Taking Liberties with Tolerance

Heart and Courage

The media is often criticized for content that is perpetually saturated with bad news. We often hear accusations of “fear mongering” and at the same time we hear that what people really want from their news sources are the juicy tidbits and the shocking stories. The unfortunate side effect of an emphasis on disasters, accidents, murders, and wars is widespread social anxiety, fear, and even terror. As our focus becomes fear, we don’t often see stories on the remedy.

This remedy is often described in terms of bravery and heroic acts, but it is actually the day-to-day courage that we must learn to cultivate in stressful times.  Courage strengthens and emboldens us; it shines a light upon our actions, and provides ethical and moral justification for our choices; courage  allows us to be effective and to have confidence in ourselves.

The etymological root of the English word courage is the Latin cor (heart). To have courage is to have the heart to face fear, danger, or pain in defense of hearth, home, life, livelihood, family, culture or beliefs.

What seems particularly and increasingly difficult for our politicians on either side of the aisle is moral courage. In moral courage one stands for what one knows is right even when one risks social shame, exclusion, gossip, scandal, or disappointment. Moral courage in turn emboldens a civil courage in which individual citizens have the courage to stand up against injustice despite the likelihood that their actions may lead to loss of freedom, life, or reputation (or, in the case of politicians, failure to get re-elected).

Having the heart to stand against social atrocities (the resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto), the heart to stand for political freedoms (against the tank in Tienanmen Square), or the heart to speak out against tyranny, (Civil Rights Movements), requires courage as a primary ingredient. We don’t often see  examples of this civil courage from our politicians who are usually ruled by polls, money, lobbyists, and the overarching desire to get re-elected.

This makes really remarkable President Obama’s recent decision to speak against what would appear to be his party’s interests, and in favor of the erection of a mosque near Manhattan’s Ground Zero. We are approaching midterm elections and the political wisdom emphasizes playing it safe. Politicians are masters at saying a “whole lot of nothing”. In the face of a growing swell of racial, ethnic, and religious intolerance that appears to be viewed as an acceptable political position among those candidates who choose to embrace what increasingly seems to have the backing of significant numbers of short-sighted bigots, the President’s decision to speak for the Constitutional rights of Muslims is risky and somewhat surprising.

Defending the Constitution

It’s odd when it becomes surprising for the President to defend the Constitution. There seems to be a fair amount of that going around. Why, at this rate we might even see justice become blind to the genders of individual couples wishing to marry! After all, without doing a panty check it’s really just two people who apply for a license to enter into a marriage contract–not two opposite sex individuals. Perhaps one day we’ll have a President who supports the constitutional rights of any couple to marry regardless of gender. In the meantime, we’ve witnessed a very big step towards tolerance.

The arguments against building a mosque near the site of the September 11 attacks, while cloaked in a veil of sensitivity for the families of the victims of September 11th, are actually not only unfounded but truly dangerous to what is often characterized as “The American Way of Life”. They are a threat not just to religious freedom but to everything we have come to treasure about America.

‘We feel that it (site of the towers) is a cemetery and sacred ground and the dead should be honored,’ is one common argument against the mosque. I fail to see how the building of an American Muslim mosque in a country that has suffered an attack by fundamentalist terrorists seeking to defeat our values of freedom and tolerance does not actually honor the dead! It is not a monument to terror to build this mosque. On the contrary, it is a monument to the beauty of America where places of minority religious belief can be built regardless of intolerance and ignorance.

The argument against the mosque seems to go something like: ‘The September 11 terrorists were Islamic, and therefore all Muslims are terrorists.’


Huh?! The hijackers were fringe terrorists and their ideas were not representative of the teachings of Islam, they were actually a stark example of the dangers of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist thinking clearly occurs in all sorts of religions and systems of belief.

This rising tide of fury about Muslims in New York who wish to build a mosque close to the hallowed ground of the fallen towers goes hand in hand with our own home grown and dangerous fundamentalism. There seems to be an increasing willingness to accept intolerance, demonization of the other, and general hate speech.

What’s really dismaying is that some people are using the deaths of loved ones on September 11 as if these deaths give them some sort of justification to hate indiscriminately. They seem blind to the underlying similarity between the thinking of the terrorists and their current actions and mindsets. In their hurt and anger they appear to have lost the ability somewhere along the way to sort out the difference between feelings and ideas.

When we are willing to transgress against the rights of all people of another religion regardless of their actual beliefs, we have become our own enemies. To do this because we were attacked by fundamentalists reminds me of the psychological observation that the children of abuse so often grow up to become abusers themselves.

One family member of a fallen fireman who died in the towers, recently told the New York Times that “People are being accused of being anti-Muslim and racist, but this is simply a matter of sensitivity.”

