Religion Today

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The "Mosque" near Ground Zero: Thinking it Through

The Pilgrims came to America so they could worship and practice their religion freely. Roger Williams believed this principle applied to everyone when he founded the colony of Rhode Island. The ideal that all people should be free to worship and practice their religion as they chose became a foundation stone of American civil liberties, enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution United States of America, and part of the "beacon of liberty" which this country has proudly shone to the world.

In this light, we should be careful about how we think about the small but vocal opposition to the proposed Islamic community center near the former World Trade Center.

The proposed Islamic center will be called Cordoba House, and will occupy a 13-story building near Ground Zero. The building will house a theater, a swimming pool, meeting rooms and a mosque. The Cordoba Institute will be the community center's sponsor and the goal is to create a vibrant cultural, artistic and intellectual institution on the model of New York's famous "92nd Street Y."

The Cordoba Institute is an established American Muslim organization dedicated to working out the place of Islam in America. They represent the "moderate Muslims" which the U.S. media and public so frequently call upon to step up and be counted.

So what's the problem?

Patrick Bahnken, head of the paramedics union says in the New York Daily News, "How will it look to have this in your face?" Well it won't be in anybody's face. The building is two blocks away in the middle of the block. In city terms, that's a long way away. It cannot be seen from Ground Zero and won't be seen by visitors unless they look for it.

Rosemary Cain expressed her thoughts this way (also in the Daily News), "I think it's despicable. That's sacred ground." Sacred to whom? Presumably, Ms. Cain means it is sacred to the families whose loved ones died there. If so, then all families who lost people there should be able to commemorate the disaster. That means not just the families of Christians and Jews, but also of Muslims, for Muslims too were among the Trade Center employees and among the rescue workers who died.

Mr. Bahnken went on to say that a Muslim center would be "a constant reminder of what they did to us on 9/11." By "they," does Mr. Bahnken refer to the one-billion Muslims around the world and blame all of them for the actions of fewer than 20? That would be like blaming all Catholics for the bombing in Oklahoma City by Irish Catholic Timothy McVeigh, as an op-ed piece in the Daily News recently observed.

Who would make the decision to stop Cordoba House? The decision would have to be taken by some wing of the government, probably a bureaucratic department.

What would this mean for religious freedom in America? It would set a precedent that a religious organization can be denied the free exercise of its beliefs, even when everything they are doing is legal. That is, a religious group could be denied free exercise of their religion just because some people object to it and are supported by a government body.

Given that our country's legal system is based on the idea that all people should be treated equally and fairly, then if one religious group can be denied free exercise of religion, all religious organizations can be denied the right to believe and practice as they choose. To prevent a branch of this nation's second largest religion, Islam, from building a religious and community center in a legal location could thus seriously damage the America we most value, and that terrorists most seek to destroy.

One of the lessons of 9/11 is we Americans are all in this together. To deny the free exercise of religion to some is ultimately to deny it to all.

The New York Daily News has covered this story extensively ( For more information about Cordoba House, see

Friday, June 11, 2010

Why does the State of Israel exist?

Sometimes the difficulties between Israel and the Palestinians seem never ending. During the 1990s great diplomatic strides were made to resolve their difference, but since then the situation has deteriorated. The recent Israeli attack on ships trying to break the Gaza blockade has raised international emotions, but those emotions comprise short-term reactions to events rather than long-term attempts at solutions.

Helen Thomas's recent remarks that the Jews should leave Palestine provide an example of the outrage many have felt, but it is an outrage that fails to realize leaving is not an option.

So why are Jews in Palestine, a.k.a. the Land of Israel, anyway?

Jews were living in the Land of Israel, as far as historians can determine, by about 1250 B.C. But then in 70 A.D. and then again in 135 A.D., some 1,385 years later, the Roman Empire banned Jews from living in Jerusalem and its surrounding province. (1,385 years is a long time; longer than there has been an English language.) Some Jews continued to live elsewhere in the land, but over the centuries, they disappeared from the area under pressure from Christian and Muslim immigrants, invaders and conquerors.

So from about 70 A.D., most Jews have lived outside their homeland without self-governance. In other words, they have lived in someone else's country being ruled by a government in which they had no say. These countries were dominated by members of a single religion, usually Christianity or Islam.

In these circumstances, Jews were sometimes allowed to live more or less in peace and sometimes not. Sometimes they were subject to discrimination, other times they were the object of pogroms, riots, lynchings and burnings. Many countries kicked them out: England did so in 1290 and Spain followed suit in 1492.

Not until the 18th century did any country give Jews even the right to vote, although discrimination continued. In the United States, Jews were refused housing, jobs and admittance to education and universities simply on the basis of being Jewish.

As the 20th century approached, many Jews found this situation intolerable and a mass movement arose that believed Jews should return to their original land, from which they had been banished nearly two millennia earlier. This movement, called Zionism, inspired many hundreds of thousands of Jews to emigrate to the territory then known as Palestine.

