Meacham: Let Reformation Begin at Ground Zero

The debate over the Islamic center in lower Manhattan—the mosque with a pool and a prayer room—is not a matter of being for religious liberty and thus for the center, nor is it one of being against the center and therefore a bigot. Sometimes life offers such stark moral crises. This is not one of them.

The attacks of September 11—and subsequent bombings in London, Madrid, and elsewhere—embody the most repulsive of human instincts, the will to power at the price of the lives of others. Elements of Islam were responsible for these deaths of innocents, and extreme interpretations of the Quran have provided—and, inevitably, will provide again—inspiration and justification for terrorist violence. Muslims flew those planes into the towers and the Pentagon; Muslims were in the cockpit when the passengers brought down Flight 93 in the fields of Pennsylvania. To indict a faith for the sins of a few, though, is a tricky business. Christians have massacred innocents before, too, and they have interpreted Scripture in ways to justify slavery, and the subjugation of women, among other things.

Still, Islam needs reform. There are virulent elements of anti-Semitism and sexism abroad in the faith. There are, as we have noted, big strains of extreme anti-Western, specifically anti-American, hatred. Christianity might offer something of a constructive model in terms of reformation (this is coming from a Protestant): large parts of the Christian universe have managed to adapt to modernity in ways that have at least discouraged the worst excesses of religiously motivated believers. Such work is what the leaders of the Islamic center in lower Manhattan say they wish to be about. The test of their sincerity will come with time.

The controversy in New York has helped create something America largely avoided in the aftermath of September 11: a climate of anti-Muslim hatred. My liberal friends think I am wrong about the seemingly distant autumn of 2001, arguing that the country turned nativist then. I disagree: to me, the remarkable thing about the aftermath of the 2001 attacks was the muted reaction to Islam itself from the broad whole of the nation. Certainly there were exceptions, but when you think of how much worse the anti-Muslim backlash could have been in the emotion of that hour, the country comes out quite well.

Now, as New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has pointed out, the lower-Manhattan fight has become fodder for the midterm elections and for the larger politics of opposition to President Obama. What America rightly resisted in the autumn of 2001 is threatening to subsume the autumn of 2010. History offers some guidance. In 1957, President and Mrs. Eisenhower attended the opening of the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington. (They doffed their shoes; the first lady padded about in her nylons.) "And I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends," the president said, "that under the American Constitution, under American tradition, and in American hearts, this Center, this place of worship, is just as welcome as could be a similar edifice of any other religion. Indeed, America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have here your own church and worship according to your own conscience. This concept is indeed a part of America, and without that concept we would be something else than what we are."

It is tempting to end with these words of Eisenhower's, and say that which was true then is true now. But that is too pat. The families of 9/11 victims and other people of good will would like to see the center moved to another location, farther from Ground Zero. That is not an outrageous thought, and it is not a bigoted one. In the end, the right thing to do, in my opinion, is to build the center on the site its organizers and the mayor favor, and hope that those who go there to worship (and to swim, for that matter) do their part to reform their religion. There is little more important in the war on terror.

This is my final issue of NEWSWEEK. From the moment I arrived here more than 15 years ago to work for The Washington Post Company and for the Graham family, I have found the people of NEWSWEEK to be gracious, welcoming, and devoted. You cannot ask for more than that in either professional or personal life. This magazine began publishing in the same season FDR came to power, and it has kept going through war and peace and recession and prosperity. And it will march into a strong new future under its new owner, Sidney Harman. To him, to my colleagues, to my family, and to all of you, a brief final word: thank you.