Monday, August 9, 2010

A Civil Libertarian View on the Cordoba House

For more than a week, the summer news doldrums has left us adrift in the controversy about a Mosque that will built in lower Manhattan. The usual suspects have cried havoc, and let loose the dogs of cultural war. The  Mosque has been relabeled "The Ground Zero Mosque" for our general edification. Let's be clear; there is no Ground Zero Mosque. What is going up on that hallowed site is the Freedom Tower, all 1776 feet of it. There are no plans to place a Mosque on the grounds of the Freedom Tower, there never were, there are no plans presently, and no plans in the immediate future for a Mosque at Ground Zero. The Mosque, which is not on Ground Zero, will be part of another structure two blocks away. It will be part of Cordoba House, which also is not on Ground Zero.

Cordoba House will actually be a Community Center in Lower Manhattan. It will house a swimming pool, a recreation center, and yes a Mosque among other things. It will be a privately run public space for the general enjoyment of the unwashed masses of Midtown Manhattan. In short, it will be mostly harmless. Oh, by the way, has it been mentioned that it is not at Ground Zero?

But in today's ultra-polarized politics, such oases cannot pass the scrutiny of demagogues trying to make hay by stoking the irrational fear of Islam. How dare those evil Muslims provide a civic space, how dare they contribute a community center to the people of New York City? Don't they know that Maggie Thatcher, and Saint Ronald of Ray-gun, have decreed that there is no such thing as "community?" They need abandon their false faith and pick up Ayn Rand forthwith!

This would almost be humorous if the opponents of Cordoba House were not so serious. This would be comedy if an organization like the ADL had not dived deep into the Rabbit Hole, and massively soiled themselves in the process. It is one thing when Sara Palin twitters some barely cogent drivel in a 140 characters or less. It is quite another thing when an organization with the history and pedigree of the ADL joins in the Islamophobia.

The whole tempest over the Cordoba House is grossly unfair, and patently Anti-American. It is a slab of red meat tossed to barking mad bigots. It is a political dog-whistle; a partisan play for the loyalties of the willfully ignorant. It also a gross violation of the property rights of private individuals that Conservatives supposedly hold sacrosanct.

And while we're talking about supposed core values of rock-ribbed Conservatives, now is as good a time as any to bring up one of their all-time greatest hits: The Constitution. There is no end of Liberal musings, ideas, policy proposals, and acts that Conservatives find constitutionally suspect. Things as modest as Obama's health insurance reform, or the minor tweak done on the financial industry were seen as dire threats to the founding principles of the republic. But when the subject of the right of private individuals, working as a private corporation to build the Cordoba House came up, the Conservatives were playing offense instead of defense. The Conservatives had abandoned their posts at the front lines. That bulwark, is the First Amendment to the Constitution. Let us look at how it works specifically from the prospective of the right of Conscience. A quick review of the First Amendment for those of you who slept through history and or civics class:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Going in order, let's see how the First Amendment protects not only the followers of the final prophet of God, but also all other followers of prophets, sages, divines, mystics, dabblers, misfits, cranks, and charlatans.

The non-establishment clause protects everyone by ensuring a level playing field for belief. The Federal Government, and by extension the states, cannot play favorites. No Religion, no sect, has a leg up on any other.

The Free Exercise Clause is the second pillar of the edifice. It is an explicit injunction against the power of the state. Religions cannot be outlawed; they must be left alone by the state.

The Free Speech Clause is much ignored as it retains to religion, but it is as equally critical, and is the third pillar. It allows preachers, and adherents of a faith to proselytize as they see fit. As long as a preacher's sermon does not present a clear and present danger to the state, he can preach on. That woman standing on a soapbox who is trying to bring your (possibly) Pagan, idolatrous self back into the loving hands of Jesus has a constitutionally protected right to make your day miserable. Of course you also have the right to return the verbal favor.

The right to peacefully assemble is the fourth pillar. It means we can peacefully assemble in a Mosque, or a Synagogue, or a Zoroastrian fire-temple, or whatever other structure strikes our fancy. We have a right to form non-profit corporations, to build on our property whatever structures we think may be pleasing to our deity, deities, or total lack of deity. We can gather in conclave to argue obscure doctrinal points, or gather together to contemplate our navels. As long as the assembly is peaceful, the government has zero reason to interfere.
Finally the followers of a faith have the right to protest the Government if they feel they are being unduly harassed. They can petition for relief. They can ask for redress.

