Friday, August 13, 2010

What you don't know can hurt you

Demonstrators protesting an Islamic community center near Ground Zero
(Photo: Johnnie Utah)

While in the US this summer, a few people asked my thoughts on the proposal for a mosque to be built a few blocks from Ground Zero. I hadn't heard about the project so I followed it in the news throughout our trip and now back in the UAE have had the time to research the issue and formulate an opinion. Here is what I've learned --

This project, rather than involving simply the construction of a mosque, is better thought of as a community center complete with, yes, a mosque, but also a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, bookstore, performing arts center, and restaurant; an Islamic YMCA, if you will. In other words, it's meant to serve not only the Muslim needs of the neighborhood, but the neighborhood itself. As Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the organization's founder, put it, "Cordoba House will be a place for Muslims and non-Muslims alike to hang out and where young kids can be mentored because extremism is a big threat in our communities."

The organization responsible for its planning and construction goes by the name of the Cordoba Initiative, which is an intentional reference to a Spanish city renowned for its religious tolerance and intellectual advances under Muslim rule in the 10th-12th century. That this is the intended reference and not a surreptitious attempt to honor a time of Muslim rule in the West (as some demagogues have claimed) is quickly confirmed upon a visit to the organization's website where it states in bold font: "Improving Muslim-West Relations" (see for yourself: According to the Aug 4th post, it is apparent that the project has already worked to strengthen relations between Muslim and Jewish Americans.

As one would imagine, the proximity of the proposed mosque to Ground Zero has elicited, how can I put this delicately, "negative" reactions from Americans. Here's one, albeit extreme, example: "The monument would consist of a Mosque for the worship of the terrorists' monkey-god." --Mark Williams, chairman of the Tea Party Express. While most Americans have not reacted in such a hateful manner, a national Rasmussen reports poll found that 54% of adult Americans do not support a mosque being built near Ground Zero, the tragic site of a heinous crime carried out by individuals claiming to act in the name of Islam.

While the lack of support for the mosque is certainly understandable given the history of the site, I cannot help but feel that it is unfair to associate a fanatical fringe group with the rest of the Muslim population, 93% of whom, according to a Gallup poll conducted in 2008, condemn the 9/11 attacks. The most important question to ask here is WHY so many Americans feel this way. From the comments I have read given by those who oppose this project, most feel that the construction of a place of Muslim worship in such proximity to Ground Zero would be disrepectful toward the victims of 9/11 because this act of terrorism was perpetrated by Muslims.

So it seems that in the minds of many Americans, the faith claims and worldview of those building the Islamic community center are virtually identical with those responsible for 9/11. This tendency to possess such a monolithic view of Muslims stems from the fact that so few Americans know anything of substance about Islam or those who practice it. Why else would so many oppose this project carried out by American Muslims who believe that what happened at Ground Zero is anathema to their Islamic faith? And, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Fear always springs from ignorance." Unfortunately, Western media hasn't done the best job at presenting the multifarious dimensions of the Muslim world, instead focusing on what attracts more viewers -- violent acts related to either the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps the most significant thing I have learned since moving to Abu Dhabi is the extreme diversity of the Muslim world. In a geographical region which extends from North Africa to the South Pacific with a population of about 1 billion, could we expect anything else? In fact, there is no one "Muslim world" anymore than there is one "Christian world." The UAE, with its close proximity to Mecca and Medina, bedouin history, and harsh desert climate, interprets many facets of Islam differently than, let's say Lebanon, which borders the Mediterranean and has long been a cultural hub in the Middle East. Such differences might be akin to those, let's say, between Chilean Roman-Catholics with socialist leanings and robust capitalist Southern Baptists in the US.

Fear of the unknown is a powerful thing. It's also the most powerful weapon that terrorists wield. I can't help but imagine Osama bin Laden, wherever he may be, loving all of the controversy this mosque has stoked in the United States and using this vocal opposition as a recruiting tool saying, "See, they talk about religious freedom but really it's just a facade because deep down, they're utterly opposed to Islam in America." Supporting such a project being carried out by American Muslims, some of whom also lost loved ones on 9/11 and all of whom condemn it, is the very thing that extremist Muslims would not want. Such initiatives which seek to promote peace and understanding between religious communities are the very ones we should support. As a person of faith, I certainly do.

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