by David Bromwich
When Nancy Pelosi said the power and money backing the anti-Muslim protests in New York and elsewhere should be investigated, she had in mind the simplest of political questions. Who benefits? In this case, who benefits from a spectacle of words and images that suggest that right-wing populism in America has now taken a definitively anti-Muslim tone? The message of these protests against more than one mosque is that the fight to defeat al Qaeda has become a war against Islam.
No American is helped by that change of view. It exposes us to an enlarged hostility from the Arab world, heated by suspicion and legitimate fear. The only people who stand to gain are those who have an interest in setting the United States against the Arab countries of the Middle East. Who would that be? Pelosi has sharper instincts than the other leaders of her party. Her distrust of the sudden prosperity of a “grassroots” movement has been borne out by Jane Mayer’s recent investigation of the funding of the Tea Party by the billionaire Koch brothers.
The worst damage of the crowd actions of the summer has come from the faintheartedness of those who knew better, but declined to denounce them. The crowd has been permitted to go on believing it is wrong for Muslims to do something the Constitution gives all Americans a right to do. How did this deformation of public feeling begin? The protests against Cordoba House shifted from a parochial to a national issue on the impetus of two statements. The first came from Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, on July 30. Foxman put the ADL on the record in sympathy with the protest against the planned community center and mosque. His statement conceded the right of the planners, but defended the prejudice, that is, the rooted feelings of the non-Muslims in this case, regardless of reason, right, or law.
Note that the tenor of the ADL statement was not political or moral, but sentimental. The planners had a right to build where the legally-designated authorities agreed they could; but the ADL hoped they would not build quite there — out of respect for the feelings of people close to the victims and the sympathy of Americans for those feelings. Notably absent from this moral arithmetic were the Muslim victims of the attack.
President Obama on August 13 affirmed the right of the planners to build at Park51; they were only using, said Obama, the right of religious freedom that belongs to them as it belongs to other Americans. A decent response and the only thing necessary for a president to say.
Yet Obama spoilt his effect by extending his remarks. He chose, unnecessarily, to legitimate the religious language of the protesters by asserting that “Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.” The words “hallowed ground” are familiar to Americans because Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, said the soldiers themselves who fought in that battle had hallowed the field, “far above our poor power to add or detract”; the soldiers had hallowed that ground by risking their lives to advance the work of liberty. If Ground Zero is hallowed ground, it must be because the victims were soldiers in a war (they did not know they were, but they were). But what war? A war against al Qaeda, or against Islam? That is the question the demagogues behind the protest are seeking to confuse; and by glibly adopting their piety as an earnest of his sentiments, the president gave the anti-Muslim cause a boost he could have withheld. Obama further diluted his elementary defense of the rights guaranteed by the first amendment when he walked back his statement the following day and averred he had meant only to recall the right of the planners to build; he did not mean to endorse the wisdom of the choice of a site.
The “wisdom” theme of the Obama walk-back was soon taken up by Harry Reid (to shore up the bigot vote in a close election), and by Howard Dean (to prove his sagacity as a moderate). The issue has since become a source of intimidation to Democrats and of jeering challenge by Republicans. The odd thing is, almost no one mentions the Constitution. The first amendment is out there; it says something definite on the subject. This is not a matter that anyone would have dared to argue about in 1965, 1990 or 2005. The clarion words of the text, “no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” admit no ambiguity at all. This fact has not escaped the attention of the Fox radio hosts. “Now he mentions the Constitution,” said Glenn Beck last week of Obama. And Limbaugh: “Of course they have the right” — as if it were the right of a man to keep an anaconda in his bathtub. Even in the face of such disclaimers, Democrats would rather not defend the Constitution in an election year.
A curious detail in the uproar has been the way that Foxman, Obama (day two), Reid, Dean, and the Fox talkers chose as their rallying point the idea of “sensitivity.” The Imam has a right to build, but it would be sensitive of him to build farther away, or after some years of sensitive waiting. The geographical coordinates of sensitivity have proved hard to map. The Park51 site, as everyone now knows, is two and a half blocks from Ground Zero. A mosque already stands four blocks from Ground Zero. At what point does the force-field of prejudice release its hold of the Constitution and allow the execution of a permit?
Sensitivity. The term came into the political discourse of America in the 1980s to justify the campus speech codes of the time. It was the soft wrapping around political correctness. The rights of students from the “dominant culture” (it was said) were technically the same as, but ought to be used more sensitively than, the rights of students from “marginal cultures.” So a professor of American history might read aloud from the diary of a slave-plantation owner; but if black students found this a sensitive subject, the teacher should back off and alter the curriculum. In the same way now, the Muslim planners of a community center and mosque in New York City are asked to respect the anti-Muslim sensibilities of unspecified numbers of non-Muslim Americans. The rage for sensitivity was a poisoned gift. The poison has now passed from the cultural Left of the 1980s to the cultural Right of the 2010s.
