Conservatism, racism, and the Ground Zero mosque

Conservatism has been unfairly maligned as racist, Gerard Alexander writes in op-​​ed in today’s Washington Post. “From an immi­gra­tion law in Arizona to a planned mosque near Ground Zero to Glenn Beck emot­ing at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniver­sary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” he writes,

the con­tro­ver­sies roil­ing American pol­i­tics in recent weeks and months have fea­tured an ugly under­tone, sug­gest­ing mean­ness, prej­u­dice and, in the eyes of some, out­right racism. And it is conservatives—whether Republican politi­cians, Fox News com­men­ta­tors or mem­bers of the “tea party” movement—who are invari­ably painted with that brush.

I agree with Alexander’s broad point: American con­ser­vatism is not racist, either in the­ory or in prac­tice, and most of the accu­sa­tions hurled against con­ser­v­a­tives are ill-​​founded. His analy­sis of debate about the mosque near Ground Zero, though, is too hasty. “The planned Islamic cen­ter near Ground Zero raises alarms, in part, because the insen­si­tiv­ity of its archi­tects to 9/11’s emo­tional legacy sug­gests their deeper dis­tance from American sen­si­bil­i­ties.” Conservatives’ oppo­si­tion to the cen­ter, he argues, rests on the prin­ci­ple that “[j]ust because some­one has a legal right to do some­thing . . . does not mean it is a wise, desir­able[,] or respect­ful thing to do.” But it’s only unwise, unde­sir­able, or dis­re­spect­ful to build an Islamic cen­ter near Ground Zero if you take the posi­tion that the mosque’s sup­port­ers and future patrons are and will be Muslims, just like the 911 hijack­ers.

But they are 2 dif­fer­ent sets of Muslims. The mosque’s sup­port­ers are part of the American cul­tural pas­tiche, and should be presumed—unless shown otherwise—to accept America’s world stand­ing and to be nor­mal, loyal Americans who are not com­mit­ted to the vio­lent over­throw of the United States. (Whether they agree with cur­rent American poli­cies is irrel­e­vant; no one—not even the president—agrees with all cur­rent American poli­cies. We don’t hand out build­ing per­mits on the basis of pol­icy pref­er­ences.) The 911 hijack­ers, as they demon­strated to hor­rific effect, were com­mit­ted to the vio­lent over­throw of the United States.

Sure, both groups read from the same Qur’an, and so some New Yorkers might be reminded of the hijack­ers when they see the mosque near Ground Zero. I do not begrudge the per­son who invol­un­tar­ily makes that con­nec­tion, but the con­nec­tion is unfortunate—something to be over­come, not accom­mo­dated. It would be unwise to make an excep­tion to America’s plu­ral­ist ideals until the 911 gen­er­a­tion dies off in 60 or 70 years. Allowing the mosque to be built will allow more non-​​Muslim Americans to meet and know their Muslim fel­low cit­i­zens, and hope­fully to develop new con­nec­tions so that the thought of Islam does not imme­di­ately bring to mind 911.