America is a secular country. Secularism is absolute. It cannot vary in degrees. It cannot vary depending on the circumstance. There is nothing the government can do about the decision of some people to profess their faith, to gather peacefully and to practice their religion. And if those that gather there also attempt to reach out, to explain to others that they come there on good faith, that they’re tolerant, that they mean no harm, the government must simply stand by it. And so there is nothing the government can do about the decision to build an Islamic Centre merely two blocks from Ground Zero, where several people died by a Jihadist attack.
The very idea of an Islamic Centre seems to irk the sensitivities of many people. Perhaps they wonder if their yet-to-heal wounds are being rubbed raw. Perhaps they wonder if they’re being laughed at for putting up with other religions. Or perhaps they do not want to be asked for understanding and forgiving for they are not done grieving. Secularism occupies no place in their heart. Memories of loved ones do. And they cannot find it in themselves to understand, to support other religions again, a support that they offered once freely, a support that they feel was fully misused. And perhaps all they’re asking is for these people to go away for now, to come back later, when they can remember peace-time again. And they’re asking that an exception be made, an exception that takes into account their sensitivity and their vulnerability.
But the constitution does not grant the right to sensitivity, vulnerability or fear. It asks simply that people continue to be strong regardless of circumstance in order to uphold a higher value- that of tolerance. For its founders believed that one can find courage, strength and the will to do what is right under absolutely every single circumstance, no matter how trying.
Perhaps they would rather live somewhere else where everyone professes the same religion that they do. Alternatively, perhaps they would live somewhere where everyone practices their religion in secret so that religion is never questioned. But perhaps it would all of us some good to remember what tolerance feels like in peacetime.
I grew up in India, another secular country albeit Hindu dominated. On my street among a majority of Hindus, are also Muslims and Christians. Every Diwali ( a Hindu festival), my mother asks me to distribute sweets to the neighbours. We distribute them to all our neighbours regardless of religion- regardless of the Christmas Trees in the courtyards or the Quranic verse on the walls. I am certain that this act of distributing sweets is never interpreted as my trumpeting my religion, for I am always welcomed with open arms. Come Christmas, I can expect sweets from my Christian neighbor and come Eid I can expect sweets again from my Muslim neighbor. None of us is afraid of one another. Indeed we have often given them our house keys to help guard our house while we are out of town. We go to our temples, churches and mosques. My Muslim neighbor does not find any ill in asking other neighbours to contribute to the temple because the temple plans to use those funds to build a park. And my Christian neighbor does not refuse to pay the community maintenance fees despite the community leader being a devout Hindu. Nor does the community leader insist that the community consist of solely Hindus. It can be argued that we tolerate each other because we fear our lives. But the honest-to-God or whatever-you-believe-in truth is we tolerate each other simply because we care for each other.
Perhaps those of the Cordoba Initiative are over-reaching and are testing American secularism too much. But the test is so easily passed. If Americans only extend their once steady, now trembling hands, they will realize that what’s waiting for them is a warm, firm grip, a balm that will finally ease the pain.