Then came World War II and the mass killing of Jews by the German Nazis. In less than a decade, more than six million Jews were murdered; they were simply rounded up, herded into pens (called "camps") and then killed.

The Zionist response to this was three-fold. First, they declared an independent Jewish state named Israel. Second, they called on all Jews to leave the (untrustworthy) countries in which they lived and "return" to Israel where they would be safe from predation. Third, they declared "never again." Although originally meant as a comment about the Holocaust, this watchword became the symbol of Israeli toughness. The country would never back down in the face of aggression again. Jews would not depend on the charity of others for protection, but would protect themselves.

The Zionist pioneers who emigrated to Israel in the early 20th century were in many ways like the Pilgrims. They were escaping religious persecution by fleeing to another land. In both cases, the problem was that the land was not empty; people already lived there. In America, the pioneers pushed the native tribes further into the interior, spread fatal diseases to them, or simply killed them. Over time, the natives disappeared from the daily consciousness of America's European immigrants and their descendants.

In Israel, the Palestinians have not disappeared. As Jewish pioneers arrived in the new state, various attempts were made to partition the Israelis from the Palestinians, usually behind borders drawn by military force. This notion of partition, promoted by the United Nations in the 1940s, failed during the 1967 Six-Day War when Israel conquered the Palestinian side of the partition.

That set up the present situation. Palestinians of course want independence and self-governance, but often at the expense of the Israeli state-as the hard-line rhetoric of "drive Israel into the sea" indicates. But the ancestors of the Israeli Jews lived outside the land for nearly 2,000 years. They know from experience it is not safe for them out there. So they stay and fight, continuing to struggle with the Palestinians. "Never again," they believe, will Jews be without protection.

Respecting Religious Differences: True Tolerance

During the 20th century, many eruptions of violent international friction were rooted in secular problems. The two World Wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam War were founded on political and national differences.

Since the 1970s, however, international violence often seems rooted in religious differences, in attempts by members of one religion to control or get back at members of another. While these broad generalizations have multiple exceptions, many people now see religion as the primary source of conflict; with John Lennon, they want to imagine a world in which religions do not provide humanity with a heaven and a hell (or anything else) to fight for.

Is it possible to get rid of religions? No, not really. Centuries after the intellectual Enlightenment pushed religion off its throne by elevating human reason above divine revelation and creating the sciences, religion is still around. Many had hoped and even predicted that religion would disappear. Religion was likened to a mental illness, and, in line with Sigmund Freud's "talking cure," once patients recognized it, they would be healed of the affliction. That has not happened, obviously.

So, if we want to live in a world where religious beliefs do not spark conflicts, what approach should we take? In an recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, "Many Faiths, One Truth," the Dalai Lama argues that the world's people need to practice tolerance of other people's religions. After admitting that every religion has its core, unique elements, the Dalai Lama argues that the key theme of compassion runs through all religions. Tolerance, he implies, is the emphasis of similarities, and learning from each religion in the area(s) where they are similar.

Certainly the Dalai Lama is correct in identifying compassion for others-in both suffering and their joy-as a concern shared by many, if not all, religions. Indeed, one could generalize that most religions share their central moral values. They all possess a version of the Golden Rule; they are concerned about families and the interrelationships of their members; they are against murder and theft, promote equal justice for all, and so on.
Shared moral values might serve as a basis for the peaceful interaction of members of different religions around the world, if it were not for one thing. In each religion, those values are supported and legitimized by what is distinctive to that religion.

In 1997, I created a Web site called Exploring Religions which looked at five world religions. In it, I put forward the idea that each religion identified a core problem with humanity's existence. The religion then laid out a process for individuals that would resolve this human problem, a process that usually involved divine help. In Christianity, the problem was sin; in Buddhism, the human problem was suffering; in Islam, the problem was "forgetfulness" of God (Allah). Each religion shaped its theology and its central practices to help people overcome the human problem and achieve humanity's ultimate goal.

For each religion, the human problem and its solution is the religion's central feature. As Shrek's Donkey might say, it is the innermost core of the onion when all the layers are removed. Moral values form one of the layers, and thus belong to the religion, but they do not comprise its core.
If tolerance among religions is ever going to come about, it will only be when it understands and accepts the differences between the religions. While the Dalai Lama wants to emphasize the similarities-human compassion and other moral values-it is the acceptance of and respect for religious differences that constitutes true tolerance. As Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero recently observed, "One of the common misconceptions about the world's religions is that they plumb the same depths, ask the same questions. They do not." Accepting that and still getting along is where true tolerance lies.

Note: The Exploring Religions Web site can be found at: The discussion of the Human Problem appears on the pages titled "Cosmos." Stephen Prothero's discussion of religious differences appeared in the May 17 Christian Science Monitor at: The Dalai Lama's editorial essay appeared in the May 24 New York Times at:
Flesher is director of UW's Religious Studies Program. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the Web at To comment on this column, visit