Park51 and Patriotism

The Park51 Community Center, an Islamic center modeled after the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and the 92nd Street Y, is, in the words of Terry Rockefeller, “what makes America what we are.”

Terry lost a sister on 9/11.

At an annual Ramadan dinner hosted by the White House, President Obama defended the U.S. constitutional right to religious freedom, including the right of Muslims to build an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan.  Days later, Texas Senator John Cornyn described the President as “disconnected from mainstream America.” Senator Cornyn was correct. President Obama is out of touch with mass hysteria. The best leaders should be.

Last summer, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer exhorted the Park51 sponsors to construct the center “anywhere but there,” observing that “Disney’s 1993 proposal to build an American history theme park near Manassas Battlefield was defeated by a broad coalition that feared vulgarization of the Civil War.”

But settlers did not arrive at our shores to escape the persecution of theme parks and the Park51 sponsors have not asked to build one. They do seek religious freedom, a practice our Founders ranked first among the rights of the citizen.

The Founders had the highest respect for religious pluralism.  George Washington said America welcomes “the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions.” Thomas Jefferson hosted the first presidential iftar (the breaking of the fast during Ramadan). John Adams honored Prophet Muhammad as one of the greatest truth seekers of history. Benjamin Franklin called him a model of compassion.

Such tolerance has extended to other religious minorities in this country.  The oldest synagogue in America is the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. After the Revolutionary War, Washington reassured the congregation that the nation would become a religious haven to all.  “The Citizens of the United States,” he wrote, “have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation.” All Americans would enjoy “liberty of conscience,” the “immunities of citizenship” and “the goodwill of the other Inhabitants.” And “there shall be none to make [them] afraid.”

Today, Muslims in this country are afraid. Protests against Islamic centers have erupted from California to Florida to Staten Island. Some have ended in intimidation, others in violence.

Our Founders understood the human instinct to sacrifice religious freedom in times of crisis and fear. That is why they enshrined this freedom in the Bill of Rights — to protect it from the majority impulse. Today, the majority’s impulse appears to be to surrender the tolerance that distinguishes our nation from hundreds of others. Critics of Park51 call this patriotic.

But patriotism means honor and devotion to country. American Muslims have sons and daughters fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. American Muslims uphold the Constitution in U.S. courts and elect officials to U.S. government. And, when Muslims contribute an educational, cultural, and recreational center to the community, their equal participation is precisely what defines them as Americans. As President Obama aptly stated at the White House iftar, “[t]he principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are.”

Nine years ago, terrorists desecrated a faith that has earned the devotion of one-fifth of the world’s population. These terrorists hijacked a faith to advance their self-serving, polluted views. They stole our loved ones. Let us not hand them our freedoms.

Seema Saifee is a human rights lawyer in New York City. Since 2006, she has represented ethnic Uighurs held in extrajudicial detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  She previously served as a law clerk to the Honorable Dan Aaron Polster of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio.  She is a graduate of Cornell University and Fordham Law School.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Park51.

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