The Mosque at Ground Zero: An Opportunity for Quakers and other Faiths
Our country needs an Islamic center built on the southern tip of Manhattan near where the World Trade Towers once stood. I lived and worked just two blocks from the twin towers in the early 1990s and I know the area well. If I had any doubts about the importance of this project, they were erased by the political furor that has erupted this summer over plans to build the Mosque. Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Harry Reid and many others acknowledge that the bill of rights guarantees the free exercise of religion, but not this religion this close to ground zero.
Even the president, after defending the legal right of any group to build an Islamic Center near ground zero, added that he wouldn’t comment on the “wisdom” of that decision. Well I will comment on the wisdom of this project: the Cordoba Center has become more important for Christians than it is for the Muslims who originally proposed the project. Only through a process of dialogue and getting to know “the other” faith can our own communities begin to break down the prejudices that still drive too much of our own views.
Why? Because the words in the First Amendment guaranteeing the free exercise of religion only come to life through the experience of the nation. Remember that although many of the original white colonial settlers came to this country to escape religious persecution in their home countries, they saw no problem with inflicting their own persecution on individuals and communities that didn’t feel called to their faith. Working at a Quaker institution, I’m of course reminded that the Quaker Mary Dyer merits a statue on the Boston Common because in an earlier time colonial leaders were so threaten by her faith that she was hung on the Boston Common.
As a nation, we have struggled with how to define religious freedom for centuries. The First Amendment was already a part of our founding documents when thousands of Protestants rose up in anti-Catholic riots in Pennsylvania in the 1830s and it was still part of the constitution when both of my parents went to college in the 1940s at a university that did not admit Jews. Several of our most prestigious universities had quotas or in some cases outright bans on Jewish students (lasting until the early 1960s).
Today, the Muslims are the new Quakers, Catholics and Jews. For the majority of people in the United States, Muslims and Islam are “the other,” the unknown and for many that also means the people to be feared. Their ignorance contributes to their fear.
Our political leaders can not hide behind a lack of knowledge. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush both publicly recognized Islam as a “religion of peace” and both generally tried to draw a distinction between the violent extremists that bombed the World Trade Center in the name of Islam and the 1.3 billion people of that faith in the world today.
Yet many other political leaders see opportunities to gain votes and support by exploiting the fear of the general population for their own gain. My view is let’s embrace that public discussion, not back away from it. As a Quaker organization, the Friends Committee on National Legislation is urging Quakers around the country to reach out to Muslims within their community and get to know the “other” in their community – we can have our separate faiths while still understanding the faith of others. I would urge other faith communities to do the same.
There are hundreds of thousands of places of worship in the United States. If even 10,000 of those places of worship sought out the Muslims in their community and invited them in for a cross faith dialogue focused on the importance of the Islamic Cultural Center in downtown Manhattan, that would be a tremendous advance for this country. A Time Magazine poll released August 19 found that 61% of respondents opposed construction of the Islamic Center and many people in this country “harbor lingering animosity toward Muslims.”
Yet what I found interesting was this summary of the poll written up in The New York Times
Unfamiliarity might be partly behind some of the negative opinions of the religion. More than 6 in 10 say they do not personally know any Muslim Americans. And these people are more likely than those who personally know a practicing Muslin to say they have a negative opinion of Islam. Indeed, among those who personally know any Muslim Americans, a majority have a favorable view, the poll found.
Which is why the Christians in this country may need the Cordoba Center to be build on the southern tip of Manhattan more than the Muslims do. No, it isn’t just Christians. As individuals have discovered throughout the history of the United States, keeping the First Amendment alive and well in this country requires a combination of public policy work in Washington and engagement in our own local faith communities.