Getting back to the Cordoba House, and with this review of First Amendment Right in hand, one can perhaps see the blatant bad faith of the people who oppose the structure. It is a matter that should not be up for discussion, this matter should not be up for debate. The people who are building the Cordoba House have every right to build their structure, and the religious sanctuary inside.

The Cordoba House should nestle securely behind the security of the First Amendment. The argument should be that this is the United States of America; all faiths are not merely tolerated but welcome. Come to the U.S., Come join in the great chorus of liberty. Sing with mighty voices the canticle of freedom. Give praise to whoever, or whatever you please, or to no one at all. You have freedom of conscience; let it alone be your guide.

Unfortunately we have no leaders who can sing the great hymn of liberty. We have no booming voices belting out the old, great, secular faith of this nation. What we have are stoop-shouldered congregants, hiding in the back row, with heads down. They fumble with the hymnal, unsure and unsteady with both the tune and the lyrics. They can lift their feeble voices to a barely audible mumble.

It is in such mumbles we hear in the "defense" of the Cordoba House. It will be O.K. the Mosque will be manned by moderate Muslims. They are good, safe, sane Sufis. Well, isn't that precious? Good little Muslim, who's our good little Muslim, who's our good little Muslim who wants a belly rub?

Let me let you in on a little secret here: the First Amendment does not limit the freedom of religion to just those religions we approve of. The First Amendment also covers the ones we don't. It matters not a whit from a First Amendment prospective that the Cordoba House Imam carries the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. The people who run the Cordoba House had every right to nominate the most virulent, hard-line, retrograde Salafalist they could find. That would have been their inalienable right. The man could launch into spittle-flecked invective after each of the five required daily Salats required of the Muslim faithful. He could hector, he could inveigh, he could tongue-lash, he could heap distain on the perfidious Infidels, and it would not matter a jot; he has a right, guaranteed by the First Amendment, to do such things. Until his rantings become a clear and present danger, he is home free.

If we are truly serious about this clash of civilization meme, then we must adhere to what our civilization truly is. What it is, what it is based on, is the Enlightenment ideas of rationality, freedom, equality, and secularism. The counterpoint to Islamic theocracy is Secular Democracy. The most virulent opponents of Islam do not actually object to the theocracy of Islam, they object to the religion given precedent. Sara Palin and her witch-hunting pastor are just fine with the Church running the state; as long as it's their church.

These Christian right wingers have no sense of irony or self-reflection. It is how they can bash Muslims on the wearing of hijab, while attempting to outlaw both abortion and birth control. It is as if only the right-wing Evangelical Christians have a right to set the misogynist agenda. Forced pregnancy for all women? That's fine. Shoving those same breeders into a Burka? Not so much.

It is time to get radical, to go back to our roots. Those roots are the idea of human rights; the inalienable rights that come by being a human being. They are one of the reasons that governments are formed in the first place. Governments best exist when they protect the rights of a minority against the bigotry of the majority. Some of the very first minorities that came to our shores, some of our first immigrants, where those who wanted to practice their religion in peace. Quaker Pennsylvania and Catholic Maryland came into being as places of refuge. This nation has always been a place of refuge for non-conformists of all stripes. Granted, it has been a less than perfect refuge, but still better than the alternatives.

What we must do is recommit ourselves to the idea of the United States. We must recommit to the idea that this is a Nation that accepts all comers. We need to stop panicking about the other.

The vast majority of Muslims are boringly banal. They have a spouse, and a SUV or Minivan. They have children and a mortgage. Their children get schlepped to soccer, to piano lessons, to swim practice, to school, and so forth. The vast majority of Muslims present no threat to anyone, not even to themselves. They are just like their Abrahamic cousins, the Christians and the Jews. They have as much right to put up the Cordoba House as the Roman Catholics have a right to set up a Knights of Columbus. And as far as the First Amendment is concerned, there is not one shred of difference between a K of C and the Cordoba House.

The Muslim Community gets to build their community center; full stop. They need not ask, "Mother may I." They need not clear it with Sister Sara of the Great White North. They need not alter any plans as long as they follow the building codes and zoning laws of the City of New York. The center passed the muster of the appropriate city agencies with flying colors, so that dear reader is the end of the debate, and the end of the story. Those who object need to move along and find some other source of false outrage. Look! Over there! It's hoards of anchor babies invading the land! Everybody panic!!
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