A Mosque at Ground Zero: Desperately Seeking George Washington's Wisdom

Let's face the fact: What does it mean to assert that a mosque "desecrates" hallowed ground? It means that the desecrating being done is by people who are evil, unclean. And that is wrong, wrong, wrong.
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"To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance...."

These immortal words written by George Washington in a letter -- words that avow religious liberty and echo in the American heart -- echo especially loud now, as a firestorm rages over a planned mosque at Ground Zero in New York City.

But another set of words in that letter, more provisional in nature, also echo. They are: "If we have wisdom... "

Sadly, at this late post-9/11 moment, a whole lot of bigotry is being sanctioned -- with protests springing up around the country, the hysteria of which is best captured in a protester's sign that read: "Mosques are Monuments to Terrorism." In this blinkered view, all of Islam equates to terrorism, all mosques are madrassas, all Muslim-Americans are aliens using their citizenship to subvert America from within and install their law of sharia.

And such persecution is being assisted, fanned even, by demagogues -- why do they all tend to be Republican and God-fearing and so easily inflamed? -- ranging from potential presidential candidates Newt Gingrich (who compares mosque backers to Nazis) and Sarah Palin, to the former Tea Party Express leader who referred to Allah as a "monkey god," to the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer who, in a blog post titled "No more mosques, period," called the 9/11 mosque a "monument to slaughter" and equated Muslim-Americans with the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical organization. We have reversed a long, long way from another God-fearing Republican who right now seems comparatively wise -- former President George W. Bush - -who declared just days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, "We are not at war with Islam" (but then later, unwisely, declared war on Iraq).

How to unpack all the fear and hatred? One marvels at its speed and fury. One also has to sigh: Recall that 9/11 -- almost nine years ago, going on a decade now---was the day "that changed everything," presumably for the better.

That better day was heralded in the aforementioned letter of George Washington, which he wrote to the Hebrew Congregation of Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, following a visit there in 1790, one year after his inauguration. In addition to vowing "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance" -- wording (it must be revealed) Washington cadged from the letter of invitation from the Congregation's warden Moses Seixas -- the new president underscored the "immunities of citizenship" (also Seixas' term) and expanded with this important distinction the new nation would make:

"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights."

No more toleration, but equality guaranteed. Imagine this idea's tonic effect on the Congregation, "deprived as we heretofore have been," "Seixas wrote, "of the invaluable rights of free Citizens." Muslim-Americans need to hear the same assurances from their fellow Americans, now, when their more hysterical countrymen behave as if citizenship is theirs to confer or deny. As the head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said on PBS NewsHour, he "takes offense" that he constantly has to defend that "I am American too."

To be sure, more legitimate than citizenship-checks in this firestorm is the argument that, to the 9/11 families especially, Ground Zero is "hallowed ground" and that a mosque "towering" over this sacred site is a desecration. One pauses at this appeal for deference to the dead. But, with all due respect, the argument begins to break down when you ask, how far away is the proper distance: five blocks, twelve blocks, a borough away? Lost in the uproar is the fact that two mosques already exist in the neighborhood and have operated for decades, one four blocks from Ground Zero, the other twelve blocks. And the head of the planned 9/11 mosque -- actually it's to be a multi-purpose community center -- has been imam of a mosque ten blocks north of Ground Zero for 30 years. (He's also served in Mideast outreach initiatives of both the Obama and Bush administrations.)

But distance and deference are not the point. The Anti-Defamation League got it wrong when it stated, "ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right." No, ultimately it is a question of rights---constitutional rights, rule of law, religious liberty. The head of ADL implied as much later when he said, of the victims' families, their feelings must be honored -- even if irrational or bigoted [emphasis mine]. Again, "to bigotry no sanction," even in suffering. (It must be noted bigotry, being hate-filled -- hating all things Muslim, for example -- can only exacerbate one's suffering.)

To resolve this firestorm, then, will take wisdom, oceans of it, a capacity George Washington cast in these provisional terms:

"If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and happy people."

Exemplifying this wisdom is Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who declared early his support for the Constitutional right to build the center. Invoking in a speech the firefighters and police officers who entered the burning towers on 9/11, Bloomberg stated unequivocally: "We do not honor their lives by denying the very Constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights---and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked." Noting this to be "as important a test" of the separation of church and state "as we may see in our lifetime," he added, "it is critically important that we get it right." Indeed!

Then, last Friday, President Barack Obama weighed in with a speech likewise supporting the Constitutional right to build the center, though by Saturday, bowing to the blowback, Mr. Obama recalibrated to say he would not comment on "the wisdom" of such move.

Wisdom, wisdom: It's the thing we desperately seek.

How heartening then that one of the 9/11 organizations -- September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows -- "strongly supports" the center, stating: "We believe that welcoming the Center, which is intended to promote interfaith tolerance and respect, is consistent with fundamental American values of freedom and justice for all." This statement -- whose every word no doubt was chosen with exquisite care by the members---lifts off with this: "[T]his building will serve as an emblem for the rest of the world that Americans stand against violence, intolerance and overt acts of racism and that we recognize that the evil acts of a few must never damn the innocent" [my emphasis again]. Morally magnanimous -- and deeply savvy in its grasp of national security -- this is the wisdom that will deliver "peaceful tomorrows." George Washington would approve. [See also op-ed by a group member who lost her firefighter son on 9/11.]

But: This wisdom is nowhere plentiful enough, and bigotry reigns bigtime. Polls show a majority of Americans -- nearly 70% -- oppose the "Ground Zero mosque." And now, with Obama recalibrating and Democrats caving (Senate majority leader Harry Reid today says the mosque should be built elsewhere), and with Republicans doubling down on their demagoguery (with welcome exceptions), the genie is being let out of the bottle -- unchecked.

Time to check it, time to get wisdom -- fast -- especially at a time of so much generalized anger. Ideally that wisdom will come from the White House, just as it came long ago from our first helmsman, George Washington. Much as Candidate Obama did in his brilliant speech unpacking the racism directed against African-Americans (which was forced by the firestorm over Reverend Jeremiah Wright), Obama must now in this firestorm unpack the racism, the outright bigotry, directed against Muslims.

For let's face the ugly fact: What does it mean, really, to assert that a mosque at Ground Zero "desecrates" hallowed ground? It means, in plainest language, that the desecrating being done is by people who are unholy, evil, unclean. And that is wrong, wrong, wrong -- again, "The evil acts of a few must never damn the innocent" -- and Obama must say so. As to such mosque being a "monument to terrorism": If we make it so, it will be as intended, a "bridge," Martin Luther King's "table of brotherhood" -- and Obama must say that, too. No matter that he'll be accused of being a closet Muslim (more proof of bigotry) and no matter that a majority of the public opposes him. As the protagonist in Ibsen's play The Enemy of the People learned, sometimes "the majority is not right."

I am hoping, audaciously, Obama does the right thing. And, as George Washington
addressed us also -- "If we have wisdom" -- I hope all conscientious Americans, of all faiths and parties, step up too. We need to get this right -- absolutely -- because this is not just about a mosque, it is about our nation's moral truth.

Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is at work on a play titled "Prodigal." Her book, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character," a collection of op-eds, essays, and dialogues, is now out. Earlier she served a ten-year career in civil rights (www.carlaseaquist.com).

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