When I first read that a CNN/Opinion Research poll showed that 68% of 935 registered voters said they were against building a mosque in New York City that met all zoning and environmental requirements, I was hopeful that CNN/Opinion Research had asked a trick question, a favorite technique of pollsters wanting to cook the results.
But much to my dismay at first, the question was direct: “As you may know, a group of Muslims in the U.S. plan to build a mosque two blocks from the site in New York City where the World Trade Center used to stand. Do you favor or oppose this plan?”
And 68% opposed the plan, while only 29% were in favor; 3% had no opinion. The survey breaks down the respondents demographically, and only among the group self-identified as liberals does a majority favor building this mosque, and that by a mere 51% to 45%.
My first, gloomy thought: What a sad day for the United States of America. But then I thought again. As President Obama reminded us over the weekend, the issue is not of favoring or disfavoring the mosque, but of granting all groups equal rights and protection under the law.
I’m not saying CNN/Opinion Research was wrong to ask the question they did, but that they neglected to ask the other, more important question, “Do you believe that the group of Muslims in the U.S. planning to build a mosque two blocks from the site in New York City where the World Trade Center used to stand should have the legal right to go through with their plan?”
Additionally, CNN/Opinion Research should have asked the like/dislike question first half the time and the legal/illegal question first half the time, since answering one question usually colors how people answer subsequent questions.
Only by asking both questions would we know if the citizens of the United States are turning their backs on the basic principle of religious freedom that has been a foundation stone of our civil society since before the Revolutionary War. You see, it really doesn’t matter if people favor or disfavor the project; all that matters is if they accept the right to build the mosque at that location.
Those who started and are dragging out the campaign against the project have all said it is insensitive to the pain of the families of the people who died in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The factual basis of this statement is not exactly correct, since a number of families of the victims are enthusiastically supporting the project. (See the article about Mayor Bloomberg in the August 13 edition of the New York Times.)
More to the point, the premise behind the opposition to the project is patently racist: that somehow the burden of a very small number of terrorists falls on all Muslims and taints the entire Islamic religion. As I and others have said before during this controversy, the vast majority of Muslims, including the backers of the New York mosque, are peaceful, hate terrorism and have had nothing whatsoever to do with Al-Qaida.
Take this one example, from a report on Yahoo! news:
“This is not about freedom of religion, because we all respect the right of anyone to worship according to the dictates of their conscience,” US Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said on Fox News Sunday.
“But I do think it’s unwise… to build a mosque at the site where 3,000 Americans lost their lives as a result of a terrorist attack.”
That would be true, Representative Cornyn, but only if all or a significant part of Islam staged the attack. It would be true, but only if we really were in a Holy War with Muslims, and of course, we are not.
Or take Ross Douthat (please!). In his opinion piece in today’s New York Times, Ross proposes that there are two American cultures (I think he means ideologies), one that believes allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences and the second which “looks back to a particular religious heritage.” Douthat says these two ways of looking at the world are clashing on the issue of the New York mosque and that both “have real wisdom to offer.”
Douthat goes on to say that the second America is right to press for something more from Muslim Americans. “Too often, American Muslim institutions have turned out to be entangled with ideas and groups that most Americans rightly consider beyond the pale. Too often, American Muslim leaders strike ambiguous notes when asked to disassociate themselves completely from illiberal causes.”
Now without some chapter-and-verse examples, all Douthat has done is engage in some cheap name-calling. Douthat must know that lots of people will take this statement at face value without wondering who these Muslims are he’s accusing of supporting “illiberal causes.” The words slide by so easily, but what we have here is a slanderous accusation for which Douthat provides not one shred of evidence. And even if it were true, what does that have to do with the organization with plans to build the mosque? By this logic, Douthat should want to stop American Jews from building a synagogue in Michigan because a few Israeli seamen went crazy and shot up a boat bringing humanitarian aid to Palestinians in refuge camps. I suppose that Douthat would also protest the construction of a new “Sons and Daughters of Italy” club in any big city since many people associate the Mafia with Italians.
So make no mistake about it, this is not an issue of sensitivity to any group or a clash between two American ideologies. It’s a matter of equal protection under the law and the attempt by the right-wing to deny such protection to a religious group.