Jerusalem In New York City or The Mother, May I Mosque

Yes, you can, but don’t. This is the majority consensus that I hear emerging from the ruckus over whether or not to ‘allow’ the construction of a mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero. The President has reminded us, as his role requires, that one of our national principles is Freedom of Religion. Whether or not the builders of the mosque have a right to do it is not in question. What appears to be in question is whether or not they SHOULD do it.

It’s a good thing that we have Freedom of Religion because America has more gods than Ancient Rome. The Poet’s Eye has seen people worship everything from Buddhas to Bankbooks. We have cults that lift dead spirits and ones that raise rattlesnakes and roll in exaltation. Some worship Science and accept the pronouncement of its priests. I knew a sculptor one time who worshipped auto parts and made his alter from the grille of a 1959 Edsel. Praying before it was like staring into the empty eye of an obsolete god. Absolutum Obsoletum Mani Padme Ommm. In America there is open commerce in competing deities. Our idol makers are not idle. We churn out gods and demi-gods and all manner of minor saints at a prodigious rate. A young Roman girl might have worshipped and aspired to the qualities of Diana in the same way that our daughters pray with our pocketbooks to Hannah Montana. We can worship Sunday Morning TV Evangelists or Self-Help Con-Men or the Devil Himself if we want to, in America.

But just because most Americans are in favor of the ideal of Freedom of Religion doesn’t mean that certain religions aren’t held in higher common esteem than others while some are outright scorned, mocked and widely disapproved of. We have a whole subculture who believe that they are vampires. Nobody is particularly intent on denying them their delusion but they aren’t taken too seriously either. Religious discrimination comes along with religion itself. And in 2010 I would not like to be a Muslim in America.

Yes, you can, but don’t. The conflict intoned in this sentence reflects a basic conflict in our American psyche. ‘Yes, you can, but don’t,’ says that all of our freedoms have limits. The Freedom of Speech doesn’t mean that you can say anything that you want anytime and anyplace that you want. Most people of reason recognize that even though we are guaranteed the Freedom of Speech, there are responsibilities that go along with it such as at least a nominal adherence to the truth and if we cry fire in a crowded theater, there had better be a real fire, etc. We restrict the Freedom of Religion in that we don’t allow human or animal sacrifices and other practices that violate civil or criminal law. Smoking pot is part of my religion but in Texas I can still be arrested for it. So, we understand that there are no absolute rights.

The question is not whether or not anyone is ‘allowed’ to build a mosque on private property observing local codes and ordinances. They are explicitly allowed to do this. The debate is over whether or not it is appropriate or in good taste to build it in that particular location. Not whether they Can but whether they Should. Thus it becomes a matter of taste and discretion rather than one of rights and laws. We should be glad that in America we place such matters in the hands of Miss Manners rather than the military. The community and the culture will settle this debate. If it were up to me, we would donate a space in the Ground Zero Memorial proper for a mosque or other Muslim remembrance. We shouldn’t worry about an Islamic rec center two blocks away providing some community meeting rooms and putting up pool tables for the kids. I’m sure that there are crack houses in that radius. That it is a debate at all is only a function of the emotions involved and the symbolic values that various people have assigned to the same piece of real estate. It can’t help but remind me of the seemingly eternal conflict over Jerusalem itself.

I’m an incurable idealist, I guess. I thought for a moment that we lived in a world that was at least slightly evolved beyond the Middle Ages when there were religious wars. Yes, it is pure idealism because the only place I’ve ever seen true religious tolerance was in books. Religious intolerance and oppression and persecution are far from unknown in our history. Any Scientologist or Wiccan or just a garden variety Mormon can tell you of religious intolerance in our land of Freedom of Religion. Our society has sterner ways than laws to express intolerance. This is why I worry for my Muslim friends.

It was already hot this morning when I took my walk to the tobacco shop. The shop is operated by a group of Pakistani immigrants. I go there because it is a good distance for my daily walk and because they sell cheap exotic cigarette brands. Today I paused in the air-conditioning and talked with the counter man. He had been in this country for a decade, he said, and his children were all in college. We talked about how hot it was here and how wet it was in Pakistan. Small talk. He was very open and jovial until I mentioned the subject of the Ground Zero mosque. Then a funny veil dropped over his eyes. I don’t know him that well, we’ve never mentioned religion in our brief conversations but as soon as the subject came up I could tell he was talking to himself silently, ‘should I treat this guy like a customer or a neighbor? Is he a member of the Nazis or the Christian Purity League or something? Is he going to come and put a brick through the window if I give him the wrong answer?’ This is what he was thinking. He acted like a Jew furtively trying to hide his yellow star in pre-war Germany. Another customer walked in and I courteously dropped the subject but it told me that even in Dallas, Texas in a casual conversation with an unthreatening long-haired old hippie, this Muslim gentleman was feeling enough of a social strain to be guarded in his speech. He was well enough acclimated to American life to know that the Freedom of Speech can be superseded by the wisdom of keeping one’s mouth shut.

As the Ground Zero Memorial and surrounding buildings take shape there will be many civic and religious and commercial spaces. There will be shrines to finance and trade and all the religions and sects of money will have their little nooks in the sanctuary mall of Ground Zero. You will be able to buy curios and quasi-religious artifacts and post-cards, bow down in art museums and take high-fat sacraments from Fast Food Inc. It will be a religious whorehouse anyway, why not have a mosque too? It couldn’t offend me any more than many of the other things that have been done in the name of 911.

The President phrased it with his usual precision. It is certainly legal for the mosque to be built close to Ground Zero but that is a separate question from if it is Wise to build it there. I’m one of my generation’s loudest proponents of Freedom of Speech. I’ve tested its limits in every amusing way that I could imagine. But I know better than to walk into a Harry Hines biker bar at midnight and start talking about people’s mamas. It would do nothing to promote human understanding and would be an extreme example of ignoring local rules and customs. Violence would be predictable. The Poet’s Eye hopes never to see sectarian strife erupt in the streets of New York City, but given the tension surrounding our distinctly anti-Muslim National attitude it wouldn’t be a complete surprise if the recreation gets a little rough at the Recreation Center.

“I defend to the death your right to say it, but I wish you wouldn’t say That.”—Lrod

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