What would George Washington say about Islam in USA?

By: Michael Kessler

July 28, 2010

With all the loud clamoring about the proposed Islamic Center to be built near Ground Zero, reasonable voices are hard to discern. One thing is clear: this is not a debate about religious freedom. A mosque by peaceful Muslims of good will, unrelated to perpetrating the 9/11 attacks has every right to exist anywhere on these shores. It is the worst form of religious intolerance--and very un-American--to think that one form of religion has limits on where and when it may be practiced.
First a caveat: If there is any validity to the charges that the affiliations of principals or the finances of Cordoba House are questionable or linked in any way to terrorists, then there are other legal mechanisms to prevent such a law-breaking.

Far from stopping purported terrorist sympathizers, however, the debates so far have only shown our ugly side.

Sarah Palin ignited the flames when she posted a series of inflammatory tweets and an explanatory note on Facebook calling for Muslims to consider not "rubbing it in" to the victims of 9/11.

Fair enough, if what was proposed was a shrine to Osama bin Laden or al Quaeda. In a dubious bit of logic, Palin proposes that the 9/11 terrorists, coming from an Islamic background, must necessarily taint all Muslim belief and practice such that any Islamic religious practice anywhere near the WTC site is unseemly and immoral. I guess any religion similar to Timothy McVeigh's needs to vacate Oklahoma City. This also leaves out the fact that a significant number of Muslim Americans are counted among the victims of the tragedy. They were among the workers trapped in the buildings.

But then Newt Gingrich came along and made Palin's misguided argument look downright plain. Gingrich offered up this whopper:

"There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over."

So much for Gingrich-style American exceptionalism.

The obvious preposterousness of his assertion defies imagining someone as smart as Gingrich could utter it. Our Constitutional order is grounded not as a counterpoint to the practices of Saudi Arabia but on the basis of what we have long held dear about each individual's dignity and liberties. Religious freedom on these shores is not dependent on the goodwill and blessings of mullahs or priests or politicians--indeed our constitutional protections declare this sacred right in spite of what the passions of the day may indicate is favored or disfavored religion. Americans should proclaim religious liberty and condemn its absence elsewhere, not use the examples of other nations as justifications for our own intolerance.

Shame on Gingrich for such a stupid, unhistorical, and un-American statement. And, by the way, he's wrong about the rebuilding, too. The site is well on its way to being rebuilt and you can watch it all be reborn here at the Project Rebirth website.

For those who want to say this mosque represents Islamic supremacy and must be stopped: how and on what grounds? What is your legislative strategy? ANY legislation that hints of targeting a group as religious in order to prevent them from doing something will be struck down (see Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993) if you want to find out why targeting a religion qua religion runs afoul of the Constitution).

This debate is not really about religious freedom, but shows the lingering and distressing tendency for the populace to harbor intolerance of certain religious groups who are not like the majority. Indeed, Gingrich lays bare the ugly truth: Muslims are lumped together into a group, and that group is suspected of being violent-prone and obedient to a religion that is inherently hostile to American values. Of course this is exacerbated by the violent acts of terror that some Muslims have perpetrated. Yet the fact is that some refuse to make distinctions between the vast majority of peaceful Muslims and those who are violent--a wide gulf exists between these groups. The majority of Muslim Americans (and Muslims around the globe) share the Abrahamic theism of most other Americans, participate in and believe in the many shared values, and hope for a better future for their families and communities. In spite of this, some loudly proclaim the inherent deficiencies of Islam and incite fear that all Muslims will take up violent means in their quest for world supremacy. We owe others a more careful assessment of their values and lives.

But don't take my word for it. Perhaps Palin and Gingrich and others who chatter about loving America and hating all Muslims might quiet themselves for a moment to reflect on the way that our first President -George Washington--treated the other disfavored tribe of Abrahamic descendents (the Jews) during his day.

Turns out, he was quite the believer in freedom of religious practice and, more central to our point, decried religiously-based intolerance. Oh, and he vividly confirmed that the new American Republic was, if nothing else, the land of freedom for every believer to practice their religion and erect their houses of worship undeterred by those who sought to delegitimize their faiths. In August 1790, President Washington, along with an entourage including Thomas Jefferson, visited Rhode Island to great fanfare. Part of his agenda was to promote the passage of the Bill of Rights (they needed to lobby individual states to ratify the Amendments, which included twelve amendments. The third of which became the first amendment protections of free exercise of religion, speech, and press after the first two proposed amendments failed to receive ratification by ¾ of the states). During the visit, various officials offered speeches, including Moses Seixas who was the warden of Yeshuat Israel, the first Jewish congregation in Newport. The speech was preserved as a letter:

To the President of the United States of America. Sir:

Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits -- and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to NewPort.

With pleasure we reflect on those days -- those days of difficulty, and danger, when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword, -- shielded Your head in the day of battle: -- and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest, upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States.

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People -- a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance -- but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: -- deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine: -- This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confidence and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good.

For all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men -- beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised Land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: -- And, when, like Joshua full of days and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.

Done and Signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort, Rhode Island August 17th 1790. Moses Seixas, Warden

President Washington, in reply a few days later, offered one of the most important visions of religious liberty for his new nation, recalling the context of oppression that his fellow children of Abraham's God had suffered by the intolerant many. Washington promised, with simple clarity, that these new United States would offer a haven for peaceful practitioners of all faiths:

To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island. Gentlemen,

While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

As we consider the terrible tragedies of the terror attacks ten years prior and the ongoing war on terror--our own days of difficulty and danger--Washington's words ring just as true.

Bigotry has no sanction by our laws and each of us can live under our own vines and figtrees. Peaceful Muslims can and will build their Islamic centers just as Christians maintain or build their own churches and Jews worship in synagogues and gather in the Jewish community centers. Some of us will simply ponder the mysteries of life while walking in the woods.

If those who would do us harm try to find harbor in our midst, we can and should remove them like a cancer. But shared religious pasts, just like shared last names, do not define who we are. Rather, our words and deeds, our goals and values, and the labors we pursue will show each of our true intentions. We have nothing to fear from peaceful Muslims who seek peace and the dignity of others as people of good will. To ostracize them and tarnish their good works is nothing short of apostasy in the canon of American freedoms.

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What would George Washington say about Islam in USA?