"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
Constitution of the United States, First Amendment

I'm angry. Furious. My rage is a white fire deep in my chest that I can't let cool because I fear that if I do I will just start sobbing and I won't be able to stop. It appears to me, frankly, that the world has finally tipped over something and gone completely insane. I don't want to go outside because I fear that if I see another person the rage will boil up and I will start screaming. I don't know how to look another human being in the eyes right now without wondering if they are one of the far too many who think it's okay to protest the faith of other Americans and try to stop them from building houses of worship. I fear that if i started talking to someone on the street about this, and they said the wrong thing, the flames might rise up and jet from out of my mouth, burning them to ash. I am not safe to be near at the moment.

"If I could conceive that the general government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded, that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution."
George Washington

Liberty of conscience. That's what they used to call it. Being a free thinker. A non-conformist. A person committed to figuring out how to relate to God on his or her own. The Massachussetts Bay colony was founded by such people, and at the time of our Constitution's being written, there was no freedom held more dear than the right of every person to privately approach the divine in whatever manner his or her conscience dictated. It was so important that when the bill of rights was added to the newly ratified constitution, Freedom of Religion was second only to Freedom of Expression in importance. For how can we be free if we are not free to believe and practice our faith in the way that we feel that we must, since for all of us, whether we be Christian, Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, Atheist, Agnostic, or Pagan, our faith is the foundation of how we live our lives, the source of how we find goodness and meaning in the world, and a never ending font of resilience and solace in the face of adversity. Strip that from me, and what do any of my other freedoms matter? At that point, you might as well shred the constitution and break out the shackles because If we are not free in our own minds and hearts, we can never be free otherwise.

"Religion is a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved. I have considered it as a matter between every man and his Maker in which no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle."
Thomas Jefferson

I set out to write a balm. Something that would soothe my feelings of misgiving and alienation. It's not working out that way. I've seen polls saying as much as 70% of Americans think the "ground zero mosque" shouldn't be built. People trying to help me feel better say things like it's just ignorance, it's not that these people are really crazy, but just that they don't know the facts. But that doesn't work for me, because you don't need to know the facts to get this one right. All you should have to hear is "mosque controversy" and that should be the end of it. Because I don't care how close it is to ground zero, I don't care whether it's a mosque or a Young Men's Muslim Association. I don't care if the guy who is the head of the project is the Imam version of the Dalai Lama or the Imam version of Pat Robertson. I don't care what it will look like, whether it will sound the call to prayer, or whether you can see it from ground zero. It's a place where people can go to practice their faith. That is the end of the story. In the United States of America that I am a citizen of, we do not tell people that they can't build their house of of the holy somewhere because the name that God goes by in that particular house isn't correct. That's what's right. There are not two sides to this story. All of you who think there are? You're either a bunch of brainwashed Zombie cowards or the most craven of hypocrites and I want nothing to do with you.

"The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considerd as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man's right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority."
James Madison

Don't talk to me about the law. Don't say this is a local zoning issue, something that the first amendment and even the fourteenth amendment doesn't contemplate. This is not a legal question, it is a moral one. I suppose I could give a long explanation of what the difference is between what's legal and what's right. I'm not going to though because I'm not feeling particularly professorial today. Suffice it to say I don't care what the law is here. This is a question of values, and one of the values that I thought I shared with all but a few of the most crazy of my fellow Americans was a belief that we were united in our support for free exercise of religion. Never mind the quibbles about establishment clause stuff and whether kids can pray in schools, because that's a separate and legal issue. Im talking about the fundamental principle that each of us has a right to practice our faith as our conscience dictates and that the only proscription permitted of the liberty of conscience is a secular purpose to deter and punish antisocial behavior even when it has a religious purpose. And yet here we are. I am a stranger in my own country. If the muslims don't belong here—as NPR quoted one protester in Temecula, CA as saying—then clearly neither do I. As far as I'm concerned we might as well all be the current scapegoat minority. Because what they do to them now, they can just as easily do to us later.

"When religion is good, it will take care of itself. When it is not able to take care of itself, and God does not see fit to take care of it, so that it has to appeal to the civil power for support, it is evidence to my mind that its cause is a bad one."
Benjamin Franklin

The Economist, hardly a liberal rag by any means, is also of the opinion that Americans have gone crazy. As they point out in their latest online article on the "mosque," the "insensitivity" or "tact" argument that everybody from Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin to Barack Obama and Harry Reid seems to be falling back on only works if a mosque is to 9-11 as a swastika is to the holocaust. That absolutely isn't the case. I can't think of a greater repudiation of the cult of nihilism that Osama bin Laden and his stormtroopers of death follow than for our open and free society to celebrate the greatness that is Islam. I'd go further than building a YMMA two blocks from ground zero. I'd build a mosque right on ground zero itself as part of an ecumenical interfaith chapel as an act of defiance in the face of the wahabist perversion of the Prophet's teachings that sees the openness of our society as a great evil. As our last president was so fond of saying, these people hate our freedoms. Whether he's completely right about that or not, there is at least an element of truth to it, and I can think of no better memorial to the victims of the September 11th Terror Attacks (many of whom were muslims) than to fly in the face of that intolerance by being even more open and accepting of our religious diversity as a people. Instead, in the names of the victims and their families, the opposition is embracing a philosophy very much like the criminals who perpetrated that attrocity. The irony is bitter on my tongue and makes me want to spit.

