After weeks of dodging the issue, at a White House Ramadan dinner Friday night, President Obama came out in support of Park51, the planned Muslim community center and mosque two blocks away from the World Trade Center site.
While the project may represent religious tolerance, it also highlights the failure of moderate Muslims to condemn extremists and try to seriously reform Islam, says author Sam Harris—something the president has failed to acknowledge.
Should a 15-story mosque and Islamic cultural center be built two blocks from the site of the worst jihadist atrocity in living memory? Put this way, the question nearly answers itself. This is not to say, however, that I think we should prevent our fellow citizens from building “the ground zero mosque.” There is probably no legal basis to do so in any case—nor should there be. But the margin between what is legal and what is desirable, or even decent, leaves room for many projects that well-intentioned people might still find offensive. If you can raise the requisite $100 million, you might also build a shrine to Satan on this spot, complete with the names of all the non-believing victims of 9/11 destined to suffer for eternity in Hell. You could also build an Institute of “9/11 Truth,” catering to the credulity, masochism, and paranoia of the 16 percent of Americans who imagine that the World Trade Center was intentionally demolished by agents of the U.S. government. Incidentally, any shrine to conspiracy thinking should probably also contain a mosque, along with a list of the 4,000 Jews who suspiciously declined to practice their usury in the Twin Towers on the day of the attack.
The New York Times has declared that the proposed mosque will be nothing less than “a monument to tolerance.” It goes without saying that tolerance is a value to which we should all be deeply committed. Nor can we ignore the fact that many who oppose the construction of this mosque embody all that is terrifyingly askew in conservative America—“birthers,” those sincerely awaiting the Rapture, opportunistic Republican politicians, and utter lunatics who yearn to see Sarah Palin become the next president of the United States (note that Palin herself probably falls into several of these categories). These people are wrong about almost everything under the sun. The problem, however, is that they are not quite wrong about Islam.
In his speech supporting the mosque, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: “We would betray our values—and play into our enemies’ hands—if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else.” This statement has the virtue of being almost true. But it is also true that honest, freedom-loving Muslims should be the first to view their fellow Muslims somewhat differently. At this point in human history, Islam simply is different from other faiths. The challenge we all face, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, is to find the most benign and practical ways of mitigating these differences and of changing this religion for the better.