Living in New York City provides a variety of experiences ranging from the cultural to the culinary to some of the great landmarks of the world. To say that there is never a dull moment in “the city that never sleeps” is an understatement. Politics, however, is not a sideshow; it very often goes to the heart of the character of the city and by extension, the country as a whole. The public debate on the building of a mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero is just one illustration of a local issue with national and international implications.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has endorsed the project to be built on private property. His statement, considering the emotional impact of such a development, was a leadership moment. Whether you agree with him or not, he justified in very unequivocal terms the decision as being based on the US constitution and American values such as religious tolerance and openness to diversity. He framed the issue as such, arguing that on 9-11, American Muslims were also victims and many of the first responders were of the Islamic faith. Bloomberg was firm and decisive; he clearly won the day.
Opponents readily concede that the Mayor is correct on the Constitution and the First Amendment. They disagree, however, on the feasibility of such a project. Emotions from 9-11 remain rightly raw in the Big Apple. They have a point. Prominent Republican Newt Gingrich says it is insensitive and provocative. Others argue that many Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran show no respect for religious tolerance and diversity.
While this issue has not broken totally along party lines, it does create discomfort. Republican strategist and former George W. Bush advisor, Dan Senor, offered a third way—asking the project owner to reconsider another site in NY, but further away from Ground Zero. This kind of compromise is not out of the question, but the common thread to all those weighing in is that the right to build this Mosque is covered by the precepts of the US constitution—private property, First Amendment.
For American democracy, this debate goes to the heart of what America stands for and why American troops are sent to wars to defend. With 9-11 still an unhealed wound, the discussion becomes even more complicated. But living in New York and observing first hand the polemics around this issue makes one realize the American democracy is alive and well. And this is comforting.