On 9/11, my wife and I were living at 25 Broad Street, about four blocks from the World Trade Center. Some of our friends were killed that day; others lost members of their families, and our neighborhood was inundated with dust, smoke and toxic chemicals for weeks thereafter.
I am not, then, a disinterested observer of the debate about locating a mosque in the area. But I am dismayed by the arguments used by opponents of the mosque.
Their basic argument, as I understand it, holds that the attack against the Twin Towers was conducted by Islamic fundamentalists who claimed that their religion justified their actions. Therefore placing a Muslim mosque so near ground zero is inappropriate: It violates the sacredness of the space and is insensitive to the families. There are a number of points such an argument overlooks.
"Sacredness" and "insensitivity" are relative concepts. Not too far away from where the plane hit the Pentagon and killed members of our military, space was set aside after 9/11 for The Pentagon Memorial Chapel where daily prayer services are held for members of the military from all faiths: Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Hindus, Mormons, Episcopalians and Muslims.
As far as I can tell, no member of the military has complained that Muslim worship is insensitive to the pain they felt on 9/11 and the pain they feel every day for their colleagues who have died fighting against Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is because members of our military do not confuse the Islamic faith with Islamic fundamentalists. They distinguish between Islam and fundamentalism both at the Pentagon and in the counterinsurgency strategy they are implementing abroad.
We ask the Muslim community to do the same. We expect them to distinguish between America and the people who committed atrocities while wearing our uniforms at Abu Ghraib. We want them to understand that we do not intend and very much regret the fact that drone attacks in Afghanistan sometimes result in the deaths of innocent civilians.
If we can ask them to do all that, surely we ought to be able to distinguish between Muslims and Islamic fundamentalists.
Another argument suggests that while the Constitution protects the right to build a mosque, that does not mean that it should be built there. While I have some sympathy for that argument, it implies that we should not exercise our rights to freedom of religion or assembly or speech if our behavior might be offensive to others.
But the Constitution was designed precisely for the purpose of protecting our right to say and do and believe things that others might find offensive. To ignore that fact is to reduce freedom of speech to the right to say "good morning" and little else.
Finally, consider this: Both Republicans and Democrats acknowledge that the war on terror has to involve more than military force. It has to include a "hearts and minds" component to empower moderate Muslims and demonstrate that fundamentalist Islamic theology need not guide believers in the modern world.
I suspect that we do not advance that kind of effort when we equate Islam with terror and say that a mosque/community center does not belong near our sacred places. Indeed, those claims can undermine our national security, weaken our ability to lead the war against terror and threaten our troops.
This nation and this state were founded, in part, as a response to religious persecution and a search for religious freedom. We cannot ignore our history or undermine the rights that protect us all.
Bob Seltzer is an administrator at Westminster College. The views expressed are his and do not necessarily reflect those of the college.