The controversy over building an Islamic community center near Ground Zero shows that in America, you have constitutional rights – until the second you try to use them. Then you find out exactly how many rights you really have, and how free you truly are. Use them you lose them. Especially if you’re espousing a dissenting, unpopular and/ or minority point of view.
Critics of efforts by reportedly moderate Muslims to construct what some call a mosque two blocks from the former Twin Towers site cross party lines. In a rare display of bipartisanship, Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are among the many who oppose establishing the Islamic venue near this “sacred ground.” That supposed fighting liberal, former antiwar presidential candidate, Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, chimed in, saying the plan to construct the center near the site of the 9/11 attacks “is a real affront.” On both sides of the aisle there is zero tolerance for the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.”
However, what’s really revealing is most of these detractors recognize that Muslims do indeed have a constitutional right to build their Cordoba House on private property in Lower Manhattan. That right is enshrined in our Bill of Rights. The First Amendment not only guarantees free speech but that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
As Boehner put it: “The fact that someone has the right to do something doesn’t necessarily make it the right thing to do.” Spelling and/or vocabulary-challenged Sarah Palin originally tweeted that Muslims should “refudiate” building near Ground Zero. The former Alaska governor and GOP Vice Presidential candidate subsequently asked: “We all know that they have the right to do it, but should they?”
On July 28, the venerable Anti-Defamation League – created in 1913 to fight bigotry – issued this official statement: “Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site… But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.”
In July, Tennessee’s Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey took the notion of constitutional rights and how they apply to Muslims to dizzying new heights (or lows). Ramsey, who’s now running for governor, acknowledged: “Now certainly we do protect our religions… Now, you know, I’m all about freedom of religion. I value the First Amendment as much as I value the Second Amendment as much as I value the Tenth Amendment and on and on and on… We live under our Constitution and they live under our Constitution.” So how did the Republican get out of applying these, you know, constitutional rights to Islam? Because: “Now, you could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, cult whatever you want to call it.” So with Houdini-like magical agility Ramsey escapes from the constitution’s requirements by denying, instant presto, that Islam is a religion to begin with. Shazam!
Even Barack Obama seemed to echo these sentiments. At an August 13 White House dinner honoring Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, the President declared: “…Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable… The writ of our Founders must endure.” As an attorney, Obama knows the law of the land. However, in his usual trying-to-have-it-both-ways manner, the next day the opportunist-in-chief backtracked: “I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there.
The implication is clear: People in America have rights – they just shouldn’t use them. All this reminds me of the “love it or leave it” and “my country, right or wrong” days, when civil rights and peace activists were told not to demonstrate against Washington’s Vietnam or racial policies because “this is a free country.” Really? Then why couldn’t we grow our hair long, sit where we wanted on the bus, petition the government, peaceably assembly and protest, when these rights are guaranteed by our founding documents? What kind of “freedom” is this?
I recently saw the Dennis Hopper show in L.A.’s Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. Along with the actor/director’s artwork were clips from Hopper’s films, including a philosophical scene from 1969’sEasy Rider that perfectly expresses America’s contradictory stance on rights and liberties. In it, Jack Nicholson plays Southern attorney George Hanson, while Hopper is the biker Billy, who laments that he and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) can’t book a motel room because of their hippie appearance:
Billy: “…They’re scared, man.”
George: “They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to ’em.”
Billy: “…All we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut.”
George: “Oh, no. What you represent to them is freedom.”
Billy: “What the hell is wrong with freedom? That’s what it’s all about.”
George: “Oh, yeah, that’s right. That’s what’s it’s all about, all right. But talkin’ about it and bein’ it, that’s two different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.”
Billy: “Well, it don’t make ’em runnin’ scared.”
George: “No, it makes ’em dangerous.”
Sure enough, shortly afterwards George is clubbed to death by rednecks, while Billy and Wyatt are eventually gunned down riding their motorcycles.
Every grade school student is taught that what’s now America was founded by Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution. But then those suspected of believing in Wicca were burned at the stake during the Salem witch trials. Indians perceived as nature-worshipping “pagans” suffered genocide and forcible conversion. Protestant white America went to war with Mexico’s brown “papists,” annexing huge swathes of territory. Today, the religious intolerance displayed by the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” brouhaha is only the tip of the iceberg of America’s Islamophobia. We preach separation of church and state in this country – we just don’t practice separation of mosque and state.
Americans want their constitutional cake and they want to eat it, too. We covet the lofty stature bestowed by noble ideals, and to be regarded at home and abroad as high-minded. But the fact is that many Americans – perhaps most – don’t really believe in our most basic constitutional rights, including “the free exercise” of religion. Many of us say we want equal rights for all – just not for those gays who wish to wed. And so on.
If we have rights except when we choose to act on them, do we really have those constitutional rights in the first place? I say: My country, rights not wrongs.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based freelance writer and author of Progressive Hollywood.