Religious respect and civility a 2-way street

Posted: September 12, 2010

Jennifer Bryson

is a scholar in the Islam and Civil Society Project of the Witherspoon Institution in Princeton

Robert P. George

is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University

Many Americans, including liberals like Howard Dean and Harry Reid, as well as some prominent American Muslims, believe that a decent respect for the feelings of families of victims of terrorism carried out in the name of Islam should cause Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his supporters to reconsider the placement of their proposed Cordoba House. Some are also concerned that a new Islamic center near the site of a 9/11 terrorist attack would be treated by jihadist terrorists and their supporters as a symbol of victory. People who express these concerns are not bigots, as some in the media have claimed.

At the same time, it must be acknowledged that in various places across the country anti-Muslim sentiment has expressed itself in opposition to the building of mosques. Whatever one's final judgment of what President Obama has called the "wisdom" of building the proposed mosque near a site of 9/11 attacks, there are places where the sensitivities of families of terrorist victims are not what is driving opposition to mosques. Rather, it is an unwarranted fear of, or an unworthy hostility to, Muslims in general that is responsible. This is disturbing and threatens religious freedom not only for Muslims but for all.

We must avoid an attitude of "religious freedom for me but not for thee," for such a mentality rings a death knell for freedom itself and undermines the atmosphere of civility that makes social cooperation possible in a society as diverse and pluralistic as ours. It dishonors religious freedom and threatens the spirit of goodwill on which the great "American experiment in ordered liberty" rests.

In addition, such an attitude bespeaks a deep lack of prudence. There are those today, including some whose hands are on levers of cultural and political power, who have little regard for the religious freedom and rights of conscience of conservative Christians and traditional Jews. They would wield well-intentioned but easily abused antidiscrimination laws as weapons against religious organizations and people of faith who dissent from the liberal orthodoxy on same-sex marriage and sexual morality. They would compel pro-life physicians, nurses, and pharmacists of every tradition to violate their moral convictions by participating in or referring for abortions or dispensing abortifacient drugs, or abandon their professions. Weakening protection for religious freedom by targeting Muslim institutions will play into the hands of those who would run roughshod over the rights of Jews, Christians, and others.

To impede law-abiding citizens from building a house of worship out of animus toward them or their faith is to step onto a very slippery slope; it is an invitation for others to attack one's own religious freedom.

Moreover, the success of our religiously diverse society depends not only on the excellent framework of religious freedom bequeathed by our Founding Fathers, but also on a far-reaching capacity to handle discussions of difficult topics in the public square in a spirit of civility and mutual respect.

And this brings us back to New York City. Respect and civility need to go in both directions. Those proposing to build an Islamic center have expressed their intent to promote mutual understanding in society. That is good. But promoting authentic mutual understanding starts with a posture of listening to the concerns of others, for example, to those who fear an affront to the feelings of victims' families. The question is not whether Rauf has a right to build a mosque and community center near ground zero; clearly he does. The question is whether it is the right thing to do - especially for someone who insists that his sole aim is to promote goodwill and mutual understanding.

Achieving mutual understanding in the shadow of 9/11 will, to be sure, require non-Muslims in America to learn about the good character and honorable aspirations of the vast majority of their Muslim fellow citizens; but at the same time it will require Muslim leaders to heed the voices of their still grieving fellow citizens who speak out of wounds deeper than most of us can even begin to fathom.

Muslims are a growing segment of our population today. The vast majority seek to live in peace as good Americans in a nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." They are not terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, and they are as appalled as the rest of us by extremists who attack innocent people, execute apostates, engage in honor killings of allegedly wayward daughters, and the like. Most of them think like most of us: They believe in liberty, virtue, charity, self-discipline, personal responsibility, the sanctity of human life, and the importance of marriage and the family.

This is an important moment for Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslim Americans and for American Muslims. While fraught with dangers on all sides, it is also a time of opportunity. Non-Muslims can send to their Muslim fellow citizens the message that they are full participants in American democracy, enjoying on terms of equality the fundamental rights and liberties on which we pride ourselves as a nation. Muslims can send a message to their non-Muslim fellow citizens that they understand the sensitivities occasioned by the mass murder of Americans (including some Muslim Americans) committed by radicals in the name of the Islamic faith. On such a foundation, Americans of all faiths can build mutual respect.


E-mail the authors at jbryson@winst.org or rgeorge@princeton.edu.

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