America is awash coast-to-coast in fights over the building of new mosques. The most well-known current dust up is in New York where for some unfathomable reason, the City's Landmarks Preservation Commission cleared the way to take down a historic 160-year-old building to build a mosque. In its place backers propose a building as high as 15 stories called Park51 that will house a mosque and an Islamic center, according to the New York Times.
I will address opposition to Islamic religious institutions in a moment. My opposition to Park 51 is based on the fact that no historic building remaining in Manhattan (or any other major city anywhere) should be completely torn down to make way for new development. Instead, as is frequently done here in Washington, D.C., and other places, historic facades should be preserved. Any historic building should be allowed to live on at least in part as a landmark to teach city dwellers about the great history of their towns.
Historic preservation motives aside, most opposition to Park 51 has to do with its location about two blocks from Ground Zero. With nerves still raw, the stunning insensitivity of the developers and backers of the development (New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Jewish Anti-Defamation League included) are suffering a severe bout of verbal pistol-whipping from opponents of the new mosque. A new Marist poll shows 53 percent of New Yorkers oppose the mosque at its proposed location.
Opposition would undoubtedly be lower if the mosque were built uptown or in another borough. There are 1,900 mosques in the United States according to the New York Times, many of them in New York City. But protests against proposed mosques are growing more vocal from Temecula, Calif. to Sheboygan, Wis., to Murfreesboro, Tenn. And the question is being increasingly asked and argued: do Muslims have the same rights as members of other religious orders to build houses of worship?
Civil libertarians and liberals believe that anti-Islamic protesters are bigots who have no right to deny Muslims equal protection or freedom of religious expression under the Constitution. Students of American history say bias existed against the nation's early Catholics, Baptists and Jews, but ultimately we all assimilated into one big, happy (if not dysfunctional) family. They hope the same will happen as immigrant Muslims assimilate into American society. But I think there is much more to the debate over Middle Eastern Islam that needs to be considered.
It goes without saying that Islam, like Christianity and even Judaism, comes in different forms. Muslims, like Christians and Jews, are for the most part peace-loving people.
But if one refers to the Bible's Old and New Testaments, one will not find anywhere near the number of solicitations to violence that one finds in the Koran. According to the website, faithfacts.org:
"While violence in the Quran is sometimes for self-defense; at other times it is open-ended. Many passages in the Quran exhort Muslims to hate or kill or terrorize infidels (non-Muslims) wherever they find them. Yes, the Bible has its share of violence as well, particularly in the Old Testament....but...(incitements to violence) in the Bible are each a particular limited circumstance in time, for a particular purpose established by God. But in the Quran, we encounter general commands to kill and destroy the enemies of Islam that are applicable for all times and places and people groups."
As a matter of national security, the United States has no practical way to distinguish between the majority of peace-loving Muslims and the minority who see it as their god-given mission to kill "the enemy." Nor do we have the resources, quite frankly, to spend a lot more time trying to distinguish between them. Given that we are funding two major anti-terrorism wars and driving ourselves to bankruptcy in the process, I believe people who fear the establishment of mosques in their neighborhoods have valid concerns that civil libertarians are ignoring. I am not saying in any way, shape or form that I would join their protest marches. But I think to dismiss them as a bunch of misguided bigots is an act we could easily live to regret.
Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail bonnieerbe@CompuServe.com.