In which a bemused observer tries to make sense of man, religion, and the state
Here’s my bottom-line problem with the concatenation of events and trends surrounding the Ground Zero mosque: I see privilege being accorded to Islam, as against situations in which the civil authorities have de-privileged Christianity and Judaism. The reflexive animus against America’s traditional major religions will be recognizable, in what I describe below, to every conservative. Yet in a situation where a very large group of Americans objects to the placement of a particular mosque, government authorities not only don’t privilege the objectors, they castigate them as bigots and override their concerns.
We can stipulate at the outset that none of the situations here is exactly analogous. The situation involving synagogues is not even in Manhattan; it’s in Brighton Beach. But in each case, the reflexes of the civil authorities have responded very differently, and the difference is telling.
There are two relevant tales of Christian developments near Ground Zero. One involves a Greek Orthodox church, St. Nicholas’, which was crushed by the collapse of WTC Tower Two on 9/11. St. Nicholas’ Church was across the street from the World Trade Center. In 2008, a deal was announced with the New York Port Authority to rebuild the church two blocks from its original site. But civil authorities objected to the church’s plans for a larger structure, with a dome and spire in the Greek Orthodox tradition. Their express concern was that the church not be taller than the World Trade Center Memorial.
There is no apparent concern about the Park 51 Islamic center being taller than the WTC Memorial (it is). It will not be built as a wholly new structure, of course. But on the other hand, the commercial skyscraper planned by the Port Authority will be a new structure, and it will tower over the WTC Memorial. The principles at work appear to be as follows: new commercial structures may be taller than the Memorial. An Islamic group may occupy a building that is taller than the Memorial and devote it to a religious purpose. But a Christian structure may not be built taller than the Memorial.
We must note about St. Nicholas’ that the 2008 deal with the Port Authority entailed a contribution of $20 million from the Authority toward the new building. Certainly, public funding properly gives the Authority some leverage over the structure. St. Nicholas’ hasn’t been singled out for special public benefits, however; it was the only church that was destroyed by the 9/11 attack. Rebuilding it was simply proposed for public funding as part of the overall plan for the 9/11 site.
The Port Authority planned to build a platform and foundation for the church, because under the 2008 deal it was to sit on top of a garage and security screening area. In March 2009, Authority officials refused to allow the church to review the plans for the garage and screening area. At that point, talks regarding the church’s rebuilding ground to a halt.
The other Christian development is the ongoing question about the fate of the “Ground Zero cross.” This remnant of the WTC was found in the rubble after the 9/11 attack and stood at the site until it was moved to nearby St. Peter’s Church in October 2006, to clear the way for renovations. Atheist organizations, which began objecting to the display of the cross in 2002, oppose its planned incorporation in the WTC Memorial. Although the Port Authority reportedly intends to display the cross at the Memorial, the possibility of a lawsuit by opponents can’t be excluded.
Interestingly, there has been no attempt by the MSM or leading politicians to denigrate as bigots the atheists who object to the cross. Nor has the Port Authority’s dilatory approach to rebuilding St. Nicholas’ Church earned it any contumely from them for acting in questionable faith regarding a religious group.
Authorities in Brooklyn are similarly unscathed from an ongoing confrontation with two Brighton Beach synagogues over the noise from a public park’s amphitheater and concert series. Oh, there’s a conflict of interests, there’s passion on both sides, and a lot of people know about it and have strong opinions. But two thing stand out: one, that the ubiquitous Mayor Bloomberg had no qualms about being utterly dismissive of the synagogues’ concerns, and two, that this is probably because there’s no punishment from the MSM and the political elite for being high-handed and insensitive with Brighton Beach’s Jewish congregations.
The short story, summarized here, is that the Sea Breeze Jewish Center and Temple Beth Abraham have been accommodating the noise from concerts in nearby Asser Levy Park for some years; but now Brooklyn’s borough president wants to enlarge the amphitheater and increase the concert-noise encroachment dramatically. Concerned for their ability to hold services, the synagogues asked for reconsideration of this plan. Receiving only dismissive responses, they sued to have a local ordinance enforced, which prohibits excessive noise within 500 feet of a religious structure.
Bloomberg, displaying his exquisite sensitivity to freedom of religion, is on record with this advice to the synagogues:
“Maybe they could adjust their services slightly earlier. We just have to start being a little more tolerant of each other.”
To which one might respond: Well, yes, Mayor, indeed we do. Perhaps the noise concerns of congregations that have been holding services at the same time for years deserve at least as much consideration as the commercial interests of the amphitheater expansion’s sponsors.
It’s the reflexiveness of the opposite reaction that jumps out at me, particularly coming from the same Mayor Bloomberg who got so choked up about the Cordoba Initiative’s unalienable right to make an Islamic center of the old Burlington factory on Park.
It also set me thinking about the issue of noise, and where Bloomberg would be likely to come down if it became an issue for the Park 51 center. There’s every possibility that it will, as far as I can tell. The center will house a mosque, and mosques broadcast the call to prayer five times a day. This practice has become contentious in a number of American cities; in the Bronx, a masjid stirred vigorous community opposition last fall when it applied for an amplified sound permit for the purpose. The specific reason for requesting the permit was, apparently, that the call already broadcast outside the mosque was not considered loud enough to attract the attention of the faithful, and needed to be louder.
During the years I lived in Norfolk, Virginia, I lived not far from a masjid and I recall that in the 1980s, the calls to prayer were barely audible outside of about a block’s radius. By the 1990s, they were being amplified, and could be somewhat annoying on a temperate evening when you wanted to have the windows open. I don’t know if anyone ever formally objected to the noise. From a quarter mile away, I found it a bearable irritant. But I can understand why people closer to it might have found it objectionable – as I can understand why residents of the Bronx would, who have no alternative to hearing the adhan five times a day.
Perhaps the Park 51 center will agree not to broadcast the call to prayer outside its walls. I don’t know. I do know that locals who would object to hearing it, and who would object to hearing it at Ground Zero because it’s Ground Zero, would not inherently be acting from bigotry. I am, frankly, deeply offended at the implication that it could only be an act of bigotry to resist the establishment of a mosque at a particular site. Mosques the world over bring loudspeakers, and very often crowds of the faithful praying five times a day in rows outside of them. If we say that Christians or Jews must not view that as noise pollution or as an unseemly usurpation of certain public spaces, then how do we also justify not calling atheists bigots when they are offended by Christian symbols?
And if we say that the religious arrangements of Jews don’t deserve the same respect from civil authorities as someone else’s plans for secular entertainment – then on what basis are we more solicitous of the religious arrangements of Muslims?
The reflexive tendencies of at least some of our political leaders – and agencies of our governments – seem to amount, if not to a suicide pact, at least to an Islam-promotion pact. I do not believe that this is evidence of some dark conspiracy, so don’t run off and say I do. But what I see is the same law interpreted to mean that Christianity is an encroachment on public life, and Judaism a hindrance to it, while Islam must win battles with the public over our shared living space, lest we all be bigots.
That is wrong. A test of our true political and legal “impartiality” appears to be looming, with the intention of Florida-based evangelist Bill Keller to establish a Christian center near the Park 51 Islamic Center. (Keller’s website for the center is here.) According to Keller, the location of the center will be announced in December, suggesting that it has not been confirmed yet. It will be extremely informative to watch the progress of this effort and see if Keller is accorded the same support and affirmation from the local authorities that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has had. Whatever any of us thinks of Keller’s theology, he, his religion, and his Christian center are entitled to equal treatment.
Cross-posted at Hot Air.