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

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Sept. 13 2010 10:34 AM

The Privilege of Prejudice

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

Debra Burlingame. Click image to expand.
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."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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.]

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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.

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