As the headlines and blogs about the “Ground Zero mosque” mounted in recent weeks, I, like many, wished the whole “debate” would just go away. To even refer to it as a legitimate debate struck me as far too generous. As many have noted, when opponents of the community center shifted the issue away from freedom of religion, they merely laid bare their irrational prejudices that equated Islam with terrorism. I’m sorry, I don’t have the patience to attempt a real exchange of ideas with anyone who argues that however irrational and hateful the feelings of some non-Muslims toward Muslims may be, they ought to guide the nation’s response to this issue.
But that doesn’t mean supporters of the community center are necessarily on the same page. There are actually several overlapping, but different claims on behalf of the community center. The most prominent is freedom of religion. Articulated weakly by Obama and with more gusto by Bloomberg, this legal emphasis stresses the constitutional right of Muslims in America to practice their religion without interference from the state. In its strictest version, this argument makes no claim about whether Islam is “good” or “bad” or whether the feelings of those who oppose the community center are legitimate or not. As critics of Obama’s politically cautious stance have suggested, the legal emphasis leaves an important part of the opponents’ position unanswered and constitutes a very weak form of support for the project.
Unfortunately, the void left by the legal argument has been filled by what I would call the “tolerance proselytizers.” These are groups and individuals who take the general freedom of religion argument and turn it into the specific need for Judaeo-Christian America to tolerate Muslims in our midst. Take a look at the editorials, organizational emails, and speeches on behalf of the community center, and you will find that the word tolerance has become especially prominent. “Ground Zero Mosque Testing Our Tolerance,” “Two Cheers for American Tolerance,” and “Fan the Flames of Tolerance,” to name just a few examples of the word in pro-mosque circles. Even Christopher Hitchens, who wrote an opposing piece in Slate, conceded that the debate is, in part a “test of tolerance,” although he and other critics were quick to turn the tables and demand tolerance from Muslims, as though the vast majority of Muslims in the U.S. were anything but tolerant of non-Muslims.
Surely tolerance is preferable to intolerance. But is tolerance really the appropriate ideal for those who support the community center? At a basic, everyday level, the word smacks of negativity. To tolerate something is to put up with it, even or especially if we don’t like it or it is somehow deemed bad for us. We tolerate our neighbor’s loud music, excessive heat, obnoxious children, and alcohol. Schools have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying and drugs. And the military has a no-tolerance policy for gays, on the insane rationale that homosexuals pose a danger to the force. If you apply this logic to the mosque debate, tolerating Islam is accepting it within limits, while still suggesting something inherently negative about it.
Then, there is the more thorny issue of tolerance in a religious context. The concept of tolerance has a deeply religious history. It is linked to the notion of Christ’s endurance of hardship and the subsequent virtue of charity in Christianity. In the Reformation, tolerance referred to Catholic co-existence with Protestants, even though the Catholic church still regarded Protestants as heretics. Today, when we invoke tolerance in support of the mosque, we use a term laden with religious baggage. To call for tolerance is thus to reinforce the reigning, though problematic, notion that America is a Judaeo-Christian country, rather than a secular state. In this framework, the ideal is that established Christians and Jews in the United States will extend civil rights to Muslims, as though these things were theirs to grant.
The dangerous assumption that rights can be bestowed by those that have them onto those that do not raises the more basic issue of the relationship between tolerance and power. As the philosopher Jacques Derrida insightfully observed, tolerance “is most often used on the side of power.” People and groups in positions of power choose whether or not to tolerate people and groups with less power. Whether practiced by the Catholic church of early modern Europe or religious and civic associations in the United States today, there is, as Derrida noted, a certain “condescending concession” in the call for tolerance. This concession is inherently conditional. If civil rights are something that “real” Americans can grant to Muslims in the United States, it is also something that they can take away. People who call for tolerance of Islam believe that they are making Muslims feel welcome in America. But it’s hard to feel truly at home when your status in this country depends on the whims of those who welcomed you.
Well-intentioned though it may be, the call for tolerance is even more problematic than the limited freedom of religion argument. In addition to backing away from stronger support for Muslims in America, tolerance replicates many of the prejudices and assumptions of the community center’s opponents.
So, where does that leave us? What would a stronger civic argument for the community center entail? I don’t pretend to have THE answer. But it seems to me that real support would involve adding to the freedom of religion argument without reproducing the prejudicial and religiously-inflected arguments associated with tolerance. It would underscore the Muslim community’s right to be in lower Manhattan, but challenge any suggestion that this right is a conditional gift bestowed onto them by “real” Americans. It would also be more vocal about the community center as a potential asset to the neighborhood rather than something to be endured, while still vigorously reinforcing rather than muddying the line between church and state. And finally, in addition to challenging the irrational argument that links Islam with terrorism, it would challenge the fundamental hypocrisy and exclusionary notion of a Judaeo-Christian America.