New York City’s planning practices have been a constant irritant in my urban planning reading and studying this year. The Robert Moses era was merely a prelude to a continued and sustained attack on individual property rights via the rampant abuse of eminent domain and all too cozy relationships between developers, city officials and certain landlords. New York City subsidizes corporate welfare in the real estate industry like few other cities in the entire world and has for decades (most notoriously the never profitable WTC project). Property taxes are stacked against the middle-class in favor of wealthy developers. Etc. Etc.
Yet in the past few weeks, whether it is viewed through the lens of a convenient commitment to political correctness and diversity, the travails of a city that faces threats like few others and won’t stand for lectures on its policies from outsiders, or merely a commitment to the rule of law, Manhattan, epicenter of so many property rights and planning fiascoes, finally got something right. In fact, in the face of legitimate outrage (from some families of 9/11 victims), popular demagoguery, geographic ignorance, and political opportunism, a mayor I have rarely respected forcefully upheld not only his city’s democratic processes and rule of law but did so with an eloquent, potent argument.
Planning decisions in New York neighborhoods are nearly impossible to obtain with nearly unanimous votes. The Islamic Community Center in Lower Manhattan won approval by three such nearly unanimous votes. It had the overwhelming support of the people in the neighborhood it was being proposed for (and the clear majority support of Manhattan residents). It passed with flying colors two separate challenges to its commencement via attempts to have the building it was replacing granted historical landmark status.
Opposition to it was on no legal ground whatsoever. Democratic planning processes set out in law had been followed to the letter. Property rights had been asserted by the purchase of the land by the developer. The community had spoken out in its support and its representatives on public planning boards met in public and voted in public in support. A federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, passed a decade earlier at the behest of Christian groups rightfully angered and aggrieved by corrupt planning practices that often conspired to deprive churches of their property rights and religious freedoms, would have been violated had the city chosen to give into pressure from certain political and religious groups to deny religious freedoms and property rights to the Islamic Community Center.
Still… some said none of that mattered. They ignored the inconvenient truth that the rule of law would be shuttered in the face of popular opposition. They overlooked or did not care that Al-Qaeda and America’s enemies in the Islamic world would be handed a first-rate propaganda victory as law-abiding American citizens were denied their Constitutional rights simply because they were Muslim. They denied the reality that to treat Muslims differently from other Americans when it came to these Constitutional rights would be anything but a public intentional and willful disregard for the law.
Much of this was whipped up by inaccurate reporting (focusing wrongly on accusations it was at Ground Zero or that it was overlooking Ground Zero, two geographic relationships it does not have) and hysteric claims of it being a terrorist victory memorial that was funded by terrorist financing (does anyone really believe the NYPD, arguably the most effective counter-terror force in the world, would have not checked that out already?).
Indeed, in insisting on reporting it as a mosque, news services and many of its opponents were being blatantly dishonest. It is a community center modeled after Jewish centers and the Christian YMCA in New York City that was going to feature a prayer room in one section of one of its floors (no muezzins or loud calls to prayer from it would ever emanate onto city streets or near Ground Zero). 95% of the space use in the center would be devoted to a gym, pool, meeting centers, kitchens, classrooms, etc. However, if one wanted to insist that a place where Muslims could pray was a mosque, Ground Zero itself would today be a mosque site. That is because the families of the nearly hundred Muslim Americans killed on 9/11 gather often to pray for their murdered loved ones and some even do so audibly, spreading their Muslim faith all over Ground Zero.
The law must be upheld, especially the Constitution, no matter the popular outrage. Even more so, the lawful and democratic wishes expressed by a local community must be respected. Opponents of the Islamic Community Center in Lower Manhattan seemed to forget that, whether they did so out of true outrage and disgust (some of it understandable, some of it not) or because of political opportunism.
Here is Mayor Bloomberg’s speech today on this matter. Note three particular passages that most strongly lay out the main issues at hand.
“The government has no right whatsoever to deny that right – and if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question – should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here. This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions, or favor one over another.”
“Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values – and play into our enemies’ hands – if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists – and we should not stand for that.”
“The attack was an act of war – and our first responders defended not only our City but also our country and our Constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very Constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights – and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.”
Whatever else may be said of Mayor Bloomberg’s stormy tenure (for one his views on the 2nd Amendment rival Mayor Daley of Chicago in its blatant disregard), he did the right thing here. Not only did he do that, he did it in the face of a near perfect storm of rage against his support of the rule of law from across the country by Americans fed half-accurate information and whipped into a frenzy by people who seem to have lost their bearings as public servants. The Constitution was upheld today. That is something to celebrate.
After years of little progress restructuring its intelligence and police agencies to develop a formidable counter terrorism capacity, arguably a homegrown Islamic terrorism problem is developing in India that merits grave concern.
India’s Muslims are far from a monolithic group, differences in experience, culture and outlook shaped as much by geography and family history as religion. In the light of suspected homegrown terrorist attacks in the past few months, ominous signs loom ahead foreshadowing more for the future:
-the existent strain of violent Hindu nationalism that fueled pogroms such as the Gujurat riots
-the Indian government’s insistence on acknowledging and legalizing Islamic law and customs contrary to social order and basic human rights enshrined in Indian law (which help keep a sizable minority of Muslims in an isolated, backwards state)
-the status of a majority of Indian Muslims as the new “untouchables”, economically disadvantaged at unacceptable rates (often intentionally)
-the continued mischief (recruiting, planning and funding of potential Indian terrorists and fundamentalists) by rogue elements in the Pakistani ISI, groups based in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and Saudi oil money. (often intentionally) at unacceptable rates
Reforms and initiatives adapted to address the worst of enduring social, economic and legal problems related to the various Muslim communities should be considered by states and the central Indian government. NGO’s that have refused to support projects conceived by local Muslims (such as building womens’ centers that stress job skills and womens’ rights with a touch of the Koran) must become a part of the solution and not a hindrance as they are now. Beyond the specter of terrorism, the economic and social dislocation experienced by many Muslim communities in India may become a drag on the country’s economy, its governance or even its social stability, something India’s leaders and elites must keep in mind for the future.
Commentators who speak of terrorism in India without recognizing these issues (or the most salient of all, that 150 million Indian Muslims are still suspected 60 years since Partition by far too many Indians to be Pakistani agents of some sort) are doing the public a disservice and further feeding simplistic narratives that bring little benefit to India or its friends.