Near Ground Zero, a Shameful Intolerance

Near Ground Zero, a Shameful Intolerance

The biggest problem dogging American politics and media isn’t a deficiency of expertise or a lack of good intentions. It’s a lack of courage. But there is courage out there — and it should be honored.

Kudos should go to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, who amid fierce criticism publicly defended Muslims who were looking to build a community center in lower Manhattan. Also to Fareed Zakaria, the Newsweek columnist and CNN host, for making a case for tolerance by returning an award given to him five years ago by the Anti-Defamation League. He did so after the Jewish organization released a statement on July 30 maintaining that the planned Islamic center, which includes a mosque, should be relocated because it is too close to the site of the World Trade Center.

The Anti-Defamation League’s reasoning for its stance was truly shocking. The organization argued, “Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam. The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong. But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain — unnecessarily — and that is not right.”

Translation: Some people will feel bad if this center is built, and we need to take these feelings into account, even though Muslims have every right to build there.
“Your own statements subsequently, asserting that we must honor the feelings of victims even if irrational or bigoted, made matters worse,” Mr. Zakaria said in a letter addressed to Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Their awful decision to call for banning the Islamic center was shameful. Let’s look at some comparable cases using the Anti-Defamation League’s logic: It causes some people pain to see Jews operating small businesses in non-Jewish neighborhoods; it causes some people pain to see Jews writing for national publications (I frequently receive letters to this effect); it causes some people pain to see Jews on the Supreme Court.

So would the organization agree that we should ban Jews from these activities, so as to spare other people pain? No? What’s the difference?

Backstory: Politics and Religion Collide

A national debate about the meaning of religious freedom and cultural sensitivity has been raging in the United States ever since sponsors Daisy Kahn and her husband Feisal Abdel Rauf, along with real estate developer Sharif El-Gamal, announced plans for the construction of an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan in May.

Part of a complex called Park51, the Islamic center includes plans for a mosque. Concerned about heightened tensions, government leaders are stepping into the fray.

Michael R. Bloomberg, mayor of New York, defended the project in a speech earlier this month, invoking the Muslim sponsors’ legal right to build the facility two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center. “To cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists — and we should not stand for that,” he said.

President Barack Obama adopted a similar tack: At a dinner celebrating the first day of Ramadan on Aug. 13, he stressed the importance of equal treatment regardless of race and religion. “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable,” Mr. Obama said.

In responses disturbing to some members of the Republican Party, House minority leader John Boehner said he found Mr. Obama’s words “deeply troubling”; former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has also called for the plans to be scrapped; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the proposed center was a “political statement of shocking arrogance and hypocrisy.”

Mr. El-Gamal told ABC News the group still has to raise about $100 million for the center. After New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission cleared the way for construction of Park51 on Aug. 3, he said the planned center represented “an American dream which so many others share.”
“We are Americans — Muslim Americans,” he said.

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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.

Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including “The Return of Depression Economics” (2008) and “The Conscience of a Liberal” (2007).

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company.