the necessary regulatory hoops, and have received the unanimous support of the local neighborhood council.
For the past few months, several right-wing political figures, including potential presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, have been viciously attacking the proposed Islamic community center and calling upon city authorities to block its construction (Palin, for her part, calls on people to "refudiate" the plan, even though "refudiate" is not a word). They argue that the Islamic center is somehow an attack on America. In Gingrich's words, "America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy civilization." This kind of pandering to religious prejudice in order to garner political support is the most immoral sort of demagoguery and should be rejected by all Americans.
Gingrich, who apparently doesn't care much for the religious freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment, has suggested that we not allow the Islamic community center to be built until Saudi Arabia allows churches to be built in its territory. Taking his logic to its obvious conclusion, we should not allow any mosques to be built anywhere in the United States, thus making a mockery of the American ideal of religious freedom. And suggesting that we become more like the most religiously repressive nation on the planet is simply insane. We are, after all, supposed to be better than they are.
In Houston, conservative talk radio host Michael Berry stated his opinion that if the Islamic community center is built, someone should blow it up. Had any talk radio personality in the nation advocated blowing up a church or a synagogue, he would have immediately been taken off the air. Michael Berry, however, has apparently not received even the slightest reprimand for his advocacy of violence. This is all the more disturbing when we consider the fact that someone set off a powerful pipe bomb at a mosque in Jacksonville, FL, on May 10, which exploded just before people were to arrive for evening prayer; local authorities say it was only sheer luck that no one was killed.
There are some who contend that the building of the community center is somehow an insult to those who died on 9/11. These people, whatever their motives, are allowing their emotions to get the better of them and are losing their sense of perspective. Only an ignorant person would see the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks as genuinely representative of the world's one billion Muslim people. The Cordoba House project is a manifestation of the kind of moderate and inclusive Islam that stands against the terrorists and their ilk, and which we should encourage rather than reject. For what it's worth, the project will include a memorial to the people who died in the 9/11 attacks, which included, lest we forget, many innocent Muslims.
The blatant anti-Muslim bigotry the center's opponents display should have absolutely no place in America. It is a self-evident fact that religious freedom applies equally to all people without a single exception. This being the case, the construction of an Islamic community center should be no more a cause for controversy than the construction of a YMCA center or a JCC building. After all, there are well over half a million Muslims living in New York City, and they have as much right to create community centers as anybody else.
The Cordoba House (and the organization behind it, the Cordoba Initiative) is aptly-named. It is a reference to the Spanish city of Cordoba, which, during the Middle Ages, was an oasis of peace, tolerance and mutual understanding between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, each of which made up a significant portion of the city's population. At its height, which lasted centuries, Cordoba was one of the glories of human civilization, with extraordinary achievements in philosophy, science, medicine, poetry, music, architecture, and many other fields of human endeavour. The purpose of the Cordoba House seeks to reclaim this legacy of religious tolerance by encouraging understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. By doing so, it hopes to improve inter-religious harmony in New York City and beyond.
As Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf, chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, stated in an op-ed piece he published in the New York Daily News to respond to the attacks on the project:
Many opponents of the project have taken to launching ad hominem attacks on Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf himself, attempting to portray him as some sort of Al Qaeda sympathizer, when in truth he is the complete opposite. Such ad hominem attacks are not only unethical and unfair, and demonstrate a shocking ignorance about Islam, but also prove that the opponents of the project have no valid arguments on which to rest their case.
I have been the imam at a mosque in Tribeca for 27 years. I am as much a part of this community as anyone else. Our mosque is as much a part of the neighborhood as any church, synagogue, or surrounding business. My work is to make sure mosques are not recruiting grounds for radicals.
To do that, Muslims must feel they are welcome in New York. Alienated people are open to cynicism and radicalism. Any group that believes it is under attack will breed rebellion. The proposed center is an attempt to prevent the next 9/11.
It is a shame that when moderate Muslims in America step forward in a spirit of brotherhood, they are greeted with scorn and hatred. Thankfully, the Cordoba House project has received considerable support from both Christian leaders and Jewish leaders, as well as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It is planned that the center's board of directors include Christian and Jewish representatives as well as Muslims. We can only hope that the project will soon receive the full and fair approval that it deserves. If the proposal is rejected, then anti-Muslim bigotry will have won, and religious liberty in America will have suffered a setback.
Thomas Jefferson, needless to say, would had absolutely no problem with the project and would have considered its opponents immoral demagogues. He was actually interested in Islamic culture and, out of intellectual curiosity, purchased a copy of the Koran as a young man. To Jefferson, reading the Koran was an obvious part of making himself more educated about the world in which he lived. Interestingly, it was on Jefferson's copy of the Koran, borrowed from the Library of Congress for the occasion, that Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, swore his oath of office when he took his seat in early 2007.
21st Century Jeffersonians should unhesitatingly support the Cordoba House project, and all others like it. Our vision of a Jeffersonian republic is one in which all people enjoy equal religious freedom, and where no one religious viewpoint enjoys any special privileges or advantages over other viewpoints. The bigots who try to exploit religious differences among citizens purely for political advantage should be decisively rejected, and all activities that encourage deeper understanding between peoples of different religious backgrounds and traditions should be encouraged. That, clearly, is what Jefferson would want.