The limits of tolerance
The ongoing furore over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque shows no sign of abating after weeks of noisy controversy. In a sense, it has become a litmus test of America’s cherished freedom of worship, as well as its tolerance of other people and other faiths.
But to put things in perspective, I would like to invite readers to imagine that a group of Christians asked for approval to build a church close to the site of an iconic building in Pakistan some of their fellow-believers had destroyed, killing thousands. How would we have responded?
Actually, this scenario is so implausible as to be practically meaningless. The sad reality is that non-Muslims in Pakistan live on sufferance, and it would be unthinkable for them to even dream of expanding their places of worship, let alone constructing new ones. A few years ago, I recall writing about the trials and tribulations of Christians trying to build a church in Islamabad despite having received official permission. They were bullied by a local mullah, and found no support from the city administration. Since then, things have got worse for the minorities.
The ongoing dispute in New York is another reminder of how civilised societies treat those citizens who do not subscribe to the majority faith. Much to his credit, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg (a Jew, by the way) approved the project, despite opposition from right-wing groups. It is President Barack Obama who has been a disappointment to liberals with his equivocation over the issue: after appearing to endorse it at an iftar event for Muslim ambassadors, he backtracked swiftly in the face of shrill and expected criticism from the right.
In a controversial article that appeared recently in the Ottawa Citizen (Mischief in Manhattan; 7 August), Raheel Raza and Tarek Fatah, two Muslims who live in Canada, argued that proceeding with the project is tantamount to mischief-making, an act prohibited in Islam. The authors have been attacked for their stance on the Internet, with readers accusing them of taking a reactionary line.
The truth is that the issue has become highly divisive, with over 60 per cent of Americans opposing the project. Before readers think this reflects poorly on secular attitudes in the country, please recall that there are some 30 mosques in New York. What is really giving offence is the location of the proposed Muslim community centre as it is a couple of blocks from where the Twin Towers stood before 9/11.
For weeks now, this controversy has been in the news with talking heads on TV from across the political spectrum reviling or defending the project, initially dubbed the Cordoba Initiative. Critics have attacked the name of the centre for serving as a reminder of Muslim conquests in Europe. In response, the developer has said the name has been changed to Park51.
In such an emotionally charged debate, it’s hard to be rational. Logically, the location should be immaterial: after all, there is already a mosque in the area, not far from Ground Zero. So why should another make any difference? The truth is that the 9/11 attacks continue to resonate deeply in America, so what’s the point in insisting on a project that is like a red flag to a bull?
The project is expected to cost around $100 million, and many think the bulk of the money will come from Saudi Arabia, even though the source of the funds has not been made public yet. If this is indeed so, Raza and Fatah consider this would be a slap in the face of Americans as “nine of the jihadis in the Twin Towers calamity were Saudis”. More to the point for me is that the Saudis have been funding mosques and madressahs around the world, in addition to paying for chairs for Islamic studies at major universities. Many of these have been used to project the country’s official Wahabi version of Islam that has fuelled the rising tide of extremism and jihadi fervour. Against this backdrop, the question to ask is whether we need yet one more such mosque.
Raza and Fatah ask why the $100 million can’t be put to use to help people in Darfur and Pakistan instead? This is especially relevant in the context of the floods that are devastating much of Pakistan today. My own question is about reciprocity: if the Saudis can aggressively spread their ideology abroad, why can’t other beliefs build their places of worship in Saudi Arabia?
Currently, it is illegal to build a church, synagogue or temple in the country. Even importing copies of the Bible or the Torah is forbidden. Granted, Saudi Arabia is not an example of tolerance and freedom of worship. In fact, it is one of the most benighted societies on the planet where the royal family rules with an iron hand in partnership with the clergy. Nevertheless, every time the government or individual members of the ruling House of Saud wish to fund a religious centre abroad, they should be asked to open up their country to other faiths.
Liberal Americans will respond – to their everlasting credit – that their constitutional guarantee of freedom of worship should not be hostage to mediaeval attitudes in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. Ironically, given the choice between living in a religiously ordered state or in a secular country like America, Muslims have voted with their feet in the hundreds of thousands. Most of them are happier in their adopted home, and are free to worship as they please.
This is America’s major strength, and it would be a pity if the events of 9/11 were to erode it. Despite the strong religious strand in American society, it welcomes all faiths. All the more reason, then, for everybody in this melting pot to be respectful of others.
If I am having a meal with a devout Hindu friend at a restaurant, I would not dream of ordering a steak because I am aware that for him or her, cows are sacred. While we all have certain rights, we often do not choose to exercise them so as not to cause offence. This is what living in a heterogeneous society like America entails, so if Muslims opt to live there out of their own free will, it seems to me that they would be wise not to test the limits of tolerance.