Q. Should we allow Muslims to build a mosque near Ground Zero?

I'm back in the classroom this semester, after taking this past year off (which is its own long story, not relevant today). So, as part of the introduction to the course, I asked the students to write their names, their hometowns, and their majors on an index card, along with any question they might want me to answer. One of the students posed the question in the title, but I didn't get around to answering it during class.

A. Yes. I think there are two main reasons for this. The first is that religious freedom is basic to this country. While only two of the original colonies had religious tolerance as part of their founding principles, even those colonies with an established religion set that aside with the founding of the republic. I'm most familiar with Virginia's history here, but I think it's particularly relevant: Patrick Henry, an Episcopalian, wanted to have Christianity as the established religion in the state of Virginia; the people who opposed the establishment of a non-denominational "Christianity" were not atheists or members of some non-Christian religion, but Baptists and Presbyterians (and members of other, smaller denominations). They were committed Christians, but they worried that the dominant denomination - the Episcopalians - would control the narrative of what it means to be truly "Christian." Thus, they thought it best to leave it as a private matter, rather than a public one.

My second reason is related to the first: who gets to control the narrative of Islam? That is, just as the Baptists and Presbyterians had different ideas about what it means to be Christian than the Episcopalians (and each other), so there is diversity within the Muslim world.

Following 9/11, people criticized the leaders of the Muslim community in the US for not condemning the attacks. The sad thing about that is that those leaders did condemn the attacks, but no one was listening. The vast majority of Muslims in the US and around the world condemn terrorism, but the radical anti-Western minority seems to control the narrative of what Islam is in this country. I believe having a community center, on par with a YMCA, near Ground Zero, would help correct that.