The proposed location of the “ground zero” mosque in lower Manhattan.
I saw a Facebook group today that took irony to a whole new level. It read “I’m flying this [American] flag to oppose the Muslim worship center at Ground Zero.” There were then options to deny or to support their position by adding an American flag icon to your profile. Unfortunately there was no “I can’t believe you’re serious” button because I would have clicked that. The great irony is that the American flag represents the very thing this Facebook group is against.
Of course the mosque in question is actually an Islamic community center, and it won’t be built at Ground Zero. It’s proposed to be developed two blocks away. The developers are all American citizens, led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who worked with the Bush Administration on Muslim outreach. But if proximity to the site is an issue, do critics of the mosque care that there is also a strip club two blocks away from Ground Zero? As for the actual Ground Zero site, and by that I mean literally the below-grade development in the existing footprint of the former World Trade Center towers, it’s going to be a huge 55,000 square foot retail center. A shopping mall. Is there a more offensive use of this tragic and hallowed spot than a giant profit center? And yet we hear a roaring silence about that.
Thankfully, we have a constitution to handle these kind of messes. The 1st Amendment seems pretty clear to me: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Some people will kick and scream about that. They already are. But if it was their faith being told to literally move away, would they go quietly into the night? I think part of the reason for all this protest is that people often want to distance, suppress and limit the things we don’t understand. But the truth is we can’t convert people through force, or pressure, or intimidation. It just doesn’t work. Those things only breed resentment and eventually retaliation.
Some folks would argue that a kind of force is exactly what the Islamic Community center near Ground Zero represents. Seattle area (and my church’s) pastor Richard Dahlstrom phrased a portion of his concerns as follows: “Why are you planning on doing this near the site where America’s greatest mainland catastrophe occurred at the hands of your religion’s worst fanaticism? If you’re trying to build bridges with the American people, this is an absurd strategy. It feels a bit, ‘in your face’, like running up the score when you’re already winning. Bad form.”
I couldn’t disagree with him more on that (though the rest of his post is not what you’re probably expecting, and I recommend it). Our decisions as Americans should derive from our greatest national values (liberty, intellectual curiosity and coexistence) not our worst (suspicion, distrust and fear). We ought to take it as a compliment that the Islamic community center even wants to build there! Because by doing so, they are saying that they want to be understood, want to be seen, and want to be welcomed (and I’ll bet you, to welcome). They’re also saying to the rest of us that they believe in us, and believe that we can still bother to be a people of distinctions. Because Islam did not attack us on 9/11, religious fanatics did. It’s the same reason why we don’t go demanding the closure of Christian churches in an area when a nutcase blows up an abortion clinic in the name of Jesus. You don’t have to agree or even support the Islamic religion to recognize their right to exist. Are we secure enough in our faith (regardless of what it is) to welcome the Muslim community rather than cast them out?
The most American thing we can do is to allow for this Islamic Community Center to be built right where it’s proposed. To know that just a decade after a devastating terrorist attack, we were still strong enough to make those distinctions, and welcomed an Islamic Community Center right near the spot that led to an unfathomable amount of grief, pain and loss by a few criminals claiming to represent Islam. That would be an impressive example of what makes us different from oppressive theocratic regimes.