Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Michael Bloomberg on religious freedom and the "Ground Zero mosque" controversy

Yesterday on Governor's Island, just off Manhattan, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, responding to the controversy surrounding the planned Islamic community center near Ground Zero, a silly controversy drummed up by conservative bigots, most of whom are not New Yorkers and yet who want to tell New York what to do (e.g., Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich), gave what I can only describe as a truly brilliant speech on the freedom of religion, the acceptance of cultural difference, and the diversity of American pluralism. It is worth reading in full, not least as an invaluable reminder of what America is supposed to be all about, contrary to prevailing conservative ideology, but here, in light of the controversy, is the key section (bold added):

The simple fact is, this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship, and the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right. And if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.

This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan.

Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11, and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values and play into our enemies' hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that.

For that reason, I believe that this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetimes, as important a test. And it is critically important that we get it right.

On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, 'What God do you pray to?' (Bloomberg's voice cracks here a little as he gets choked up.) 'What beliefs do you hold?'

The attack was an act of war, and our first responders defended not only our city, but our country and our constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.

The conservatives attacking the "Ground Zero mosque" -- which is neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque -- do not honour those who died on 9/11, nor the Constitution, nor America itself. Rather, they spew bigotry, anti-Muslim bigotry, and seek to divide the country into "us" and "them," in so doing playing right into the hands of those who question America's commitment to its long-held values, proving America's enemies right. And in opposing the construction of the community center, these conservatives are proving to be a lot like al Qaeda and bin Laden, intolerant religious extremists who reject religious conciliation and understanding.

America should be better than that, and better than its enemies, and Michael Bloomberg clearly wants it to be. Ground Zero will remain what it has become, sacred ground, no matter what surrounds it, but the Islamic cultural center will be proof that America actually lives up to its values and principles -- to freedom -- even in the face of uncompromising adversity.

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