There have been many mischaracterizations of the position of the Anti-Defamation League with regard to the proposed Islamic center/mosque in the shadow of Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. In fact, we believe that our position is completely consistent with ADL’s historic posture on a number of themes.
Point one: Religious freedom. We made clear in our July 28 statement and in subsequent comments that there is no question that the consortium behind the mosque has every right to build in that location. ADL has been a leader in the effort to protect religious freedom in America and this instance is no different.
Point two: Bigotry toward Muslims. Ever since the mosque controversy surfaced several months ago, we have been speaking out against those who were exploiting the issue to stereotype and demonize Muslims. This, of course, is nothing new for us. Ever since 9/11 we have been publicly outspoken for the protection of Muslim rights in America. When there were anti-Muslim incidents and statements shortly after the World Trade Center terrorist attack, ADL took out advertisements in The New York Times and other newspapers with the message, “Don’t Fight Hatred with Hatred,” denouncing such activities. When the first Muslim member of Congress was criticized for taking the oath of office on a Koran instead of a Bible, ADL stood with him. When a Muslim woman was barred from wearing a religious facial garment in an Ohio court, ADL defended her right to do so.
ADL works to counter anti-Muslim bigotry in Israel as well. We have made available our anti-bias programs and materials in Hebrew and Arabic. We reach out to all segments of Israeli society, especially students and educators, to promote respect and understanding for and by Jews, Muslims, Christians and other religious and ethnic groups.
In our daily struggle to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred, the ultimate goal is reconciliation between peoples. This was the issue that was central to our position on the mosque issue. Those behind the project articulated the idea that this Islamic center abutting Ground Zero would help promote healing and reconciliation. In our view, this goal, however well-meaning, was not achievable. We believed that the chosen location undermined the goal of reconciliation.
The most important group toward whom reconciliation was directed — the victims and their families — had not been consulted as the process unfolded. Had there been conversations between the initiators of the project and the families, there is good reason to believe that many of the family representatives would have welcomed other efforts toward healing but would have explained that a mosque so close to Ground Zero would cause more pain than reconciliation.
We recalled an analogous experience in which we made our concerns known — the Carmelite nun project to build a convent outside Auschwitz in the 1980s. As in the mosque matter, we believed then that the nuns were well-meaning. But we insisted that the sensitivities of the survivors should determine the wisdom of such an effort and survivors were saying no. Some accused ADL of being anti-Christian for recommending the nuns find another site, as today some accuse us of anti-Muslim sentiment for our call to relocate. At that time, Pope John Paul II understood and ordered the nuns to build one mile from Auschwitz. It was a good resolution that has served all parties to this day.
So it is that ADL concluded that while those behind the project have a fundamental right to build a mosque near Ground Zero, we hoped they would reconsider and relocate. We made our decision on the basis of two principles — supporting religious freedom and sensitivity in such a delicate matter.
While good people can disagree on this matter, unfortunately the issue has fallen prey to ideologues on all sides. For some it has been an opportunity to lambast all Muslims and Islam. That is not what America is about and such appeals to bigotry must be condemned and resisted.
For others, it has been an occasion to label all who think the mosque would be better placed elsewhere as bigots or supporters of bigotry. This too is demagoguery. In a recent CNN poll, not only did 69 percent of the American public believe the mosque should be built elsewhere, but 54 percent of Democrats, the most liberal Americans, believed so.
For most Americans this is neither a rejection of religious freedom nor a manifestation of anti-Muslim bigotry. It is rather a common sense approach to an extremely sensitive matter.
We hope a reasonable solution can soon be found, one that will allow Muslims to believe that they share in the full panoply of rights and responsibilities of other Americans and where the healing process from 9/11 can continue to move forward.
Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League. His books include “The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control” and the forthcoming “Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype” (November 2010).