Who Wins When the U.S. Restricts Religious Freedom?

By Jim Wallis 8-05-2010

There is one thing the opponents of the Cordoba Initiative (that plans to build an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero) have in common with the Cordoba Initiative's leadership: their clear condemnation and denunciation of terrorism. They are united in this belief because every time a terrorist tries to claim the mantle of Islam and commits an act of violence, everyone loses. (For Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf's statement about the mission of the Cordoba Initiative and condemnation of terrorism, you can go to the front page of their website.)

If everyone seems to be united on this crucial issue, where is the controversy? If the planners and opponents of this initiative all agree that terrorism must be defeated and that Muslim leaders have a special responsibility to ensure that their communities of worship in no way support terrorism and actively work as a force against it, where is the problem? I believe there are a few key questions that get to the heart of the issue. The way we answer them says a lot about ourselves, our own faith, and the collective character of our country.

The first question is this: Does our initial judgment of our neighbors come from their religious labels or the content of their character? I do not advocate a religious pluralism that blurs the distinctions and significant differences between religions, but I do believe that my religious tradition calls me to be a peacemaker and to love my neighbors, especially when I do not agree with them. It is a good thing when you get along with a neighbor with whom you have much in common, but it speaks highly of your character when you build peace between yourself and a neighbor with whom you have differences. When Muslim leaders step up to lead an initiative to reduce tensions and promote respect and understanding, do we first judge those leaders by the actions of terrorists (whom they have condemned), or do we judge them by their integrity and character? This does not mean I then have to agree with them on everything or pretend differences do not exist, but I will love and respect them and work with them to be peacemakers. Feisal Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan are friends of mine, and I can testify that they are indeed peacemakers.

The second question asks: Do we believe in freedom for my religion or freedom of religion? The "Establishment" and "Free Exercise" clauses of the First Amendment were nothing less than revolutionary statements. They ignited across the globe a new level of religious freedom and protection. As with many parts of our Constitution, they represent ideals to which we aspire but have not always lived up to. Anti-Catholic sentiment barred Catholics from holding many public offices for years. Anti-Semitism and other forms of religious bigotry have reared their ugly head over and over in our history. But ultimately, many minority groups have flourished in this country, and those who are persecuted in other areas of the world seek asylum here because of our strong history of religious liberty, protection, and freedom. In 2008, our country distinguished itself globally by electing someone of a racial minority as president. We have resisted restrictions on religious expressions targeted at Islam that are appearing in other countries across the world. This speaks greatly to our ability to live up to the ideals in our founding documents.

Finally, we must ask a third question: In the face of global terrorism, who wins when the U.S. restricts religious freedom? The opponents of the Cordoba Initiative seem to be saying that Americans win if we restrict the free expression of religion of some Americans. Religious sensitivities, especially around Ground Zero, are understandable. 9/11 was a crime against humanity, and tragically, it was the first significant encounter many Americans had with radical Islam or Islam of any sort. But this is why the mission of the Cordoba Initiative as a cultural and community center is so important. The goal of the center is to run programs that reduce tensions and build understanding between Muslims and the West. In order for our country to continue healing, more Americans need to meet and build trust and respect with other Americans who are different than they are -- especially with the many Muslims who love this country and the freedoms it affords.

If terrorists are able to not only attack us physically but get us to judge our neighbors by labels rather than the content of their character, turn our back on the Constitution and disregard its ideals, and then restrict the religious freedom of other Americans, we all lose. This is a very important moment. Whether we allow religious freedom for Americans of Islamic faith -- near Ground Zero or anywhere else -- will determine our own character, the integrity of our faith, and our real commitment to the ideals that have distinguished our nation. Let's not let fear and bigotry force us to make the wrong decision here.

portrait-jim-wallisJim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com.

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