"Discrimination against the holder of one faith means retaliatory discrimination against men of other faiths. The inevitable result of entering upon such a practise would be an abandonment of our real freedom of conscience and a reversion to the dreadful conditions of religious dissensions which in so many lands have proved fatal to true liberty, to true religion, and to all advance in civilization."
Theodore Roosevelt

Religious intolerance is in fact at the center of the inhuman and terroristic ideologies that drive Al Qaeda, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, Hezbollah, and any other violent religious cult that stands in the way of peace in the Middle East, including the more militant political parties in Israel. It is high time that Americans recognized this is not a liberty that is to be taken lightly, but is in fact a cornerstone of our society's conception of liberty. I am not unaware of the irony that the same people whose voices are the loudest in opposition to the Cordoba Initiative community center in lower Manhattan are the same people decrying "Obamacare" as a stalking horse for authoritarian socialism. The irony would be funny if it weren't so deadly serious. Because religious freedom is far more essential and far more important for all of us than is the mere choice of what sort of health care system we want to have, and an assault on any one of my fellows religious freedom is an assault on my religious freedom. Should the people opposing the community center in New York get their way, on that day we will all be a little less free. At this point it has become imperative for the community center to be built as planned because acquiescence to the forces of hate and fear that are opposing it would be a victory for those forces, and such a victory we cannot allow.

"I believe in an America ... where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."
John F. Kennedy

"Uphold the values of America and remember why so many have come here. We're in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them. No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith.'
George W. Bush

That's right, John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush are on the same page on this one. That should be a wake up call for all of us about how fucking skewed this conversation has become in American life. When George W. Bush is the voice of moderation speaking out from the past, then we have gone over the cliff and are existing in a sort of bizarro land. What I find baffling and what fills me with rage on this issue is the fact that so few people seem to be questioning why this is even up for debate. CNN, Fox, NBC, CBS, and most any other news source you can name is treating this issue as if there were two reasonable sides engaged in a sensible political debate, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Of the media voices who have addressed this issue only Keith Olbermann whose impassioned editorial about the craven manipulation of public opinion that has led us to this miserable point, and Rachel Maddow whose repeated statements are primarily that she has a hard time taking the controversy seriously because it's so clearly a right wing political ploy to try to gin up fear and hate of the Other in advance of the midterm elections, seem to be aware of what's really going on here. To be sure, there are other voices of reason. Anderson Cooper to his credit has called out a variety of republican politicians trying to make political hay out of what should be, and in a sensible time would be, an absolute non-issue. But counterbalance those voices with the hew and cry from the Fox News talking heads, the CNN and Network news anchors who report on this as if there were a journalistically neutral point of view that can be adopted, and the raging of the right wing blogosphere in concert with the worst and most extreme of the Israeli apologists who seem to be motivated not by a love for Zion but rather a deep hatred of Arabs, and such few voices are easily drowned out. The international press is much more sensible on the matter, of course, and viewed in the light of what news sources in Britain, Australia, and on the Continent are observing, it seems clear that the American populace, 7 in 10 of whom oppose the building of the community center, are out of their fucking minds.

"You have two qualities which God, the Most Exalted, likes and loves. One is mildness and the other is toleration."
The Prophet Mohammed, Peace Be Upon Him

Let me be clear. Islam is a faith that believes in peace and toleration. When it was at it's best during the height of the Caliphate, Islam represented a bulwark of learning, tolerance, and goodness against the barbaric forces of the primitive Catholic church that in collusion with feudalism and serfdom had mired much of the former Roman Empire in the dark ages. In the centuries between the fall of Rome and the European Renaissance, the cultural artifacts of Greece and Rome were preserved not by the monastics cloistered in their abbeys against the meanness of european politics, but in Persia and Arabia and Turkey by Muslims who viewed understanding the world in its scientific and philosophical greatness as a way of showing devotion to Allah by wondering at His creation. In Moorish Spain, great Christian and Jewish Leaders thrived in a community of tolerance that viewed them as "People of the Book" who worshipped the same God as muslims and who were holy through their own revelation of him. At a time when across Europe cathars and albigensians were being persecuted and burned at the stake for defying the orthodoxy of the Roman faith, the Rabbi Moshe Maimonedes was living in Cordoba under the Caliphate and there he was allowed to produce some of the greatest works of Rabbinical Theology ever written which are still regarded as Talmudic law by many Jews. It is no great stretch of historical facts to say that the foundations of western culture were laid by the Islamic Golden Age and that the west would not be what it is if our most cherished past, the roots of our civilization in Greek Democracy and the Roman Republic, had not been preserved by the muslim world at a time when the nations of Europe were hamstrung by the most inhuman of political regimes.

