Before the 1680s, a “bigot” referred specifically to a person intolerant of other religions. After that time, it expanded to intolerance of all sorts of things– other races and cultures, for example. The idea that there should not be a mosque near ground zero is covered before and after 1680. There is no good reason to oppose building a Muslim religious center in downtown New York. There is only bigotry.
I understand that September 11th caused people great suffering. Pain is not an excuse for bigotry. If you tell people a black man killed your mother, and that this makes you fear black people, you’ve suffered the loss of your mother, and then, in addition, you’re suffering from bigotry. The human urge to avoid pain led you to generalize, set up a system that will prevent you from being hurt again. A black person hurt me, so if I stay away from black people, I will be safe. However, your fear doesn’t justify limiting where other people can live or work or worship.
Many people who are Muslim came to America for our famed religious tolerance, and I am ashamed at what they have found. If we limited the freedom of Christians according to the danger some of them have posed in the past, I wouldn’t be allowed to leave the house. That says nothing about the true ethics of our religious tradition. It only speaks to the possibility of illness twisting the human mind.
It would be beautiful to have a mosque and a Muslim community center in downtown in New York. It would speak to those children, the ones dressed up for prayer and thrashing through swimming lessons and swooping their eyes along elegant Arabic script. It would say: we are a tolerant, enlightened country, a place where you are welcome, where we value your contribution and we are ready to partner with you in transforming our society. What are your ideas? What are your dreams? We move on from crushed dreams and death here. That is what we do. We don’t blame or shut down. We heal, and open up, and move on.
This week I taught at a little summer program. The students in this program will all get their college education paid for, every penny of it, if they keep their grades up and attend meetings and classes in addition to their schoolwork. They’re all poor, by some definition, and unlikely to go to college otherwise. One group did a skit which included a girl singing the national anthem. I always feel awkward about the national anthem, and the pledge of allegiance, because in my insanity, I’m always thinking, Didn’t nationalism cause World War I? Isn’t nationalism kind of backward and dangerous?
But as we stood up and I put my hand over my heart to be a good example, to be respectful, I looked around the room at white and black and Latino Americans, at parents and grandparents and aunties and uncles and siblings and cousins and teachers and professors, and I felt a little choked up. We were in the basement of a church in an old neighborhood, a place where society once isolated the black community like a virus, and the air conditioning was pititifully weak, and I wasn’t sure if everyond understood English, but we all stood up and we listened to this girl sing our torturedly operatic national anthem. She shifted around keys, kind of at random. No one complained. Everyone showed her respect and tolerance, because that’s how we want her world to be. There is tolerance and respect all over the world. I’m just especially proud when I see it at home.