Why is it lacking in sensitivity to build a sacred cultural center for cross religious dialog near the site of an atrocity rooted in intolerance. Is it not sensitive to the memory of those who died that a group of Muslims wish to take actions which might defuse some of the misunderstandings and lead to peace and communication between previously alienated peoples? It was, after all, a climate of misunderstanding and alienation that led to those attacks in the first place.

It seems appropriate to reiterate the words of an Islamic relative of another fireman who died in those same falling towers who remarked in frustrated response to the intolerance: ‘Maybe if a mosque were built you guys would know what Islam is about!’

It defies rationality to label a religious structure intended to promote understanding and dialog as a “monument to terrorism”. In fact, a building intended to educate Muslims in tolerance and peace is a structure that supports the exact opposite of terrorism. There is no doubt that there is a growing element of intolerance around the world that exploits Islam.

Opposing Intolerance

What we are dealing with here is not really an appeal for “sensitivity” but fear mongering and hate. One of those opposed to the mosque, for example, is the Reverend Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach Center in Florida. He is planning to host a “burn the Qur’an” day on September 11 with the argument that he is “exposing Islam for what it is”. Sporting a sign on the church lawn reading “Islam is the Devil”, he describes Islam as “a violent and oppressive religion that is trying to masquerade itself as a religion of peace, seeking to deceive our society…”

I find it odd that Reverend Jones fails to see that by his reasoning his religion must then be equally tarred with the obvious Nazi-like action of book burning.

How does burning the Qur’an help fight Islamic intolerance?

What is truly scary about this current increase in hate and intolerance is that it is being exploited by politicians as we approach the mid-term elections.

Sarah Palin opposes the building of the mosque saying that while President Obama is right that Muslims have the right to build in lower Manhattan, he fails to address the question as to whether they should. Of course they should! It provides us all with the chance to explore causes of polarization and intolerance and to have the courage to stand up for religious freedom! Having the courage to stand up for the right of Muslims to build this mosque is exactly what we all should be encouraging. The mosque is an opportunity!

Newt Gingrich, possibly a future candidate for President Obama’s job, has gone so far as to warn that American Muslims are a mortal threat to freedom and are attempting to impose sharia law in the US.

I find it ironic that there is such narrow interpretation inherent in this sort of thinking. After all, if we are going to extrapolate, why limit the extrapolation to Muslims?

When you think about it, arguing against a mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks in Manhattan is roughly equivalent to an argument that there should be no Republican Party or NRA offices near the site of the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. After all, our home grown terrorist Timothy McVeigh was both a Republican and he joined the NRA. Come to think of it, he was also Christian.

Perhaps there should be no sushi bars or Zen centers in Hawaii. Too close to Pearl Harbor, right? Or possibly there should be no Catholic churches in California because of the murder and enslavement of the descendants of the First People of that state. Come to think of it, that goes for Manhattan also, perhaps the presence of any Christian churches in Manhattan should be questioned because of contemporary Christian justifications for the exploitation and displacement of the first inhabitants of that island.

The potentially absurd and hateful extrapolations are endless. I found a bumper sticker I saw once funny, it read: “US Out of North America”, but while it made me laugh, it fails to consider that we are all of us, all people of the world, in this together. The tendency to hate and foster bigotry is a social and psychological disease. It needs to be quickly addressed when it crops up or it spreads like the plague. Hateful intolerance also presents us with an ethical and moral problem.

Thankfully, we are not having to deal with the sorts of daily insanity (at least not yet) that the people of Israel and Palestine are wrestling with, and hopefully we don’t choose to go down a further similarly polarized road of mutual intolerance. We haven’t been around as a nation for very long, and history is rife with awful examples of what happens when civilizations embrace this sort of thinking.

It seems so much easier to hate than to forgive, particularly when the people we need to forgive are different from us. During WWII it was the Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated in concentration camps in America, and not the German-Americans. When we demonize the other we risk becoming exactly what we hate and fear. Our intolerance blinds us from the paradoxical nature of our thoughts. If we judge all Muslims by the actions of crazed and intolerant fundamentalists, if we then oppose the building of a mosque near Ground Zero for those sorts of reasons, we are ourselves the ones threatening American freedom and democracy.

There is no doubt that we need to be sensitive to those who have lost loved ones in the September 11 attacks. Sensitivity however should not be confused with supporting fear and hatred. A good way to remember and memorialize the deaths on that awful day in Manhattan is to focus upon preserving the beauty the terrorists were attacking. What better way than to honor that unique document which truly set in motion such amazing and beautiful ideas about equality, truth and justice. To do anything less than take a stand against bigotry is truly “Un-American”.


All material included here is copyright Maerian Morris and Westernesste. All rights reserved.