As I write this, there is a debate raging on about the possible construction of a mosque and Islamic cultural center in New York City, at or near the ground zero site of the 9/11 2001 terrorist attacks. Both sides of this debate seem to believe that this issue is very cut and dry. Even I was initially about to side with one side over the other. But after careful reflection and some impartial research, I have come to see that many outspoken critics of both sides have received limited or incorrect information about the other side’s intentions. Those in favor of allowing the local Islamic community to build this mosque frequently and rightly state that our constitution supports freedom of religion and that to deny these Americans the right to worship where they will is unconstitutional and unethical. In addition, they rightly state that the attacks were not committed by authorized representatives of the majority Islamic community. Also, they rightly state that the Islamic community is more commonly represented by moderate, peaceful people - our neighbors and friends. To say otherwise - to characterize the attacks as representative of Islam, to support the notion that it was not merely fostered by Islamic extremists, but that terrorism is an integral feature of Islam itself - is most certainly untrue.
On the other side, opponents of building the mosque at ground zero are not wholly comprised of racist or hatefully ethnocentric people who equate the 9/11 attacks with all of Islam. Their ranks are not that homogeneous. Many of the opponents uphold the right of religious freedom for all Americans, but simply are in favor of the ground zero site being used as a memorial and a museum, as there are still body parts of over 2500 people entombed in the site itself. The building of a mosque on that site contradicts their intended usage of the site.
It is not a simple issue. To characterize it as such would be to miss the equally valid points of all sides. In order to get past the petty infighting that many partisans of any argument engage in, we are each of us going to have to momentarily “take sides” - but rather than taking our own sides, we will have to take the side of our opponent, walk around in his proverbial shoes, see what validity is embedded in his argument and allow that to either mitigate or inform our own opinions.
True, there are many people who simply hate or fear Islam and do not understand that it is a religion of peace just as Judaism or Christianity are religions that promote peace, but have made their fair share of contributions to warfare and hatred waged and fostered in the name of religion. If Jews are not right to claim that the Holocaust was orchestrated and carried out by “the Christians”, speaking corporately and without distinction between Nazis and the rest of Europe, then how can we as Americans support the statement that 9/11 was carried out by “the Muslims”? How can we scoff at the former opinion and yet hold the latter? How can we rightly declaim those who hold all Jews for all time responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, and simultaneously allow some to blame the entire religion of Islam for the execution of the 9/11 disaster? And how can some poor deluded souls even continue to characterize our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as wars against Islam?
These are all facile and unsupportable positions. And there are indeed some events happening in the United States today in which the building of mosques is being resisted by Anglo and Christian communities on account of these misguided principles and without any benefit of deeper and more complex factors. Also at this very time, in Temecula, California, a conservative Christian church and many in the surrounding community are protesting the building of a mosque nearby on account of the mosque being from a different religion, and one that conflicts with the former’s claim to be the only correct religion. Incidentally, another church nearby, far less conservative in its beliefs, is in favor of allowing the mosque to be built in that vicinity, true proponents of interfaith dialogue and ecumenism. It is quite interesting that the more conservative church is not resistant to the less conservative church being in the same vicinity. They seem to have no problem with the fact that the other Christian church also preaches a different set of viewpoints and theology than they do. To some, this would constitute being of a different religion. Many of Europe’s wars in the pre-modern period were waged over the issues between the Catholic and Protestant churches.
To me, the aforementioned problem in Temecula is in fact cut and dry. But the decision to build a mosque at ground zero when other factions are supporting the maintenance of the site as a memorial as well as the construction of a museum, may in fact be very tricky. In my opinion, we should foster the construction of an interfaith community and education center on the site, one which seeks to detoxify false perceptions of any religion - be it Islam or not - and to foster interfaith dialogue and peacemaking. It would be a site which will not favor the prominence of one religion over another, and will not allow the characterization of any religion as a religion of hatred. This site should seek to foster the correct notion that the attacks of 9/11 were the work of hate-filled extremists and not moderates or authorized representatives of the majority of any religion. Such a site will be a place which will honor the deceased of that tragedy as well as the work of our world’s greatest peacemakers.