THE REAL NATURE OF THE CONTROVERSY

There is currently much furore about the proposed building of a Mosque and Islamic Center two blocks from Ground Zero. The essential positions as best I can glean are as follows.

Those who feel the Mosque shouldn’t go up in that location are wielding signs saying things like, “You can build a Mosque at Ground Zero when we can build a Church in Mecca.” That’s of course palpably absurd. Why would citizens in the United States be barred from building a house of worship, contingent on an outbreak of tolerance in another country, over which they have no control? And who is this “you” and who are the “we”? If someone is a Muslim they don’t automatically become “you” surely. They may well be American citizens, i.e. “us”.

But more sanely there are those who say this is unnecessarily inflammatory and insensitive — why not build the Mosque and Islamic Center in another part of Manhattan? Why rub raw wounds or provoke unnecessary, even if somewhat misplaced, ire? If you’re not making a statement, surely this location wasn’t necessary.

On the other hand, there are two types of supporters. Those who defend the legal rights of those who are proposing this construction, and those who feel a statement of a very different kind needs to be made.

The legal side is clear. Those who rail against Mayor Bloomberg’s constitutional stance that the government cannot interfere with a lawful private group building a house of worship on private property, are really advocating a slippery slope. If mass appeal determines rights, rather than laws, we are all eventually undone. And hysteria against groups, Jews, Catholics, the innocent majority of Muslims in this country, is nothing to either have amnesia regarding, or to stoke anew today.

The other basis for support comes from those in the Muslim and interfaith circles who know that Osama Bin Laden and his murderous, bigoted, unholy thugs would like nothing better than to “hijack” the faith of a billion people and equate their savage barbarism with it. It is in no one’s best interests, whatever your theological beliefs or lack thereof, to allow them to succeed in this equation. Too few Muslim leaders have spoken courageously enough, clearly enough, about taking their faith back. If this Center becomes a symbol of healing, a way to promote true interfaith interaction, an alternative paradigm for the practice of Islam, the pain could be transcended, and we could potentially find hope among hatred’s debris. But if this is the case, those promoting this construction should make it, vociferously and unambiguously. That would be an effort worth joining.

Let me offer some unsolicited consulting counsel to both sides. To the detractors, beware that the same end of the pencil can erase things you hold dear as well. Paraphrasing something Thomas More once said, “I would give the Devil the benefit of the law, for my own sake.” Well these aren’t devils. These are people brought up in a faith that hopefully they hold dear, people who want better lives for their own children and families, just like anyone else. Defending their rights, even when unsavory to some of us, is the very nature of what makes a right. And for God’s sake and ours, let’s not make this about Islam. Simple statistics demonstrate that if just being  in this religion made people violent, then there would be a billion warriors. There aren’t, happily. There aren’t many Indian Muslim terrorists, or many Bengalis, or Singaporeans, or Sri Lankan Muslims on the front lines…it’s clearly about more than the faith.

On the other side, let’s tread softly. A desire to rehabilitate the perception of a faith precious to you, a desire to take a stand in creating a positively transformational dialogue (and we have to pray that’s what’s behind this) cannot be done with indifference to other people’s pain. Whether you feel others are inappropriately transferring their rightful loathing of the acts of the terrorists to a religion that is being unjustly abused and manipulated, the pain remains and has to be acknowledged on its own merits. And the sensitivities and the fears and yes, maybe a measure of paranoia, have to be outgrown, they cannot be bulldozed away.

It would be wonderful if in this clash of views, in this debate, we could accept we are facing a dilemma — a conflict between two rights, not between a right and a wrong. And if we could have the guts and humanity to ask for dialogue, if we could share our pain and our passion, reflectively and openly…we would potentially create a dynamic that could do real homage to heroes and victims here and elsewhere, and to all those who believe their values and their faiths call on them to ensure hatred and fear don’t have the last word.

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