The controversy over the planned mosque near ground zero has devolved into an uncivil war between sense and sensibility. It’s a definitive dialectic between reason and emotion. Sense says: “Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda believe in a Manichean world of good versus evil, Islam versus America, but we know better. To repudiate that view we must assert that aspect of our national character that we cherish and they hate: religious pluralism."
Sensibility says: “This is adding insult to injury. How dare they?”
Sense responds: “How can you say ‘How dare they?’ when the American Muslims building the mosque are fighting the fanaticism and xenophobia of those who flew the planes into the twin towers?”
Sensibility says: “That’s what they say. They’re all alike.”
Reason cannot calm the storm of emotion, and emotion usually wins, until it settles down and allows reason to rise again and apologize on behalf of it. Americans are generally decent and fair people with a commitment to sense, but some of us, swept up by our passions, wade too far into a sea of sensibility.
Lessons from Irish-Catholics
We’ve seen this tragedy-and-triumph saga many times before in American history. Notably, the mid-19th century struggle of Irish-Catholics to be fully accepted as Americans should give today’s Muslims hope that their efforts to weather the storms of controversy and mistrust will bear fruit.
My great, great grandfather, Michael O’Hanson, fled the impending potato famine of Ireland and arrived in America in the early 1840s with his bride, Bridget. They headed for Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, and a mecca for Irish-Catholic immigrants then.
They didn’t get a warm welcome to America, and instead found themselves smack in the middle of the Nativist anti-Irish-Catholic riots of 1844, which left scores of people dead and two beautiful Catholic churches destroyed. The riots were prompted by false rumors that the Irish-Catholics wanted the Bible removed from public schools to ensure Protestant doctrine would not be taught to their children.
Ordinary Americans were appalled by the viciousness of the attacks, and their good sense prevailed. It eventually led to the famous consolidation of the city in 1854. But Irish-Catholics had still not arrived, and my great grandfather, Michael Hanson Jr., dropped the “O” from his Gaelic name and blended into Philadelphia society, going into partnership with the enlightened Jewish newspaper giant, Paul Block. And while he practiced his Catholicism openly, he hid his Irish ancestry even from his own children, to spare them the perceived shame of being Irish in upper class society.
In many ways, Muslims are the new Irish. While they are spared the blatant bigotry of job ads that caution, “No Muslims need apply,” Muslims often feel the chill of their reception during job interviews, especially women wearing a scarf, or men with a beard and skullcap.
But the Irish narrative is also one of good cheer for the Muslims. They aren’t called “the fighting Irish” for nothing. The Irish pressed on. Slowly, they built some of the finest schools and colleges in our nation, as well as churches and charitable hospitals. They were hardworking and industrious, and their natural genius flourished in the opportunities afforded them in a free and open society.
As an Irish-Catholic, John Kennedy, challenged the sensibility of many Americans and their fear of a “papist” in office. Thanks to Kennedy’s passionate appeal to reason, sense prevailed, and most Americans overcame that prejudice. Now, Americans across the religious spectrum cheer Notre Dame football games, and St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated by many Americans, Irish or not.
The American promise
In that same tradition, American Muslims today are challenging America to live up to its promise once again. Is this still the land of the free? Is this indeed the place that Thomas Jefferson said should be safe for “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination”?
Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of building a mosque near ground zero, this controversy now affords us an immense opportunity to examine who we are as a people. It provides us with the opportunity to get back to our foundational ideals, which have always stood as a beacon for the rest of the world. We are one people of many creeds and colors, united by a set of philosophical commitments, the greatest of which are the freedom of speech and religion. These two principles, embodied in the First Amendment, are at loggerheads today near ground zero.
May the conflict be civil, and may it let sense prevail.
[Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the opening of Zaytuna College.]