Whether there ought to be a grand mosque a few blocks from Ground Zero is that kind of issue. Conservatives can’t fathom how liberals can see the placement of this mosque as anything but a provocation that demands a spirited response from self-respecting Americans. Liberals can’t fathom how conservatives professing dedication to religious liberty can be so gravely offended by the prospect of American Muslims visibly practicing their religion in lower Manhattan. Each side is operating with its own interpretation of religious freedom and civic responsibility.
Let’s try to filter out some of the ideological noise with a couple of stipulations.
First, although being a few blocks away from Ground Zero isn’t “right next door” by Manhattan standards, if it’s close enough to have been the place where the landing gear from the plane Mohamed Atta flew into the World Trade Center ended up, it’s close enough to be part of the site of the 9/11 attacks. That’s makes building a mosque there a provocation from conservatives’ standpoint.
Second, however understandable the offense taken at the prospect of a Ground Zero mosque may be, it’s based on the fact that the lawful religious practice that would be undertaken there is Islamic. Any way you slice it, imposing impediments to lawful religious practice according to its content is a willful restriction of religious liberty that demands a very powerful justification.
I nominate this post from Sarah Palin’s Facebook page as a clear-headed expression of the conservative position on the Ground Zero mosque (regrettably, a lot more clear-headed than the serial remarks of the president over the weekend). She acknowledges that its sponsors have a legal right to build it, but insists that the rest of us needn’t, and shouldn’t, be shy about telling them that building it there violates prevailing norms of civic responsibility and taking it personally if they go ahead anyway:
Most liberals think Palin’s distinction between having a right freely to exercise one’s religion and being civically responsible about exercising it, doesn’t bear the weight she’s putting on it. As far as they’re concerned, being committed to religious liberty entails not only acknowledging the legality of minority religious practices, but being prepared, if not to facilitate, at least to refrain from unduly burdening the free exercise of religion because of its content. It’s one thing to object to building a mosque in a neighborhood that’s zoned exclusively for residential use or because its operation will foreseeably disrupt traffic patterns to the detriment of area residents. It’s another thing entirely to say that it’s civically irresponsible to build a mosque where it would be perfectly acceptable to build a Presbyterian church.“We all know that they have the right [to build an impressive mosque near Ground Zero], but should they? . . . If those who wish to build this Ground Zero mosque are sincerely interested in encouraging positive ‘cross-cultural engagement’ and dialogue to show a moderate and tolerant face of Islam, then why haven't they recognized that the decision to build a mosque at this particular location is doing just the opposite? . . . Mr. President, why aren't you encouraging the mosque developers to accept Governor Paterson's generous offer of assistance in finding a new location for the mosque on state land if they move it away from Ground Zero? Why haven't they jumped at this offer? Why are they apparently so set on building a mosque steps from what you have described, in agreement with me, as ‘hallowed ground’?”
Such considerations move Peter Beinart to write:
At bottom, this is another chapter in the long-running argument between conservatives and liberals over multi-culturalism. We’ve been arguing for a long time about how to distribute the burdens of assimilation in our pluralistic society.“The president is furiously backtracking; Republicans are clawing over each other to demonize Muslims; Democrats are dead silent. It’s time to face reality. Whether or not the “ground zero” mosque ever gets built, the political debate is over. Decency lost. . . .
“Congratulations, Republicans, you’ve safeguarded ground zero against the insidious threat of religious liberty.”
Along with most conservatives, Palin thinks the burdens of assimilation fall almost entirely on new arrivals. On this view, cultural and religious minorities have a civic duty to assimilate to the prevailing culture by learning the language, participating in its patriotic rituals and tailoring their own religious practice so that they can take their place as one religious community among others according to the ground rules already in place. A majority that neglects to hold minorities to that duty is lacking in elemental self-respect.
At a time when the country is at war with Islamic extremism, that means that the Islamic minority is obligated to defer to majority sensibilities by not doing anything that could reasonably be interpreted as an expression of Islamic triumphalism. Viewed in this light, the decisive thing about the Ground Zero mosque isn't its inherent offensiveness, but that the likelihood that people will take offense in the wake of 9/11 imposes a weighty civic obligation on the mosque’s sponsors not to provoke them and confers a corresponding right (sounding in civic morality if not in law) on the majority not to be provoked.
Along with most liberals, Beinart thinks that being committed to a regime of religious liberty in a pluralistic society obligates people in the religious majority to do some assimilating of their own. That means resisiting the impulse to take offense at a minority’s provocative, but otherwise lawful, acts of religious self-assertion and being ready to renegotiate prevailing civic norms to make them more inclusive (e.g., by designating periods where access to community swimming pools is sexually segregated for the benefit of Muslims). On this view, professions of support for religious liberty from people who don't acknowledge their civic obligation to meet religious minorities half-way are hollow.
When it comes to the Ground Zero mosque, I stand on the liberal side of this ideological divide. I think, all things considered, it’s best for us to turn the other cheek when we’re confronted by peaceful acts of religious provocation because a pluralistic constitutional democracy has no business waging religious wars. But I don’t think liberals are doing themselves any favors, politically or intellectually, by pretending that this is an issue as to which they enjoy a monopoly on decency.