I find the rhetoric about the Islamic Cultural Center scary.
People generally acknowledge that the First Amendment protects the right of Muslims to erect a religious building or cultural center. But there’s another clause that is as central to what it means to be an American. The last portion of Article III includes the words: “no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood.” Translated that means that guilt is personal. We do not visit the sins of the parents on the children or vice versa. Nor do we imprison siblings for the crimes of brothers and sisters. We take people as individuals. That of course is the conservative objection to affirmative action – that it is about groups, not people.
We don’t trace crimes to their source and exterminate all the progeny of the wrongdoers. Nor do we punish or disadvantage them. We don’t accuse Christians because other Christians have owned slaves or slaughtered innocents. Today’s Jews are not responsible for the execution of Christ. And even the father of Anne Frank, who died in a concentration camp, refused to express anger at Germans as a class – some Germans killed his family, but certainly not all.
That distinction between the individual and the collective is an important part of American principles. It is a central barrier to notions like ethnic cleansing and genocide. It is the line that defines the difference between innocent civilians and legitimate military targets.
Blur that line and we are all dead.
There’s some controversy over the exact text but Martin Niemoller said something like:
“THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
THEN THEY CAME for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
The principle, if it is a principle, applies to Muslims. And it should apply to Muslims just as much as to the rest of us. It should apply because no one in his or her right mind thinks Muslims as a group are guilty of anything. I was treated with kindness and respect when I lived in Iran. I certainly despise their current government. But the people I knew were lovely and kind, and the Persians showed the same dispersion of the good and the bad that is true of other peoples.
But no group is as likely in this world to be misunderstood, to have their intentions distorted by the prejudice of others. We need Muslim cultural centers where we could all drop in and remind ourselves that Muslims died in the World Trade Center just like everyone else who was there, that Muslims in America mourned those losses like the rest of us, and that our Muslim neighbors were not on those planes, were not part of those conspiracies, and that just as large a proportion of Muslims are decent, kind, loving people, as the rest of us.
What we do not want is the privilege of citizenship defined by the most prejudiced among us. May the God of all of us help us all.
This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 24, 2010.