Religious tolerance is one of the bedrock principles of American democracy, and New York City acted courageously to uphold it this week when its Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to allow construction of a planned mosque and Islamic cultural center near ground zero in lower Manhattan.
Opponents of the project had charged that permitting a Muslim house of worship close to the site where about 2,750 people lost their lives in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks would be tantamount to a slap in the face for families of the victims. Certainly, those families deserve our sympathy and respect.
But New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg got it exactly right when he said that to cave in to the angry voices would be to betray the very values that distinguish us from those who perpetrated a monstrous crime motivated by bigotry and hatred, and thus hand to our enemies a victory that they could never achieve on the battlefield.
The mosque's sponsors described their purpose as one of building bridges between Muslims and the West, with the aim of fostering greater understanding and tolerance among the world's religions and a recognition of our common humanity. The mosque and cultural center near ground zero would be a visible symbol of reconciliation and ecumenical cooperation for both Muslims and non-Muslims in this country
That's just the opposite of the fanaticism and fear motivating the Sept. 11 attackers, a tiny minority of disaffected, violent extremists whose twisted views are a perversion of Islam. They no more represent the vast majority of Muslims worldwide than the Ku Klux Klan represents the world's Christians.
Certainly, the families of those killed on Sept. 11 have a right to be concerned about a mosque being built so close to the place where their loved ones died, which in their minds and those of their countrymen will forever be hallowed ground. But the way to honor their loss is not to abandon the fundamental principles of religious freedom and tolerance, but rather to ensure that those ideals emerge from the tragedy of Sept. 11 stronger than ever.
Indeed, Mayor Bloomberg went out of his way to point out that Muslims were also among the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, and that "our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values and play into our enemies' hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else."
It was only to be expected that some figures like former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would jump in to capitalize on the raw feelings driving opposition to the mosque to advance their own ideological agendas.
What could be more antithetical to the true spirit of America than advocating for the government to pick and decide which churches, synagogues or mosques can be built, and where? That obvious contradiction shows just how shamelessly such politicians are willing to behave when they sense there's something to be gained from pandering to people's worst instincts.
To his great credit, Mayor Bloomberg refused to stoop to that level when he reminded New Yorkers — and the rest of country — that the controversy over the proposed mosque "is as important a test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetimes. And it is critically important that we get it right … Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off-limits to God's love and mercy."