"The supreme satisfaction is to be able to despise one's neighbor and this fact goes far to account for religious intolerance. It is evidently consoling to reflect that the people next door are headed for hell."
Aleister Crowley

Indeed the sad state of the current muslim world, beset as it is by brutal theocracies and totalitarian rule is something that the policies of the west are culpable in. After World War II in our anti-communist zeal, American meddling in the affairs of the middle east supported brutal dictatorships in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The current political reality of the region was shaped as a reaction to American puppets instituted as a resistance to the marxist influence in the pan-Arabism and nationalist movements that had they been allowed to follow their own course could have resulted in much more tolerant and open societies than the ones which at present have served to radicalize extreme elements within the muslim world in opposition to the oppressive circumstances in which so many muslims now live. The reactionary beliefs of the Wahabi cult and the virulent anti-western activities of the most repugnant of organizations like Al Qaeda and Islamic Jihad were fueled by writers who lived under the repressive rule of western puppets, and if we are to advance and build better relationships with the muslim world, it is essential that we in the west recognize that we are culpable in creating those regimes that have been the greatest thorns in our sides. And yet we do not. We sit back and condemn someone like Imam Rauf for stating the fact plainly that American foreign policy in the 20th century played a part in the development of Al Qaeda. This is a fact that is beyond dispute. And yet the comment itself is now offered by hate mongers on the right like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity who offer it as evidence that Rauf, a man who is clearly on the side of openness and tolerance, is some sort of extremist whose organization will breed anti-american sentiment. The irony, of course, is that what really will engender anti-western hatred in the muslim world is the kind of bigotry that is now being taken for granted across the United States and which is clearly driving my fellow americans out of their goddamn minds in opposition to a basketball court, community center, and prayer chapel in the most diverse city in America. A city that has long welcomed and been a home for thousands of muslims, and that because it was such a place was attacked by the "muslim" counterparts of the sort of "christianity" espoused by the likes of the worst elements of the American right. The compounding ironies here do very little to alleviate the terrible tragedy of what has befallen us as a nation.

"I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

Even accepting that everything is true, that this really is a "ground zero" "mosque" that Imam Rauf is really a terrorist sympathizer, and that allowing the construction of the mosque by him would be an insult to the memories of 9-11 victims, allowing for all of that vile propaganda to be true, so fucking what? This is the United States of America. We are a nation that is great because of our openness, our tolerance, and our acceptance of even the most vile within our borders. We are strong because we will not allow ourselves to be weakened by an opposition to ideas that make us uncomfortable. Our promise to the world, the American Example as epitomized in Winthrop's sermon that we stand as a shining city on a hill for all to see, is that such openness is strength. That in loving our enemies, that in being an open society that tolerates dissent and even the most vile opposition to our most cherished ideals, we will be the better for it. We have not always lived up to that example, but it is at the core of who we are and we are at our best when we are striving to live up to that value just as we are at our worst when we forget the promise to all mankind that is embodied in our founding documents, that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with the rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. I stand today furious at my fellow Americans for abandoning this noble truth and sick at what has become of my country so twisted by the fear and hatred that our most vile elements are continually espousing that we are making the choice not to be our best, but to wallow in our worst. I feel like a stranger in my own country, an alien who in his idealism is clinging to shreds of an American identity that everyone around me seems to have forgotten. I can't look at another person in the eyes without wondering "Are you one of them?" and then I do the math and realize that probably they are, and the rage boils up within me yet again. But I am an American and I know what that means. It means that I too have to live by the ideals I espouse and that as wrong as the people are who are protesting outside mosques and telling American muslims that they do not belong here, they are never the less entitled to say those things and I will defend with my dying breath their right to do so. What I will not do, however, is turn the other cheek and merely sit idly by while this travesty is perpetrated on the country that bore me and that I love. My America is not a place that tells people where they cannot build a house of worship. My America is open to people of all faiths and creeds. My America is a shining city on a hill that will never permit intolerance and hate and fear reign long before correcting itself and coming to its senses. This is my hope and my faith in my fellow citizens who are now so embroiled in this dark and ugly sentiment, that a time will come when the grip of their xenophobic terror eases and they are as ashamed of themselves as I now am of them. I have to hold on to that faith, because if I didn't it might be too much to bear.