The proposal to build a mosque two blocks north of Ground Zero has provoked a heated debate in the nation about that quintessential American right, religious freedom, and its limits in this age of Islamist terrorism. That there are limits — that is, beyond the areas in which the law is already clear, including prohibitions against acts of violence, certain types of discrimination, and polygamy — has at last been recognized in recent Obama policies and pronouncements.
In fact, the Obama administration has weighed in with a comment specifically directed to the matter of the Ground Zero mosque. During the Q&A at a daily briefing last week, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs stated that America is “not at war with a religion but with an idea that has corrupted a religion.” Without elaborating, he quickly shifted responsibility for the matter of the Ground Zero mosque to local authorities. Delphic in its brevity, the administration’s formulation nevertheless is significant. Unlike the recent National Security Strategy document, it acknowledges that America must defend itself against not only those committing or financing terror in the name of Islam, but also those promoting radical ideas in the context of Islam. This could serve as a useful reference in the controversy over the Ground Zero mosque.
An example of where religious freedom might be limited in the light of the new Islamist challenge was provided in a dramatic way this spring when the administration designated longtime al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki, an American based in Yemen, as someone to be captured or killed. Al-Awlaki apparently crossed the line with his fiery web sermons and religious directives over a period of years that incited at least three men to stage terror attacks in the United States in the last year. More recently, the administration also adopted policies prohibiting other people from giving the radical cleric assistance, including legal representation, unless they obtain a waiver.
In that context, it is important to remember that shutting down a particular religious establishment — or preventing it from being built — does not constitute barring a religion as a whole, as Mayor Bloomberg erroneously suggested. (“If somebody wants to build a religious house of worship, they should do it and we shouldn’t be in the business of picking which religions can and which religions can’t.”) It could all depend on what the building is used for, how it is operated, and now, after the Al-Awlaki determination, what is the impact of the preaching and instruction that takes place there — is it likely to motivate people to plan terrorist attacks?
Much of what we know of the plans for the Ground Zero mosque comes from the man who is most frequently cited in articles written on the subject, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Born in 1948 in Kuwait, of Egyptian descent, the Muslim leader has become known over the past quarter-century as a bridge builder in Manhattan’s interfaith circles through his nonprofit group, the Cordoba Initiative. He also has acquired a reputation for being a master of ambiguity, someone who practices the art of “dialogue” by framing his positions in such a way that they can be understood differently by different people. He seems to make it a practice to utter opposing views in the same breath, and to state different things to different audiences. A good example of the former occurred in a 60 Minutes interview about 9/11. He stated first, “I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened,” and then in the next sentence, “But United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.”