The NYPD was adamant yesterday that our 9/11 Rally of Remembrance must not run over the allotted time for even one minute, and so unfortunately a couple of speakers who had been slated toward the end of the program were unable to speak. I’m pleased therefore to be able to bring you here the prepared remarks of one of them, Richard Connerney, an author and professor of philosophy at Pace University.
Richard is the author of The Upside-down Tree: India’s Changing Culture (Algora Press, 2009), which is partly about the Ayodhya crisis in India — Mughals built a large mosque on a Hindu holy site in the Middle Ages, and in 1992 Hindu protesters tore that mosque down by hand, 600 years after it was built. He is also the editor of Vera Lex: The Journal of the International Natural Law Society, which is published by Pace University Press. The Natural Law Society is an organization dedicated to the study of the history and contemporary application of natural law theory, which is a school of legal philosophy holding, in opposition to legal positivism, that law and ethics cannot be severed from one another.
For myself and I think for most people here, today is a sad occasion, not only for the obvious reason that on this day we remember the deaths of thousands of innocent Americans on 9/11, but this occasion is sad for what has happened in the aftermath of that event, and especially for what has happened here, so close to the site of that tragedy, over the last three months.
Over the last one hundred days we have watched a local conflict over a building proposal grow into a city-wide debate and then an issue in the state of New York’s gubernatorial campaign, a national scandal and finally an international incident with global implications. Sometimes in all this confusion I think that the real meaning of this debate is lost. For me, behind all the headlines is a fundamental disagreement about what makes a good neighbor and a good citizen.
Imam Rauf interprets his constitutional right to freedom of worship as the right to promote his views on religion in a place and in a way that is distasteful to the majority of Americans. What will it take to convince Mr. Rauf that his hope that a mosque in this place will act as a catalyst for interfaith understanding is out of touch with reality? His obstinacy has not aided tolerance or understanding but rather created division and confusion. By now his professed ignorance of the damage he is doing to the fabric of our society is undeniably willful.
I have known many Muslims in my life and liked most of them as individuals and I have lived among Muslims in Asia. Most Muslims I know understand the importance of symbols and the importance of history and they understand that good fences make good neighbors. One of the great ironies of this conflict is that anecdotal evidence suggests that American Muslims themselves are unenthusiastic about this Mosque and many Muslims think that Imam Rauf has thrown them into the middle of a fight that they did not ask for and do not want.
But Imam Rauf is only the proximate cause of this controversy. The inflation of this problem from a local one to a national one happened in part due to a failure of leadership on the part of Michael Bloomberg. The mayor put his weight behind the Cordoba Initiative project before the public was even aware it existed. From the beginning he has acted as if public debate is little more than a nuisance and has suggested that the opposition is irrational, bigoted or uninformed. He went so far as to suggest that anyone with questions about this project’s financing “should be ashamed of themselves,” as if asking questions was the source of our troubles.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the mainstream media in New York City and beyond bears some responsibility for the deep divisions over the Cordoba Initiative mosque. Publications such as the New York Times and Newsweek often provide monophonic coverage that characterizes the 2/3rds of the American public who oppose this mosque as bigots, while television pundits too numerous to name promote an extreme philosophy of multiculturalism as moral absolute and a brand of legal positivism whereby citizenship is little more than a laundry list of civic rights and good government nothing more than the mechanical administration of public policy.
To the public’s credit, Americans aren’t buying it. Like me, many understand that citizenship is more than exercising your rights; it is understanding when not to exercise those rights when decency requires it. And when individual citizens are incapable of this level of sensitivity and they cause widespread offense, as Imam Rauf and Sharif El Gamal have done, then a just government must act. Effective leadership does more than stand aside as a disinterested referee while citizens commit acts of deliberate outrage against one another; leaders must also protect the common good and promote mutual respect.
Some people are discouraged and ask how we can we stop the construction of this building when the Landmark Commission denied 45 Park Place landmark status and the Community Board has already approved the plan. In answer I would note that today we stand only a few blocks south of the African Burial Ground National Monument on the corner of Duane and Broadway–for those of you from out of town, if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth a look–the African Burial Ground is an 18th century cemetery discovered accidentally during the construction of the Weiss Federal Building. The memorial that stands there today is one that people fought long and hard for and that was ultimately created by an act of Congress.
I mention it because, in essence, we are asking for nothing more than this. If the government acted to create the African Burial Ground memorial so that some of the first African American New Yorkers could rest in peace and their descendants could remember their lives, then surely we have every right to expect similar accommodation for the place where so many Americans lost their lives nine years ago today. In a similar way, we are asking for a dignified environment in which to remember the fallen without a perversely positioned shrine to the creed that inspired their murder.
To make ourselves heard on this, we have to turn out for the election this November. I hope that all of you will note who in the city, state and federal governments stood on which side of the issue. I hope voters will send an unmistakable message to our leaders by denying election or reelection to any politician, Republican or Democrat, who has failed to speak out against this mosque. In future elections, I hope that local voters will pay particular attention to the members of the Community Board and the borough president who rubber-stamped this building project, walking in lockstep with Mayor Bloomberg.
And when I see the enthusiasm and determination of the people gathered here today I feel confident that we will attain our goal. The collective feeling of outrage over the planned construction of this building is over-whelming, the numbers are in and we represent the true will of the people, a fact that no true democracy can ignore. By this point the only people in New York who like the idea of the Ground Zero Mosque as far as I can tell are the Imam, his wife, Mayor Bloomberg and the editorial staff of the New York Times. While the legal barriers to stopping the construction of this mosque are considerable they are not insurmountable and in the end, if we steer the course, we have every reason to expect that we will prevail. Thank you for your support. God Bless America.