Freedom and Tolerance

September was the month in 1789 when the nation’s first Congress proposed to state legislatures the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of religion. September also marks the end of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, which on Sept. 9 wraps up a month of fasting for Muslims, who recognize “the people of the Book” throughout: Moses receiving the Torah on the 2nd of Ramadan, Jesus receiving the Gospels on the 12th, and David receiving the Psalms on the 18th.

But it’s been a shocking month, a time of intolerance and un-American venom aimed at Park 51, the Islamic community center planned for lower Manhattan.

The proposed 97,000-square-foot facility would have a basketball court, swimming pool, meeting rooms, a culinary school and areas set aside to pray. It won’t be a mosque, which is a Muslim holy site where only worship is held (unlike two already in the area). There’s no place like it in New York City, home to some 600,000 Muslims – about 1/4 of all U.S. Muslims.

Ground Zero can’t even be seen from the site.

“The debate is maybe the most unfortunate thing we’ve seen in a long time – to see Americans behave in such a manner,” said Ehab Zahriyeh, a 24-year-old video journalist born and raised in Brooklyn, speaking to the Washington Post.

One wonders whether Peorians would object to people using the Islamic Center on North Street, within a few blocks of Christian churches. Perhaps more to the point of those who confer consecration on the site of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, does anyone of German descent prays (or swims, or plays hoops) within walking distance of the Jewish Synagogue Agudas Achim on North University?

Also, within a few blocks of St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Labor Temple, does anyone work out at the Riverplex who has roots in the South, where the Ku Klux Klan persecuted Catholics and union members as well as African Americans?

A year ago this month, journalist Paul Moses published “The Saint and the Sultan,” recounting the amazing reconciliation seven centuries ago, when Francis of Assisi crossed the lines between soldiers of the Fifth Crusade and of Muslim defenders to confront Al-Malik al-Kamil, the ruler of Egypt.

“Francis was deeply impressed by the religious devotion of the Muslims, especially by their five daily calls to prayer,” writes historian Thomas Cahill. “In Francis’ view, judgment was the exclusive province of the all-merciful God; it was none of a Christian’s concern. True Christians were to befriend all, yet condemn no one. ‘May the Lord give you peace’ was the best greeting one could give to all one met. It was a blessing to be bestowed indiscriminately. Francis bestowed it on people named George and Jacques and on people named Osama and Saddam.”

A contemporary church hermit, Brother Dismas Mary of the Cross in the Diocese of Banjul, in the Gambia in West Africa, clarifies the story.

“These two men met and became friends, and when it was time for Francis to move on, he was given safe passage to the Holy Land,” Brother Dismas writes. “When Saint Francis returned home he added to his Rule of life (for the [Franciscan] friars) that if any brother felt called to go among the Muslims, he must always remember that he is to ‘live in peace’ with all Muslims.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Laura Schlessinger – who said the N-word 11 times in five minutes on her August 10 radio show and apologized the next day, then announced that she’d end her program when her contract expires at the end of the year – told cable host Larry King, “I want to regain my First Amendment rights. I want to be able to say what’s on my mind … without somebody getting angry.”


The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Schlessinger is confused, at least.

“The First Amendment serves everyone, regardless of faith, race, gender or political leanings,” says Ken Paulson, the former USA Today editor who’s president of the First Amendment Center. “Its freedoms are truly the cornerstone of democracy and make America the special nation it is.”

Schlessinger has the right to utter offensive language, and listeners have the right to get angry or laugh at her and never listen to that radio station again. Americans have the right to fly Confederate flags or burn U.S. flags, and Americans have the right to write without the fear of a death fatwa targeting them like the threats against U.K. citizen Salman Rushdie.

But U.S. Muslims – or Baha’i, Baptists or Buddhists – have the right to worship, too.

However, Right-wing rhetoric from some Republicans has been unusually inflammatory – far more extreme than George W. Bush, who addressing Congress after the 9/11 attacks said, “I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans…Its teachings are good and peaceful.”

Even GOP operative Karl Rove and New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie have cautioned against intolerance. Christie said, “What offends me the most about all this is that it’s being used as a political football.”

Haris Tarin, director of the Washington office of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, told the Post, “Individuals who call this an act of insensitivity forget that Muslim Americans were victims on 9/11 also. Our country was attacked. Our faith was hijacked on that day.”

Indeed, would Americans object to Oklahoma City’s American Legion Post on NW 50th St., a few miles from the site of the Murrah Federal Building, destroyed in 1995 by homegrown terrorist Timothy McVeigh – a veteran?

Sadly, the night before Ramadan ends is the feast day marking the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the 8th day of the month of Our Lady of Sorrows in the Catholic faith, which in its catechism says, “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims.”

Paul Moses, author of “The Saint and the Sultan,” said, “The story of Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik al-Kamil says there is a better way than resentment, suspicion and warfare. It opens the door to respect, trust and peace. If the greatest Christian saint since the time of the apostles peacefully approached Muslims at a time when they were supposed to be mortal enemies, that action can inspire and instruct us today.”

Bill Knight is a Peoria journalist who teaches at Western Illinois University. Contact him at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *