What’s the strongest word in the English language? “No.” Whoever can say “no” and make it stick has power. Power to delay. Power to deny. Power to prevent.
Two-year-olds learn this quickly, to our astonishment and dismay. So we try to take that power away from them – because, sometimes it can be downright dangerous for a two-year-old to get his or her way. But almost instinctively, little ones understand that the word “no” means they drive the decision. They are the acting agents who are taking a stand. They control their own little lives.
Behind the Power of “No”
“No” is an extremely potent word. And its roots reach deep into our culture. For example, the Bible uses “no” as a device to define a code of conduct that God is said to have outlined for Moses – no murder, no thievery, no adultery, no envy, no lies, no other gods. There are other “no’s” as well, but everybody is familiar with this particular list.
“No” is a powerful word in government as well. “Congress shall make no law with regard to the establishment of religion.” The word “no” sets boundaries for what is and isn’t permitted in a civil society.
Ground Zero Mosque – Go? Or No Go?
A huge debate now rages in our country over whether New York City should say “No” to a Muslim organization that intends to build an Islamic community center (including a mosque) two blocks from “Ground Zero” – the location where the World Trade Center once stood. This legal question has become the epicenter of an intense argument about religious liberty versus the right of people to censor actions that they find to be highly offensive – insensitive, inappropriate and deeply disturbing.
Before we look further, let’s consider the source of the request. As someone who has stood side-by-side with Muslims in Afghanistan, fighting against the tyranny of other Muslims, I hope we’ll all remember that, just as Christianity offers many variations on a central theme, the Muslim faith is also highly diverse.
The Muslim group that wants to build this religious center says it’s adamantly opposed to the violent jihadist battles we currently see waged in the name of Islam. These are Sufi Muslims – a sect that is persecuted by Sunni and Shia Muslims because it doesn’t conform to a strict interpretation of Islam and Shariah law. As this video commentary from CNN’s Fareed Zakaria indicates, Sufi religious practices are diametrically opposed to those of Islamic extremists. Say what you will about the judgment and commentary of the imam at the middle of this debate – Sufis embrace Christians and Jews.
So what’s the danger of letting moderate, peace-loving Muslims build a religious center only a stone’s throw away from Ground Zero?
The Mosque Debate – 5 Points to Consider
1) Common-Sense Compassion
Because Sufis struggle for respect within the global Muslim community, I would expect them to be more understanding about the issues surrounding this particular site. Placing a religious facility at this location is almost equivalent to building a McDonald’s next to Mecca’s central holy place. Consider these facts that Newt Gingrich recently observed in a Washington Post commentary:
“More than 100 mosques already exist in New Your City. Meanwhile, there are no churches or synagogues in all of Saudi Arabia. In fact, no Christian or Jew can even enter Mecca.”
I don’t expect Muslims to offer other faiths the keys to Mecca anytime soon. I respect their right to honor territory they consider to be sacred. And although the Ground Zero area is not a “religious” site in the traditional sense – it has become hallowed ground. Many would say it is, indeed, a sacred symbol to Americans. Therefore, although building an adjacent mosque may be legal, it isn’t in “good faith” – literally or figuratively.
2) More Than a Private Choice
This debate focuses not merely on the location of the proposed Mosque/Islamic center, but also the possible use of public funds for its completion. According to recent articles by Reuters and others, the facility may technically qualify for funding from tax revenues. If financing were purely private, it would be hard to make a case against the legal right for the project to proceed. However, if there’s a chance that public funds would be used, then citizens should weigh-in, and expect our collective voice to be heard.
3) Did Someone Forget St. Nicholas Church?
There’s actually another religious institution that intends to build near Ground Zero. Wait, let me rephrase that. This institution intends to REBUILD near Ground Zero – but the press has largely ignored its story. That’s right – ironically, tiny St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church once stood at the base of the Twin Towers. It was the only church destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. Sadly, the church remains in ruins nine years later. St. Nicholas has asked the Port Authority for public funding to help with reconstruction, but so far, it’s a no-go.
How is it possible for New York City to expedite approval of a new Islamic center so relatively quickly – while a previously existing Greek Orthodox church lies in ruins for almost a decade? First thing’s first. Why don’t we fix the Ground Zero church that al Qaeda destroyed, before adding a new neighborhood mosque – or any other place of worship? That only seems fair.
4) No Guarantees
We can’t control the future. Someday, the Sufis may need to sell this facility. (Many churches change hands these days!) A more radical group of Muslims could step in, and use the mosque’s proximity to Ground Zero in harmful ways. Muslims who believe and advocate the very ideology that killed 3000 New Yorkers could someday worship in the shadow of the World Trade Center. Now that’s an atrocious thought. It’s not a certainty. But why should we even open the door to this possibility?
5) Other Municipalities Choose All the Time
New York City’s governing bodies argue that, based on freedom of religion, the Sufis have a right to build their mosque near Ground Zero. But let’s look closer at the responsibilities that come with this freedom.
Freedom of speech does not allow someone to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Freedom of religion does not allow citizens to blow up abortion clinics because their faith abhors abortion. And freedom of religion does not give any religious group the right to put a mosque, church, synagogue or temple anywhere the religious group wants, if it’s not considered to be in the public’s best interest.
I’ve seen dozens of strip malls lie vacant, while local governments denied requests from church groups to use the space. The reason? Churches don’t pay taxes, so the towns wouldn’t collect any revenue. If a small suburb can prevent a church from (pardon the expression) converting existing property into a house of worship, then New York certainly has the legal right to refuse new construction that could potentially harm the neighborhood. It simply needs to exercise that right.
There’s a related issue – the public cost of security. If the Mosque is built, it’s likely to become a target for vandalism – and its worshippers will be in constant danger of street violence. It’s not a pretty thought – but public safety must be a legitimate concern. For a portion of our population, a mosque in this location will only be a lightning rod – not a symbol of tolerance. It may be sad – but it’s realistic. Why invite costly consequences?
Only One Logical Answer
The five issues I’ve outlined all point to one conclusion. It’s best if we help those backing the Mosque project to consider a more viable option. An option that’s not only within New York City’s rights – but is also the right thing to do.
It’s time to exercise the most powerful word in our language. For everyone’s sake, let’s simply say “no” to a new community center and mosque this close to Ground Zero.
P.S. I invite you to discuss issues like this with me and others on Facebook. Join us at the “Afghan Journal” Forum: http://Facebook.com/AfghanJournal.
P.P.S. Interested in what I learned about Muslims while deployed as an Army trainer in Afghanistan? Check out my book at Amazon.com: “Afghan Journal: A Soldier’s Year in Afghanistan.”