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Carol Smaldino Headshot

Confession in the Shadows of the Mosque (Issue)

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What mosque am I talking about? It could be any one of dozens being challenged with the right to exist or expand across the U.S. heartland today, but there is only one at the moment on most of our minds and tongues. It is the proposed Muslim community center at Park 51 in lower Manhattan that will be for social gatherings as much as for prayer. It has been erroneously dubbed the "Ground Zero Mosque," because it is expected to be built or not built a few (long) New York blocks from the site of the Twin Towers and the carnage done to America on September 11, 2001.

Besides being the hot topic of the day, it is also a set of issues that are drawing nonstop debate. My own initial reactions were fairly nonchalant, and I came into awareness of it through a big time agreement with Archbishop Timothy Dolan, which I found oddly comforting. It felt like ecumenical sportsmanship, like being hopeful. Then I meandered onto some Jewish-oriented websites and read some different takes. Although my own didn't shift in terms of rational opinion, I began to sense the less-than-pretty and paranoid images that have been inspired by a tight identification with Jews everywhere and, of course, with the State of Israel harking back to when Paul Newman starred in the film Exodus.

I have to admit, Muslims -- Arabs in general -- scared me, way back when. And then I experienced an episode of foot-in-mouth-disease when I was describing to a distant cousin how I got a bit freaked out when I witnessed a large group of Muslims praying, bowing towards Mecca when my husband and I were waiting to board a flight in the Rome Airport. It was a Jew-to-Jew talk, and so it seemed natural to admit such a fear. But then she emailed me to tell me how she was both offended and hurt since her first husband, with whom she is still close, is Muslim.

I felt the blush of being scolded and then real apology. I was relieved when it was ultimately accepted. In the myopia of my identification as a Jew, it hadn't, obviously, dawned on me that Muslims were actual people.

I openly confess this right now in order to submit to the general public that perhaps we are all hiding often primal and irrational prejudices and fears deep inside us. These deep seated orientations create a barrier against hearing the rational arguments coming forth on this issue. Furthermore, they are not helping us ever be real about (much less recover from), our racism in general or from our racial and ethnic and religious prejudices; especially when they are espoused in the noise machine of non-Muslims towards Muslims.

It doesn't make me either look good or feel that good to admit that my images of a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center scares me, but it makes sense to me when I can admit the long dread of the unknown that is associated in my mind with a hatred of Israel and Jews in general. Others opposing or in favor or the mosque no doubt have other nerves touched. For more openly conservative people in America, it can seem, perhaps, that the people who tore down the Twin Towers are waving a flag of victory in our faces. And there is that thing we do when we ally in our minds all Jews with Israel, morphing all Islamic people into terrorist America haters.

For those of us bent more on the crusade to be enlightened and allied more with the notion of sharing our city and our country with our globe, it can be harder than we think to effectively question the political correctness that we cling to simply because admitting petty hatreds makes us look, well, petty. It can be all too easy to just roll with the political hard line of which ever side we're on. I too can become enmeshed As Tim Wise has pointed out in his book Color Blind, some Americans have very much accepted the notion of a "post racial" America where race is no longer an issue in politics when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

This is not to say Amen to prejudice, but rather to encourage us all to open up to the fears that lie in the recesses of what we tend to hide even from ourselves-- so we might in real faith, negotiate a shifting towards knowing all of the possible better alternatives.

As I sat in a local bank the other day trying to transfer money to my daughter's account, the long time it took permitted the manager and I to discuss the subject of the mosque. She looked Iranian to me, and she said no, she wasn't, but her relaxed graciousness permitted me to ask if she is a Muslim. She is. It turns out that her first response to "the" mosque was that it would be disrespectful to those who perished in the September 11 attacks. When I asked her why and said I wouldn't want to be affiliated or twinned with Israel, she nodded in agreement and then acknowledged that she too felt pressured by the public odes to political correctness. Our meeting was even more fruitful since we agreed to meet to continue our discussion, and I expressed an interest in learning more about Islam, and she expressed a desire to help.

For those who say Islam is a violent religion, I don't know enough to comment, but I do know that both the Old Testament and New Testaments are replete with violence. Does that therefore make Judaism and Christianity inherently violent? Some readers and their friends who are Christian may feel the Inquisition is too far back to even mention, but I am reminded quite often that most brands of Christianity have me burning in Hell for a lack of ritual and a lack of declaration that Jesus is my personal Savior. Hey, that sounds pretty violent to me. And that's just the beginning of the sets of violent stories and actions through commission or omission.

Frankly, I find this is easier to discuss at this very moment since, through confession, I feel the flow of feeling and thought which tends to come alive when we feel free enough to call on our deeper pangs to begin -- rather than end -- the conversation. Wouldn't it be amazing if we could discuss all feelings of fear and fantasy without fury and without a compulsion to feel absolutely right?

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