I find the word “freedom” is thrown around a lot lately by people who apparently do not understand its actual meaning at best, or possibly use it in an intellectually dishonest manner. Ironically, it is usually coming from traditionalists, who—by definition—are not interested in dissent (which is, of course, what freedom protects.)
If we step back for a moment and examine the issue, it is obvious that the protection of freedom (be it freedom of speech, religion, assembly, association, or whatever) really matters most for dissenters. Even the most repressive regimes in the world do not attempt to silence anyone who says “our nation (or country or government) is the greatest in the world” or “the government and business leaders of our country have our best interests at heart” or “we seek to restore the traditional social order of our nation.” In all countries, those in the majority—especially the rich and powerful—rarely run into problems expressing their opinions. A wealthy businessman in Singapore, Hong Kong, or even mainland China is likely to be satisfied with the freedoms he has in these countries, which are normally considered repressive. It is the minority (ethnic, political, religious, intellectuals, etc.) who really value true freedom.
Before I go on, let me be clear that I am certainly no fan of Islam. It is indeed a dangerous and sometimes violent religion (but waning in power, as I have previously discussed.) However, I am shocked to see the reaction of Americans who are willing to give up cherished freedoms that are enshrined the US Constitution to address real, and—in many cases—imagined, threats to our country. Growing up in the US, we are taught that the earliest settlers were Puritans and Pilgrims who were not allowed to worship God as they saw fit in England, and thus came to New England for religious freedom. Thus it more than ironic that conservative elements of American society (who see themselves as spiritual heirs of these first religious dissenters) are the most willing to become the new oppressors.
The right-wing demagoguery of the planned Islamic center to be built in lower Manhattan is the clearest and most chilling demonstration of the willingness of a significant portion of American population to roll back our much-cherished religious freedoms. (And the extent of our commitment to religious freedom in America is indeed unique, as evident in the fact that we allow such obvious cults as Scientology to exist—something that otherwise more progressive European countries such as Germany do not.) It is clear that certain conservative, “Christian,” patriotic activists care less for the actual freedom of religion enshrined in their supposedly beloved Constitution, than they care for fanning the flames intolerance. The evidence, in this case, is their deliberate misrepresentations and falsifications. First of all, the site is not at “Ground Zero”; it is an 8-block walk from the Liberty Street observation point, meaning practically no one visiting Ground Zero will ever see it! Second, it is not really a mosque; it is a multi-purpose building that will include a mosque in the same way that many public and private building may include a Christian chapel. Certainly there will no minaret blaring a call to pray five times a day. Even the name Cordoba has been subject to demagoguery, forcing supporters to rename it simply Park51. Despite what Newt Ginrich says, any student of history knows that the story of 8th to 11th century Cordoba, Spain is about a vibrant, multi-cultural center of trade and learning in an otherwise dark, medieval period, and not just about Muslim conquest. (And, of course, Catholic Spain eventually did re-conquer this territory, and the centerpiece mosque once again became a cathedral.) Furthermore, the leader of this project, Iman Rauf, is hardly some extremist Shiite or even Sunni Muslim. He is of the touchy-feely, mystical branch of Islam: Sufism (of whirling dervish fame.)
But all this doesn’t even matter, because—again—we have this pesky first amendment in our beloved Constitution that guarantees the freedom to practice even unpopular religions (within the limits of criminal law, building and safety regulations, etc.) If indeed the Muslim extremists hate us for our freedoms, as former president Bush said, then are we not playing right into their hands?
The only thing that can be said about this pastor in Florida (who, as an attention whore, shall remain nameless) is that he is quite stupid: by burning a books, you are taking them out of circulation, and thus increasing their demand. Then, of course, there is the company you find yourself in (historically) as a book-burner (Hitler, et al.) Thankfully cooler heads were able to talk him out of this stunt, which would have certainly resulted in a number of directly attributable deaths around the world.
The real issue here is the media’s reaction. At most, this story was only worthy of a mention in the local media outlets of Gainesville, Florida; after all, his congregation numbered only 35 to 50. Responsibility for the spectacle that followed instead lays squarely on the shoulders of national and international media outlets that brought this to the attention of the world (and real Muslim extremists who might actually kill people over this issue.) The media often has to balance the public’s right to know with the potential harm a story may cause, and this was a clear case for staying quiet: no civic benefit, but definite harm to international relations, and a real potential for deaths.
Although not related to religion, this issue again shows the true colors of supposedly Constitution-loving conservatives. In 1868, the fourteenth amendment was added to the Constitution, forever solidifying the concept of Jus soli, which we had inherited from English Common Law; it made it clear that any child born within the borders of the United States automatically becomes a US citizen (except children of diplomats.) But now, certain right-wing groups actually want to roll back this right because a number of Latin American immigrants (especially undocumented ones) are—horror of horrors—having children here! Despite the fact we are a country of immigrants, they insist on painting our most recent immigrants as criminals (this is nothing new, throughout our short history newcomers have often been labeled as trouble, be they Italian, Irish, Jewish, Asian, or Eastern European.) Today calling undocumented immigrants “illegal aliens” is apparently not strong enough; some people actually want to use the term “criminal immigrant” for people whose only crime is “not having their paperwork in order.” To which I always counter with “he who is without sin, cast the first stone,” and ask if their paperwork such as tax filings are entirely complete and accurate.
In all these cases, what I am trying to point out is the incredible hypocrisy found in so much right-wing ideology. When I hear conservatives talk about the Constitution, it seems they regard it as an infallible document, somehow handed down from God on an American Mount Sinai to our founding fathers (who were Deists, by the way.) According to them, President Obama and liberals in general are trying to weaken or re-write this “holy” Constitution, stealing their rights. But what in fact has happened in the last several years is that the Republican, George Bush, rode roughshod over the Constitution, habeas corpus, and privacy rights. Now right-wing leaders want to further erode the constitutional freedoms of religion, association, and due process …all because they misunderstand what freedom is all about: namely guaranteeing rights for the weak, downtrodden and oppressed.
Before any of European readers start feeling too smug in this regard, let me remind them of a few recent items in the news: the French ban on head coverings, the Swiss referendum banning of minarets, the deportation of Romanian and Bulgarian (EU Citizen) Gypsies from France in direct contradiction to the founding EU concept of freedom of movement for goods, capital, services, and people; and recent election of far-right, anti-immigrant candidates in Sweden and the Netherlands.