The United States takes great pride in being called the “land of the free,” a reference mainly attributed to initial immigrants who fled religious and other forms of persecution in Europe.
To non-U.S. citizens like me, this impression is reinforced every time we watch a Hollywood-produced, cowboy-type movie, where the characters exult about the land of opportunities.
In many developing countries — like Kenya, where I’m from — U.S. envoys seize every opportunity to talk about the ethos of civil rights. They portray freedom as the foundation on which America is founded.
Yet the debate surrounding the construction of an Islamic community center and a mosque near ground zero, immigration and the relentless “speculation” about President Barack Obama’s religion does not paint the picture of a society living in freedom.
It speaks more of a nation that is in the tight grip of a nagging fear.
Every other month, the world reads updates of another poll showing an increase in the number of Americans who “believe” that Obama is Muslim, and that he was born in Kenya — despite credible information proving otherwise.
These polls only serve to taint America’s image as the first ever country with a white-majority population to overcome racial fear and elect a black president.
Conservatives say their opposition to the building of the Islamic center near the site where the World Trade Center towers in New York stood before the September 2001 attacks is a show of “sensitivity” to victims and their families. This, by implication, means Muslims are to blame for the 9/11 atrocity, and the seven million Americans who profess Islamic faith must pay for it by building their place of worship as far away from the hallowed ground as possible.
As Reza Aslan, the renowned author and scholar of religions, asked while making a presentation at Westin Crown Center on Aug. 17, “How far is far enough from ground zero to build a mosque?”
Conservatives are known for their zeal in calling for the “protection” of the Constitution, but it would seem the freedom of religion clause is, to them, debatable.
This is not the first time that fear has been used to bend the U.S. supreme law to serve selfish interests of a few.
For a long time after adoption of the document in 1787, only wealthy, white men enjoyed full rights.
Black people were viewed as lesser humans and only gained full voting rights in the 1960s. Even white women were denied the right to vote until the 1920s. There are some who argue that American Indians are still oppressed on what is their native land.
There is a striking semblance in the current opposition to the proposed community center and the wave of anti-Japanese prejudice that followed the Pearl Harbor attack during the World War II.
Suspicion that Japanese immigrants were spying for “the enemy” led to the imprisonment of thousands of people of Japanese descent at that time, the majority of whom were American citizens.
About four decades later, Congress passed a law that apologized and authorized payment of reparations to the victims.
As things stand now, the local Community Board’s Financial District Committee unanimously voted in support of the New York City project, and it is therefore not likely that we will be hearing of an apology and reparations in the future.
The opposing voices may in fact eventually go quiet and make this appear, in hindsight, like just another instance where Americans exercised their freedom of speech and expression.
During my stay here in the last five months, many Americans have asked me about my perceptions of their country.
I have repeatedly told them that theirs is a great nation that has the potential to become even greater.
But it could also turn into a radically divided nation — depending on how they handle issues such as the proposed building of an Islamic center in New York.
Washington Gikunju is a business reporter in Kenya, and is currently in the United States on an Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship. After working at the Missourian this summer, he reported for the Kansas City Star, which first published this column.