August 16, 2010
The controversy over the Islamic religious center (including a mosque) near Ground Zero in New York City has acquired even more prominence as a result of President Obama's remarks at a dinner Friday night . The President observed that Muslims have a constitutionally protected right to build a mosque anywhere, provided they comply with relevant laws and regulations.
Critics jumped on Obama's remarks, some accusing him of siding with "Islamic jihadists." The more moderate critics have conceded that Obama's observations were legally correct—Muslims enjoy the same right to free exercise of religion as anyone else—but they fault Obama for not taking the opportunity to criticize the placement of the mosque as "offensive."
I'm not sure that Obama had to speak out on this issue at all—that's a judgment call for him—but I see nothing objectionable in either what he said or what he failed to say. Obviously, he is correct that the government cannot constitutionally prevent the religious center from being built. Moreover, I believe it would have violated the spirit of separation of church and state, if not the legal letter of the First Amendment, for the President to have criticized the location of the mosque. Do we want government officials to intervene in disputes over the alleged offensiveness of a place of worship? I don't think so. Among other problems, these officials would have no standard for "offensiveness" other than their own emotional reactions or prejudices. Consider just one element of the alleged offensiveness of the planned religious center. Critics say it is too close to Ground Zero—it's about two blocks away. Well, what distance would eliminate offensiveness? Three blocks? Four blocks? Five? If, hypothetically, six blocks would be OK, but five would not be, what objective difference could one block make?
You get my point. Offensiveness is subjective. It lies largely in the perception of the beholder, although it is no doubt influenced by majority sentiment. This may explain why some find the location of a mosque near Ground Zero intolerable, while few, if any, object to those making money off the tragic events of 9/11 by selling souvenirs near Ground Zero.
Of course, those who object to the Islamic religious center have a right to protest its location, as they have been doing vigorously for months. And from a community relations standpoint, it may have been imprudent for those building the religious center to have placed it in a location that was guaranteed to generate controversy. But these are issues best left to private individuals. There is no need for a government official to interject her or his views about the desirability of the religious center's location.
And my own views? I just wish that mosques, churches, temples, and synagogues would cease to be built anywhere. I hold this view for a number of reasons, including the fact that whenever sacred texts are held out as the guide we need to follow slavishly, there is always a danger that these texts will be interpreted to justify murder and other acts of violence. Religiously inspired violence will not end until religion ends. I’m not sure what offends the memory of those who died on 9/11, but I do know that one appropriate way to honor their sacrifice would be to encourage critical examination of religion—all religions.