WASHINGTON, DC – Opposition to plans to build a mosque near “Ground Zero,” the spot where the World Trade Center’s twin towers fell on September 11, 2001, comes in various shades. To their credit, many of the project’s opponents have avoided the crass bigotry that is becoming a standard trait of right-wing discourse in the United States. But even moderate critics of the mosque (actually an Islamic cultural center with a prayer room called Park 51) betray in their arguments two assumptions that are as questionable as they are ingrained in the prevailing public discourse in the US.
The first of these misbegotten assumptions is to underrate social intolerance as a threat to freedom. While accepting the project’s impeccable legal credentials, its opponents nevertheless demand that it be relocated on the grounds that even fully lawful conduct may be offensive to a group of citizens. This is a dangerous road to take in a liberal society.
More than 150 years ago, in his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill demolished the belief that the quest for individual freedom is, above all, a struggle against the state. This belief still features prominently in the rhetorical arsenal of US conservatives, notably in the inflamed proclamations of the Tea Party movement. But, as any member of a historically persecuted community – from gays to Jews to Roma – can attest, social intolerance may curtail civil rights as much as any law.
Indeed, up until the 1967 Supreme Court ruling that struck down anti-miscegenation laws throughout the US, interracial marriages were an oddity even where they were legally allowed. A majority considered them offensive, and therefore expected interracial couples to show what is demanded today from Muslims in Manhattan: respect for other people’s sensitivities. In a nation of laws, such as the US, it is disingenuous and unfair to grant legal protection to a right – in this case the right to worship God as we see fit – and then selectively ban its exercise de facto because a majority or minority takes offense.