In his historically important book “Democracy in America” (1838) Alexis de Tocqueville writes that “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.” This description put forward by the French diplomat brings to mind the escalation in the dispute in the US over the issue of building an Islamic community center and mosque close to the site where the World Trade Center collapsed in New York. In just a few weeks, the mosque issue has become a major public opinion issue in which everybody has had their say – including the US President – whether in favor of or against. However the issue has taken a negative turn both inside and outside of America due to the approach of the US mid-term elections, with the issue now being portrayed as a debate over America’s position towards Islam. This issue would not have reached this level of controversy if this project was scheduled to be built on any other street in New York or in any other US city; so is the US truly suffering from a case of Islamophobia?
In the most recent edition of Time magazine, a poll was carried out that revealed that 61 percent of Americans are against the construction of the Ground Zero mosque, while 46 percent believe that Muslims are more likely than members of other religions to resort to violence. These figures may be considered alarming, but they do not necessarily accurately reflect America’s relationship with Islam. For the same polls say that 24 percent of Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim, while 55 percent support mosques being built in their neighborhoods. I am not playing down the importance of this poll or others like it, but we must draw attention to the fact that opinions and viewpoints that are not necessarily true or enduring are often expressed when there is political conflict between sections of American society; these opinions and viewpoints are subject to the conditions and timing in which they were given. There are numerous examples of this throughout American history, for example there was a significant portion of society that did not support John F. Kennedy coming to power, fearing that he was a Catholic who would work to catholicize a Protestant country, while even now the position towards Mormonism (as a heretical Christian denomination) in America is perhaps even more exclusionary than America’s position towards other religions like Islam. In 1882 a Federal law was passed against naturalizing Chinese immigrants to the US, while during World War II Roosevelt signed a presidential decree relocating and holding thousands of Japanese and Japanese American citizens in special internment camps. In addition to this, the number of people belonging to the Ku Klux Klan – the racist organization that discriminates against blacks, Jews, and Catholics – stood at four million last century.
These numbers and information reveal the vitality of American society not its prejudice; this is because the majority of these extremist opinions and views took place in the past, and the same can be said with regards the positions being taken on the Ground Zero mosque. Alexis de Tocqueville draws attention to the debate in values within America between the value of “freedom” and “equality” on one hand, and “democracy” (majority rule) on the other, and that many political, social, and economic differences can be traced back to disputes over the relationship between these three values, and that is why he talked about what he called the “the tyranny of the majority” in the face of the rights of the minority. The US Constitution is a classic example of this debate over values, for after the US Constitution was drawn up in 1787 the founding fathers discovered a contradiction in some of its articles, for while the first article in the Constitution stresses the principle of equality it was also clear that the rest of the articles of the Constitution gave great powers to the concept of majority rule, and therefore as a result of this the “Bill of Rights” (1789) was amended to the Constitution, and these were 10 individual rights that were amended to the Constitution in order to guarantee individual freedoms in the face of majority rule.
Constitutionally, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf and his colleagues at “Cordoba House” have the right to build a mosque or religious center anywhere in the US, including where the two towers collapsed, and important figures, like Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg, and the majority of legal and intellectual figures, have defended the rights of those behind this project to build the mosque. Therefore the issue is not one of opposing this on the grounds that it is Islamic or on the grounds of religious discrimination, because the Constitution and laws guarantee freedom of worship, and this including building the Ground Zero mosque. Therefore the issue becomes one of individual wisdom and appreciation of a particular project, or in other words an issue of social sensitivity, and here we must ask Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf and his colleagues why they want to build an Islamic center that costs $100 million [at this particular location] if this will offend the feelings of the Americans.
The fact of the matter is that prayers have been taking place in the chosen location for more than a year and without the media controversy caused by the Cordoba project nobody would have paid any attention to this. In fact, just a few blocks away from [the proposed location] an official mosque has existed since before the events of 9/11, and it remains there today. Therefore here we must ask: why is another mosque and Islamic center being built if there is already another mosque close by? I do not know where those behind this project are going to get $100 million when the leader of this project is touring the Middle East to promote religious tolerance on behalf of the US State Department, and is receiving less than $16,000 for this. I am not playing down the efforts of the Imam and his colleagues who want to correct the distorted image of Islam but when it is apparent that the project is causing tension in the relationship between US Muslims and other US citizens then we must say that the project has backfired.
Some have said that those behind this project abandoning this would mean them abandoning their constitutional rights, or that the battle is not over changing the location of the project but defending against the growing sense of discrimination against Muslims in the US. If we accept this, then compromise becomes the best solution because the location of the project is not as important as the ability of American Muslims to consolidate their ties with their fellow US citizens. Tocqueville was right; independence of mind amongst American Muslims is still affected by the history of hostility between their countries of origin and America which they have inherited, and they are expected to resolve this, for changing the location does not change the message.