Constitutional controversy obscures issues

A proposal for the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero seems to have struck a raw nerve in American society. Supporters and opponents march in the streets ready to battle not just for control of greater Ground Zero, but also for the preservation of a consecrated U.S. Constitution.

If we are to take the most vocal at their word, the mosque is not a mosque but, variously, an affront to 9/11 survivors, a flashpoint for religious tolerance, an example of Obama’s totalitarian tendencies or just an offensive un-American gesture. Debate rages not over the simple wisdom of building the mosque but over the extent to which constitutional precedent will be affected by its potential construction.

As happens whenever the Constitution is used as support when it is at best tangentially related to the debate at hand, its incorporation into the mosque argument only masks the real issues. Some mosque advocates use, as the basis for their support, the religious freedom clause of the Constitution, arguing that to prevent the construction of the mosque would be to restrict the religious freedom of its builders. Impinging upon their religious freedom would set a dangerous precedent of majority interests restricting minority rights. Their position is quite true, but it gives their support of the mosque an undeserved veneer of constitutional legitimacy.

Opponents of the mosque deserve criticism for arguments that conflate Al-Qaeda with all Islam and oppose the mosque’s construction on grounds that 9/11 was done in Islam’s name, and its placement would therefore be unspeakably offensive. That position carries with it some xenophobia and is odious to the American multicultural tradition. Unpleasant as it may be, however, such appears to be the opinion of many.

Constitutional trappings aside, it becomes clear that construction would be unwise. No one would prevent the mosque’s construction, but plenty would use it as a reason for hardening their anti-Islam sentiment. The mosque would consequently only harm the status of Islam in this country. Provocation is not the way to increase tolerance.

Andrew Hamner is a senior majoring in political science. He may be contacted at