People tend to agree that the group led by Immam Rauf in New York has every right under American law and within American values to build their community center in lower Manhattan. They understand that America grants equal rights and equal protections, does not treat different religions and beliefs any differently, regardless of size or popularity, and as such there exists no legal or political methodology to block the project from going forward.
However, they say, frowning gravely, eyes sparkling with emotion, it would be best if those Muslims would choose to relocate their project some arbitrary distance from the former World Trade Center site we now, in our uniquely American vernacular call “Ground Zero”. They don’t explain how Muslims, simply by BEING Muslims are offensive to anyone, or how far away the Community Center would have to be before it didn’t cause this psychic pain. But merely agreeing to surrender their basic American rights would bring the issue to an end, it would cause people to have warmer feelings about their American Muslim neighbors, indeed, a compromise would allow us to come together as a people and a culture, respecting each other’s sensitivities and deepest emotional scars.
Except it won’t. Think about it like this. Iran is suspected of developing nuclear weapons. Israel and the US continually threaten her with military attack, while other nations come together in discussions of sanctions and other ways they might “punish” Tehran, refusing to hear Iran’s claims of peaceful nuclear development and the IAEA inspectors inability to detect any evidence of a weapons program. Some might suggest that if Iran would simply accede to international demands, despite her rights under international law and the NPT, then the threats would end and we could all begin to work out our remaining differences. Does anyone actually believe that Israel and the West would allow Iran to simply surrender her way out? Is there any historical evidence that suggests that an enemy, once demonized and mis-trusted, can end the hostilities by agreeing to the first set of demands? Or the second? Of course not.
The US was attacked by al-Quaeda in 2001 for specific reasons. Whether you agree that these reasons had a basis in fact or not, and recognizing that there is no actual justification for mass murder, there is no doubt that bin Laden and his acolytes had a list of grievances, historical wrongs and injustices that they wanted to see put right. Could the US simply agree to these demands, and then sit down to peaceful negotiations to end the war between bin Laden style extremists and the USA? Even as we know no such capitulation would ever be considered, we don’t believe for one second that it would be effective if it WAS tried. The disagreements that lead to the hatred exist completely outside the justifications that are offered, and the hatred is a product of a fear that is artificially manufactured to serve a political agenda.
Many Americans have decided to hate Muslims. This is a time of economic trouble, weakness and insecurity, and people want someone to lash out at, to scapegoat, to serve as an accessible stand-in for all those other problems, before which we are impotent and powerless. Additionally, Americans have grown highly sensitized to racial animus. Slurs and insults are generally not permitted, and that has fostered a whole new set of codewords and dogwhistles. But this is something vastly less familiar to modern Americans - Sectarian hatred. Common around the globe, and well grounded in American history, we have, in our most recent generations, been generally comfortable with people of all faiths. As a result, we are less attuned to this kind of bigotry, so unlike racism, it is much more acceptable to practice sectarian hatred in the open. So Americans, made afraid by years of political demagoguery and media manipulation can feel a certain tribal comfort in lashing out against something so different, so unfamiliar, so foreign.
So Imam Rauf and the Park 51 project can quit. They can walk away from the mindless hatred and exploited fear. Then can decide not to be the target in a shooting gallery that has the likes of the Anti Defamation League and even Democratic Political leaders terrified to offer them the support they should automatically receive for doing something so basically American as building a house of worship in their community. They can decide to heed the lesson of persecuted minorities down through history and lower their profile, avert their eyes and keep silent. But it won’t change anything. The mob will simply turn to the next Muslim, the next Mosque, the next target for it’s rage and hatred. Stay and build, or give up in the face of overwhelming opprobrium. Neither course of action would be “wrong”, but neither will either bring an end to this ugly tribal bigotry. This genie is out of the bottle, and it’s hard to see how it ends without bloodshed.