NEW YORK -- Speechmaking has never been among Mayor Michael Bloomberg's many talents. But he rose to the occasion last Tuesday when he chose to defend the rights of Muslims to build a community center and mosque a couple of blocks from what was the site of the World Trade Center before Sept. 11, 2001.
"Our doors are open to everyone -- everyone with a dream and a willingness to work hard and play by the rules," he said. "New York City was built by immigrants, and it is sustained by immigrants -- by people from more than a hundred different countries speaking more than two hundred different languages and professing every faith.
"We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors. That's life, and it's part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11.
"On that day, 3,000 people were killed because some murderous fanatics didn't want us to enjoy the freedom to profess our own faiths, to speak our own minds, to follow our own dreams and to live our own lives."
He also offered a minimal history of religious intolerance and tolerance in the world's greatest city, going back to the 1650s when the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, denied Jews the right to build a synagogue here and denied Quakers to right to build a meeting house in what is now Flushing, Queens. More than a century later Roman Catholic priests were being arrested before Catholics were give permission in 1790 to build their first local church, St. Peter's, which is still here a block from what was the World Trade Center.
"The government," Bloomberg continued, "has no right whatsoever to deny that right (of) private citizens ... 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."
Of 9/11, he said: "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."
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn spoke next and touched part of my own family's history, saying: "All four of my grandparents came from Ireland. All four left a country where their future was in a doubt because they were Catholic. ... The way to honor the 3,000 people who died on 9/11 is a deepened commitment to religious freedom and a deeper commitment to New York City being the freest and most tolerant and most accepting place in the world."
It is the city that accepted my grandmother from Germany and my wife's parents from Ireland. It is the city where both of us, my wife and I, were born. And, if it is the city that some would prefer be cut off from the mainland and floated out to sea, that is their problem, not ours.
So, this is not a new story -- and it is being played out in smaller places, too, Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Temecula, Calif., among them. Every immigrant group has had to push and fight its way into full and robust American citizenship. The Germans and their foreign language, the Irish and Italians and their Roman religion, the Chinese denied citizenship and the Japanese herded into concentration camps, and then the Eastern Europeans, the Hispanics and now, because of the despicable acts of barbarous brethren in many countries, the Muslims.
Nativist politicians -- led by Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin -- have taken up this fight to declare war on all of Islam. Well, isn't that exactly what Osama bin Laden wanted? That was the idea behind 9/11. It is ironic, to say the least, that it is the Constitution-loving nativists who are really lobbying to eliminate the First Amendment to that Constitution, the amendment designed to protect freedom of speech and separating religions and the state.
If you follow the demagoguery of such politicians, then you are arguing for a Christian or Judeo-Christian Republic, a mirror image of the Islamic Republics designed to make church and state the same thing.