In retrospect, downtown Manhattan clearly was not the best place to locate a new Islamic cultural center and mosque. Such a plan was destined to become a political and cultural lightning rod. A little more sensitivity might have led religious leaders and city officials to find another location from the very beginning.
But in some ways, perhaps the controversy is a good thing, for it has enhanced New York’s reputation for tolerance, and it has exposed a strain of homegrown Islamophobia that does the United States no good in its relations with the Muslim world.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city officials have been forthright in saying that Muslim New Yorkers have every right to worship where they please. Their comments have been a model of generosity and tolerance. Yes, a group of Muslims committed an atrocious act of mass murder that killed thousands of New Yorkers. But many New Yorkers understand the obvious-most Muslims are not potential terrorists. The Muslims in our midst come from a variety of nation-states and sects, but whatever their origin, they are welcome to live here, to worship here and to enjoy the pleasures of this diverse metropolis.
It is interesting to note that some of the loudest voices against the mosque come from outside New York. It seems strange that many conservatives, who generally support the idea of decentralized government, seem determined to block New York’s decision to allow work on the mosque to proceed. If New York’s mayor doesn’t have a problem with the mosque-allowing for the fact that some New Yorkers do have such a problem-why should, say, a former governor of Alaska be concerned with it? New Yorkers, after all, don’t tell Alaskans where they should build bridges to nowhere. Alaskans shouldn’t tell New Yorkers where they can, or can’t, worship.
The Islamic center should not have become a rallying cry for unthinking yahoos butting into New York’s land-use decisions. More clear-headed thinking could have avoided the issue entirely. But the issue has been joined, and New York is on the right side.