Perhaps no issue in recent memory has aroused as much controversy and passion as the proposed Islamic community center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero. Those passions came to a head as the blogosphere reacted, mostly in a headlong rush to judgment, over the recommendation by the Anti-Defamation League that New York City would be better served if an alternative location could be found.
The reaction was immediate and in most cases we were maligned and our position was mischaracterized and deeply misunderstood. The main charge was that an anti-bigotry organization had joined with the bigots. That false accusation was extremely painful and served to diminish and obscure the fact that our position on the Islamic center was carefully considered, clearly stated, and consistent with our values and mission.
There are legitimate differences of opinion regarding the building of an Islamic cultural center at Ground Zero.
To us, after much discussion and debate it became clear that the overriding concern should be the sensitivities of the families of the victims that dictated finding another location for this massive $100 million project.
At its essence, our position is about sensitivity. Everyone — victims, opponents, and proponents alike — must pay attention to the sensitivities involved without giving in to appeals or to accusations of bigotry. Ultimately, this was not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center would unnecessarily cause some victims more pain. And that wasn’t right.
Having made our decision known, we expected disagreement and criticism from some quarters. What has been so disheartening, however, has been the nature of that criticism. Two kinds of attacks have been particularly troubling: that we are violating principles of religious freedom, and that we are stereotyping Muslims.
These criticisms simply ignore ADL’s record in dealing with such matters, particularly in the post-9/11 climate.
Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Muslims were being stereotyped and in some cases individual Muslims or Muslim institutions were attacked. ADL took the lead in not standing idly by. We took out ads in The New York Times and other newspapers with the headline, “Don’t Fight Hate with Hate.” Our message was that a terrible event occurred on 9/11, a national tragedy brought on by hate, but the way to deal with it was to fight the terrorists, and not to stereotype and hate individual Muslims.
Similarly, when two mosques in Dallas were targets of shooting, ADL’s director in Dallas organized a press conference. The imam of one of the mosques, a Baptist minister, and he spoke together against this dangerous and inappropriate reaction to the 9/11 horror.
When a Muslim congressman was condemned by some for taking the oath of office on a Koran instead of a Bible, ADL was quick to defend his right to that option.
In Ohio, in 2002, ADL called upon Cuyahoga County corrections officials to reverse their decision not to permit Muslim women to wear their hijab in the courtroom. In 2006, ADL condemned remarks by a member of Congress depicting Muslims in a stereotypical way.
And there are many more examples in recent years of ADL’s voice standing out against anti-Muslim bigotry.
Indeed, ADL supports the building of mosques, like churches and synagogues, just about anywhere in the country. That is a religious freedom perspective.
And when French government officials sought to bar the wearing by Muslims of religious facial garments, ADL spoke out to defend the right of Muslims to wear traditional clothing and participate as full members of society.
Not to mention ADL’s day-to-day work across this country in fighting hate crimes, which affect Muslims, and in teaching about respect and tolerance for differences in schools, workplaces, and federal institutions.
All in all, we have established ourselves as leaders in promoting pluralism and fighting against bigotry, particularly against Muslims in the difficult post-9/11 period.
Critics should consider that context and credibility before reacting to ADL’s position. Clearly we would not take a position to limit religious freedom. Clearly we would never take a position that would stereotype Muslims.
However, we also must take into consideration the feelings of the families who lost loved ones at Ground Zero.
The lessons of an earlier and different controversy echo in this one. In 1993, Pope John Paul II asked 14 Carmelite nuns to move their convent from just outside the Auschwitz death camp. The establishment of the convent near Auschwitz had stirred dismay among Jewish groups and survivors who felt that the location was an affront and a terrible disservice to the memory of millions of Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis in the Holocaust.
Just as we thought then that well-meaning efforts by Carmelite nuns to build a Catholic structure were insensitive and counterproductive to reconciliation, so, too, we believe it will be with building a mosque so close to Ground Zero.
The better way for Muslims seeking reconciliation and moderation would have been for them to reach out to the families of the victims, who we are sure could have recommended any number of actions to achieve those goals other than the present plan.
To make this a test of whether one supports religious freedom or is stereotyping Muslims is to engage in demagoguery. Good people can differ as to what should happen, without falsely being accused of abandoning their principles.
Abraham H. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, is national director of the Anti-Defamation League. This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on Aug. 2.