President Obama recently jumped into the controversy about the mosque to be built near Ground Zero and promptly got his head bitten off. Therefore it is probably foolish of me to wade into the same shark infested waters. But this is an issue of essential interest to Baptists.
Baptists have historically been champions of religious freedom and tolerance. Baptists were born of persecution ... persecution by other Christians in England and America in the 17th century. We were the first voice for religious liberty in the “new world.” A century and a half later the United States wisely came to adopt those Baptist values.
Now those values are in danger – spoken against even by some Baptists. I saw a placard that said, “They can build a mosque at Ground Zero when Christians can build a church in Saudi Arabia.” Do we really want to model our standard of freedom after the Saudis?
First of all, let me say I believe it is a bad idea to build a mosque near Ground Zero. In fact I think it is a stupid idea. The Islamic group planning to build this huge Islamic Center called Cordoba House is showing incredible insensitivity to the families of the victims and to the national wound that has still not healed from 9/11.
I think it is a mistake to build a mosque near that location. But in this country religious people have the right to do stupid, insensitive, and even wrong things… as long as they do not hurt others or infringe on the rights of others to believe and do equally stupid, insensitive, and wrong things. That is the nature of religious freedom. Religious freedom means that people have the right to believe things we think are wrong and worship in ways we think are wrong.
The Pilgrims who sat around that first Thanksgiving table thought the early Baptists were wrong. In fact those Puritans thought Baptists were so wrong that they kicked the first American Baptist – Roger Williams - out of Massachusetts. He fled the Bay State in the middle of the winter and eventually made it to Rhode Island where he founded the first colony built on true religious tolerance and freedom in America. He called that colony Providence.
The initiators of the Cordoba House are not Islamic radicals or jihadists. They are not the ones who flew the airliners into the World Trade Center, nor do they agree with their politics of intolerance. In fact, Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf, the leader of the Cordoba Initiative, is a Sufi. He has been the imam of a Sufi mosque called Masjid al-Farah in New York City since 1983.
Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam. Sufis have been persecuted in both Shia and Sunni Islamic countries like Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and also in India. Jihadists consider them heretics. They hate Sufis almost as much as they hate Christians.
Abdul-Rauf is no saint, and he is not perfect. He can also say and do stupid things. But one doesn’t have to be a saint or perfect to build a house of worship in this country. If that were true, there would be no churches in this land.
At least one other Sufi leader agrees that the Cordoba House is a bad idea. Sufi Suleiman Schwartz said that building a $100 million Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero is inconsistent with the Sufi values of simplicity of faith and sensitivity towards others.
I still hope that this Islamic Center in not built where it is planned. But if it is built in this location, I pray that it would become a place of religious tolerance and inter-religious dialogue that might undermine the jihadist agenda in this country and around the world. If it did, my Baptist forebears would be proud.