The Privilege of Prejudice

Should we respect the anti-Muslim feelings of some 9/11 families?

Debra Burlingame holds a picture of her brother Charles Burlingame, a pilot who died on 9/11

Republican opponents of the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero constantly invoke the feelings of 9/11 families. “It’s a very bad idea to build that mosque and center that close to Ground Zero,” Newt Gingrich said yesterday on Fox News Sunday. “It is, in fact, an affront to virtually all the families who lost loved ones at 9/11.” On Meet the Press, Rudy Giuliani agreed: “The people [it’s] hurting here most are the families that have lost loved ones. … Eighty or 90 percent feel extremely hurt by this. It’s making them relive the pain. They should be the ones to get the most consideration.”

But what’s behind those feelings? Why do these families object to a house of worship for Muslims who had nothing to do with 9/11?

This weekend, we got a chance to hear their point of view. Opponents of the mosque staged a rally near Ground Zero to commemorate 9/11 and denounce the project. The lead organizer, activist Pamela Geller, credited the event to “the large number of [9/11] family members who have contacted me and asked us to help them speak out for their loved ones.” She cited a press release from 9/11 Parents & Families of Firefighters and WTC Victims,” which declared that

the majority of our group supports the purpose and principles of this rally. … This [mosque] project represents a gross lack of sensitivity to the 9/11 families and disrespects the memory of all those who were murdered at the WTC. … [W]e feel that by attending and participating in this rally, families can endeavor to ensure that the sacred ground will continue to be respected for posterity.

So what did the anti-mosque family members and their allies say at the rally? Let’s start with Nelli Branganskya, a woman who lost her son on 9/11. From the podium, she told Muslims:

All people who was on the plane who killed our 3,000 Americans was Muslim. [Cheers from the crowd.]  … All of them was Muslim. And for this reason, I don’t want [them] to came and pray. And Muslim will pray five times in a day and yell, “Akbar Allah!” This same word they yelled when they killed our 3,000 young Americans. [More cheers.]

Rosa Leonetti, who lost her brother-in-law on 9/11, mentioned the imam behind the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, and  added in a caustic tone: “If I’m mispronouncing it, I apologize—but then, maybe not.” She criticized President Obama for opposing a Florida pastor’s planned (and later abandoned)  burning of the Quran:

If you are the leader of this nation and the free world, then you can’t be inconsistent in tolerating the building of a mosque under the guise of freedom of religion and then admonish a rogue pastor, who most Americans disagree with, for exercising his freedom of speech. [Cheers.]

Radio talk show host and Fox News contributor Mike Gallagher followed the family members. He told the crowd,

This week, President Obama suggested that this 9/11 this year should be used as a date to try and develop a better understanding of the Muslim world. [Boos.] While many of us would deeply agree that perhaps it is time to try and better understand a world that could produce so many fanatics who believe that terror and bloodshed and the killing of innocent men, women, and children in any way is acceptable, the president is definitely not on the same page with most Americans and New Yorkers over this mosque.

Another talk-show host, Steve Malzberg, protested, “We have a president who is more concerned about appeasing radical Islam than doing what’s right and protecting the freedoms of every American citizen. He says, ‘Build the mosque, but to burn the Quran would be insensitive. It’s a stunt.’ Whose side is he on?” The crowd applauded loudly. (Malzberg’s comments matched the views of Geller, who on Thursday called Obama’s opposition to the Quran burning “another striking blow to American non-Muslims and freedom of speech.“)

John Bolton, who was President Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations and is now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a potential Republican presidential candidate, addressed the rally by video link. He called the proposed community center the “Ground Zero mosque” (though it isn’t a mosque and isn’t at Ground Zero) and claimed that the imam “has refused to call Hamas a terrorist organization”—ignoring the imam’s statement last week that “I condemn everyone and anyone who commits acts of terrorism. And Hamas has committed acts of terrorism.” (On Meet the Press, Giuliani repeated this falsehood, claiming that the imam “can’t condemn Hamas as a terrorist group.”) Bolton derided the project’s planners for implicitly telling the rest of America, “We’re going to increase religious tolerance and understanding whether you like it or not.”

This view—that any minority eliciting widespread opposition must retreat or be deemed incendiary—was echoed by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart, another featured speaker. Breitbart, whose past lies have been exposed on video, pointed out that “Americans have every right to congregate at Ground Zero, at the World Trade Center, to represent the majority point of view.” He told the crowd: “Those people who represent the minority are acting as if you’re somehow doing something that is morally incorrect.”

The event’s keynote speaker, Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders, repeated the canard about the imam: “He refuses to condemn terrorists.” But regardless of the imam’s politics, Wilders vowed, “We cannot tolerate a mosque on or near Ground Zero.”

Author and Pace University professor Richard Connerney, whose scheduled speech was bumped because the rally went beyond its allotted time, released his remarks through an anti-mosque Web site. He concluded that “when individual citizens are incapable of this level of sensitivity and they cause widespread offense, as Imam Rauf and [project financier] Sharif El Gamal have done, then a just government must act.”

Together, these speeches conveyed an overlapping array of beliefs: Because the 9/11 killers were Muslims, Americans shouldn’t tolerate a mosque anywhere near Ground Zero. There’s no moral difference between building a mosque there and burning a Quran. A president who opposes the Quran burning but not the mosque is on the wrong side. It’s foolish to try to understand the Muslim world except as a pathology. On religious questions, the majority should be respected. Any minority that does anything we don’t like is being intolerant, and if its behavior causes offense, as in this case, the government should step in.

Next time you hear a politician denounce the proposed Islamic community center as an affront to 9/11 families, remember what some of these families and their political allies (unlike other 9/11 families) said, applauded, and booed at this rally. People are entitled to their feelings, particularly when they’ve suffered. But using such feelings to justify special legal or social restrictions on an entire ethnic or religious group is another matter. Nothing, not even losing a loved one, entitles you to that. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter. William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: