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Mosque Plan Ignites Debate About Religious Freedom, Commemoration of 9/11

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The plan to build an Islamic cultural center containing a mosque two blocks from the site of the September 11, 2001 attacks has triggered a fierce nationwide controversy. The debate says as much about freedom of religion in the United States as the failure to adequately memorialize the site of the terrorist attacks.

The U.S. constitution creates what's often called a "wall of separation" between church and state. Not only may the government not interfere in religious affairs, but minorities are guaranteed full freedom of worship.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the Islamic center may be the most important test of the separation of church and state in America "as we may see in our lifetimes."

But scholars say that in practice religious freedom is not absolute. They say religious minorities have often chosen not to upset the Protestant Christian majority.

John Farina, a professor of religious studies at George Mason University, says that when Maryland was established as a Roman Catholic colony, Catholics mostly celebrated Mass on their farms rather than build large churches.

He says the deference continues now, when priests come under pressure to uphold Church doctrine and refuse communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.

"And again and again the Catholic church tends toward the accomdationist view." he said.

Farina adds that the Reform movement, which is the largest Jewish grouping in America, has long emphasized Jews' compatibility with American culture rather than differences.

Opponents of the Islamic center say it should be moved farther from Ground Zero out of respect for the families of the more than 2,700 people who perished in the attacks.

"Every freedom we have in the world, every freedom we have in society, comes up against deference to prudence, deference to necessity, deference to the other persons opinion," said Fouad Ajami, a professor of Middle East Studies at John's Hopkins University and a Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Ajami says Islamic tradition has its own parable of prudence. When the Muslims conquered Jerusalem in the 7th century, the Christian patriarch asked the Islamic Caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab, if he wanted to come and pray as a Muslim in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

"Islamic law and Islamic history say that Umar ibn al-Khattab declined the invitation," Ajami said. "And he said, 'If I pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, my followers will come after me, and they will claim it as a shrine. So let me go and pray elsewhere."

But other scholars argue that deference equals subjugation. Obery Hendricks lectures at the Department of Religion at New York's Columbia University. As an African-American, he cites the experience of slavery in America.

"We should not expect people to walk around with their heads bowed, hoping for a time when the majority will finally say it's okay to hold your head up and fully emerge into society," he said.

Still, even he argues that Muslims enjoy freedom and equality in America, despite the anti-Muslim rhetoric being used by those opposing the mosque near Ground Zero, and despite a poll that showed most Americans oppose it.

But scholars say the fierceness of the outcry may have something to do with how little has been done to memorialize the site of the Sept. 11 attacks. While President Obama and others call it "hallowed ground," there are porn shops and liquor stores nearby. And there's been continued disagreement over the museum which is being built as a memorial.

Farina says that a graveyard is always a sacred space that inspires deep religious sentiment.

"And it's really kind of interesting - we're coming up on the anniversary here - what a bad job we've done of memorializing that site," he said. "It's still just this hole in the ground, over which New Yorkers continue to argue it seems."  

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. is another place that Americans consider hallowed ground. And unlike Ground Zero, the marble temple has a commanding presence over its surroundings and it inspires awe among visitors.

One tourist, Nancy Wilkins, is from Texas, though she currently lives in the United Arab Emirates. She says Muslims have the right to build a mosque in lower Manhattan.

"But I think they should have it a little bit further away, and be a little bit more respectful of other people here," she said.

Americans say they still firmly believe in religious freedom. But with the faltering efforts to put a memorial at Ground Zero, the possibility of having a house of worship nearby, belonging to a faith that the Sept. 11 terrorists claimed to be upholding, has clearly struck a raw nerve in this country.

Location of the proposed Islamic Cultural Center


Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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