The language of the American founders contains not one word about sensitivity. “As to religion,” wrote Thomas Paine in Common Sense, “I hold it to be the indispensable duty of all government, to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith.” But did Paine and others mean to extend such toleration to Muslims? They did, and they said they did. The question was openly debated whether religious liberty ought to be extended to such outliers as Catholics, Muslims and Jews. In the debate on the Constitution, for example, in the North Carolina convention, on July 30, 1788, Henry Abbot wondered if there were not considerable danger in granting a federal government the power to make treaties. Could not a treaty be made “engaging with foreign powers to adopt the Roman catholic religion in the United States, which would prevent people from worshiping God according to their own consciences.” Abbot pursued his anxious challenge:
The exclusion of religious tests is by many thought dangerous and impolitic. They suppose that if there be no religious tests required, Pagans, Deists and Mahometans might obtain offices among us, and that the Senate and Representatives might all be Pagans.
A conclusive reply to Abbot was given by James Iredell:
How is it possible to exclude any set of men, without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for? This is the foundation on which persecution has been raised in every part of the world. The people in power were always in the right, and every body else wrong. If you admit the least difference, the door to persecution is opened.
Later in the same debate, David Caldwell objected that the American Constitution would allow a toleration so sweeping “there was an invitation for Jews, and Pagans of every kind, to come among us”; and he ended by suggesting “those gentlemen who formed this Constitution, should not have given this invitation to Jews and Heathens.” The answer this time came from Samuel Spencer. No religious test, argued Spencer, could possibly exclude the most rightly feared enemies of faith, namely secret unbelievers, who are willing hypocritically to profess a belief they do not hold. Religious tests and the support of prejudice are the surest way to multiply the numbers of liars: “Now is it better to let them honestly follow their own, or encourage them to dissimulate, and found their religious relation to civil society in an elemental dishonesty?” Thus, in 1788 the party of anxiety flourished, just as it does in our time; but in 1788, it was defeated.
American Christians in 2010 (if they are white) cannot easily call on memories of persecution to support a commitment to toleration. Even Catholics, who now have six judges on the U.S. Supreme Court, and Jews, who have three judges, may find that such fears hardly seem to apply in America. Yet a lively horror of persecution by Americans, thinking about America itself, seems a moral necessity for those who have to imagine ills that have never befallen them. And we all turn unimaginative — and therefore morally lazy — when the tracks of a prejudice favor our fortunes for long enough. We can truly secure ourselves against persecution only by binding ourselves against the privilege of being persecutors.
How far has the American understanding of religious liberty weakened? The ADL statement that did so much to inflame this controversy is a telling indication of the change. The mission statement of the league says that “its ultimate purpose is to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike and to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.”
Compare that forthright declaration with the sliding casuistry of the July 28 ADL appeal to American Muslims to yield to the authority of prejudice:
We regard freedom of religion as a cornerstone… However, there are understandably strong passions and keen sensitivities… counterproductive to the healing process… unique circumstances… legitimate questions have been raised… every right to build… ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right.
The solemn final phrase is a sophistry in the shape of a pun; and its shift of gears from principle to manners would make a tax lawyer hang his head. As for the message, it amounts to a confession of inability to pursue the “ultimate purpose” laid down in the ADL Mission Statement.
It has been said that liberty is a political good that is easier to win than to maintain; that the habits necessary for its maintenance are easier to unlearn than to learn. To judge by events of the last three months, we have gone a long way toward unlearning the habits of religious freedom. Yet at this moment two Americans in public life have had the nerve and sense to remind us of the simplicity of the principle. Michael Bloomberg said in a radio address in June:
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. I think it’s fair to say if somebody was going to try to on that piece of property, build a church or a synagogue, nobody would be yelling and screaming. And the fact of the matter is that Muslims have a right to do it too.
He added, in his remarks on Governors Island in August:
Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values — and play into our enemies’ hands — if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else.
Ron Paul said in a statement of August 20:
The justification to ban the mosque is no more rational than banning a soccer field in the same place because all the suicide bombers loved to play soccer.
The comparison is worthy of Paine — and yields not a pious inch to the new apologists for prejudice. There is hope in the fearlessness of Bloomberg and Paul, a hope that derives from their common source. Nothing that any crowd can offer is better than the unhallowed liberty of life itself.
– David Bromwich teaches literature at Yale. He is a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books, the editor of Edmund Burke’s selected writings On Empire, Liberty, and Reform and co-editor of the Yale University Press edition of On Liberty. This article was first published by the Huffington Post.