Franklin D. Roosevelt told a trou- bled nation in 1933: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Those words ring true today, at a time when the United States faces its greatest economic challenges since the Great Depression, at a time when we remain involved in two far-away wars, remain under a threat of terrorism and at a time when the demographics of the nation are changing.
Uncertainty and change feed fear the way oxygen feeds a fire.
And so it should not be surprising that the specter of a mosque being built at Ground Zero in New York City has provided kindling for fear mongers and political opportunists to stoke a bonfire of intolerance. That a mosque would only be a small part of a large Muslim community center and that the building is located blocks from the former World Trade Centers appears to be irrelevant to the debate.
Equally irrelevant, to those who see the planned construction as a threat to America is the fact that virtually nothing is more American — at least in theory — than religious freedom.
This nation traces its roots to early settlers who were fleeing religious intolerance. When it came time to adopt a Constitution, one of the five freedoms ensured by the very first amendment was freedom of religion.
Into the breach
Recognizing that, President Barack Obama said last week: “As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances,” he said.
What conservative could possibly argue with that? It is a statement in perfect accord with the First Amendment and with private property rights that were protected by the common law even before they were prescribed in the Fifth Amendment.
And yet, Obama was widely criticized not only by his political opponents but by many in his own party who were eager to distance themselves from a president who made a statement that ran counter to the polls.
Ascribing evil motives to all Muslims based on the actions of radical contingents is neither fair nor logical. Catholics were not judged by the rantings of Father Charles Coughlin. Jews were not judged by the zealotry of Rabbi Meir Kahane. Protestants are not judged by the picketing of Fred Phelps, the minister who shows up at the funerals of soldiers to demonstrate his intolerance for homosexuals.
Why, then, are so many Americans willing to ascribe to Islam the hatred that 19 radical Muslims and their handlers acted upon on Sept. 11, 2001?
It is because too many Americans are able only to see Muslim Americans as different. They are as different today as the Irish were a century and a half ago, as the Italians and Hungarians were a century ago and as black Americans were a half century ago.
Last one in
In each of those cases and in many others, the newest to arrive on the scene were seen as a threat to the status quo. Each new group was defined as a threat to the America of its time. And yet, against the conventional wisdom of the time, America has assimilated each new group.
And it has done so most successfully when it has adhered to the clear intention of its Constitution.
It is easy enough to fall victim to fear. Roosevelt himself did it nine years after his first inaugural address when more than 100,000 Japanese Americans (and smaller numbers of German and Italian Americans) were sent to internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Even Roosevelt forgot the second half of his famous sentence that described the paralyzing dangers of “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.”
What’s in a name?
Are there terrorist out there and among us? Certainly. Some of them are, no doubt, Middle Eastern, with names that ring strange to the American ear. And some of them have had names like McVeigh and Nichols and Kaczynski. Most people don’t know what religion those terrorists may have held and they certainly wouldn’t bar the construction of a church based on any denominational connection.
Likewise, no Muslim should be barred from building a community center — with or without a mosque — based on the actions of people who happen to claim the same religious affiliation.
Certainly there is room for argument that the building of a mosque near Ground Zero will offend some sensibilities. And there’s the other view, that such a mosque will be a testament to the Constitution that makes the United States of America unique.