Sunday, August 29, 2010
Another Teachable Moment--The Ground Zero Mosque Controversy
There are several entry points --among them the rights of religious minorities under the first amendment to practice their religion. I was reminded of George Washington's bold words in a letter to the Jews of Newport.
"The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."
Washington was the President of a new national government in 1787 when he wrote these words that have become central to the country's view of itself as a tolerant home to all believers. It is important to remember that at this time the monarchies across the European continent were still denying Jews their citizenship and economic livlihoods among other indiginities. Each year, Newport’s Congregation, now known as the Touro Synagogue where I visited and first read and was stirred by these words, re-reads Washington’s letter in a public ceremony.
Why not have these magnificent words re-read in every classroom, every year not just in the Touro synagogue--and hear them echo--"to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."?
Teachers could also compare the ways not just the Jews but Catholics had to struggle for their place in the country's polity. As Greevy and Appleby remind us "
"It took Catholics more than a full century to attain their current level of acceptance and influence, and they made their share of mistakes along the way, occasionally by trying too hard to prove their patriotic bona fides. (Exhibit A: Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose name is now, paradoxically, a synonym for “un-American activities.”) But they earned their place, over the course of many decades, by serving (and dying for) their country, and building their own churches, schools and health care systems alongside public counterparts, which they also frequented and supported with their taxes."
The New York of Review writers also point out that,
"Like many American Muslims today, many American Catholics squirmed when their foreign-born religious leaders offered belligerent or tone-deaf pronouncements on the modern world. New York’s own Bishop John Hughes thundered in 1850 that the Church’s mission was to convert “the officers of the navy and the Marines, commander of the Army, the legislatures, the Senate, the Cabinet, the president and all.” The Syllabus of Errors, promulgated by Pope Pius IX in 1864 denied that the Church had any duty to reconcile itself with “progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”
In terms of media literacy the controversy could also allow students to dig into the real facts of the case which include that the idea for a community center dates back to December 2009, when (according to wikipedia) the religious leader Feisel Abdul Rauf "announced plans to build Cordoba House, a 13-story community center, including a mosque that would accommodate 1,000–2,000 Muslims in prayer, two blocks from Ground Zero. He won non-binding support from the local Community Board. He also received both support and opposition from some 9/11 families, politicians, organizations, academics, and others. The building of the mosque and community center, as well as the initiative itself, was supported by some Muslim American leaders and organizations, including CAIR, and criticized by some Muslims such as Sufi mystic Suleiman Schwartz, who said that a building built by Rauf barely two blocks from ground zero, is inconsistent with Sufi philosophy of simplicity of faith and sensitivity towards others. Supporters for Cordoba House point out that two mosques in Lower Manhattan have firm roots, and one of them was founded in 1970, pre-dating the World Trade Center.."
In other words the controversy is a lot more interesting than it might first appear and certainly highly teachable.