News / USA

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

Multimedia

Audio
TEXT SIZE - +

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.

You May Like

Russia-Ukraine Crisis Could Trigger Cyber War

As tensions between Kyiv and Moscow escalate, so too has frequency of online attacks targeting government, news and financial sites More

Egyptian Court Jails 23 Pro-Morsi Supporters

Meanwhile, Egyptian officials say gunmen have killed two members of the country's security forces More

Pakistani Journalists Protest Shooting of Colleague

Hamid Mir, a host for private television channel Geo, was wounded after being shot three times Saturday, but is expected to survive More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid