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Yes, I Know That Churches Cannot Be Built in Saudi Arabia

08/03/2010 02:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

But they can be built in the other 56 Muslim-majority countries in the world! As Americans, do we want to compare ourselves to the single exception to the rule of interfaith tolerance? After all, we pride ourselves on our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom of expression... freedoms that are sadly lacking in many other countries, regardless of the religious bent of these countries' majority population. What are we afraid of? Amidst the shouting and sound bites of the posturing politicos who are seeking to score points by raising the specter of the impending Islamization of the USA, the simple truth about allowing religious minorities the freedom to build their own houses of worship is being forgotten.

It happened to the Irish Catholics, the East European Jews, and the Japanese -- all waves of immigrants faced ethnic and religious discrimination. Discrimination based upon ignorance of their beliefs, fear of cheap labor depressing the average wage, even outright racial prejudice. It's well documented, but as Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." And after 9/11, as an American Muslim, all I can say is, "Here we go again."

I've heard so many canards about Islam by so-called 'experts on Islam' that I'm baffled as to their origins. Repeating a lie ad infinitum doesn't make it true, just as selectively relating facts in order to prove one's point doesn't make for honest debate. And honest, open debate is what is desperately needed, especially in terms of the 'Mosque at Ground Zero' imbroglio. First of all, it's an Islamic cultural center that will contain a prayer room, not a mosque with minarets. Second, it is not being built at Ground Zero, but a few blocks away. Third, if it were a mosque, since when did it become illegal to build a house of worship in America? And most important of all, why are we tarring an entire religion based upon the violent, extremist acts of a few? What did 9/11 have to do with Islam? If we ban the construction of a building associated with Islam, we are rewarding the perpetrators of 9/11 and punishing the innocent public yearning for a center for interfaith dialogue. A center envisioned by Muslims in response to the frequent question, "Where are the Moderate Muslims?" A center that seeks to educate and enlighten the curious or those who wish to obtain accurate facts from Muslims rather than believe the rants of those with an anti-Islam agenda.

I fear the rising prejudice against Muslims in America is an ugly symptom of intolerance and xenophobia that is being spread by those who seek to 'otherize' the latest immigrant group. And Muslims are perceived as the threat of the decade. I reassure my children that this too shall pass, but when will it be safe for them to reclaim their religious and national identity in the same breath? When will it be okay for them to proudly state, "Yes, I'm an American and my religion is Islam"? I've lived in Pakistan, America, Sudan, England, Sri Lanka, and Kuwait; and visited an additional 40 countries at last count. I consider myself blessed to have glimpsed the rich variety of human beliefs within so many different societies around the world. But when the world's sole superpower, the beacon of democracy and equality, succumbs to the petty claims of a few groups who willfully misunderstand the basic beliefs of the world's second-largest religion... then I fear that I no longer recognize this country which I have loved and admired for so long.

Yes, I know that churches cannot be built in Saudi Arabia, because I happen to live there at the moment. But those who repeat this fact ad nauseam are ignoring the undercurrents of change swirling within Saudi society. Change takes time. America is a young country that gave women the right to vote less than one hundred years ago. Blacks fought for civil and racial equality less than 50 years ago, and some would argue that their struggles continue to this day. Saudi Arabia is an even younger country. Given time, rising levels of education, and the cessation of wars which are perceived as attacks on Islam, I have no doubt that this socially conservative country will change.

I am extremely proud to see evidence of pluralism in 98.3% of the Muslim-majority countries in the world -- a small, but important fact that is rarely mentioned by those opposing the construction of mosques in the USA. Please, can we remember to aspire to the heights of greatness envisioned by our founding fathers? To establish a land which guarantees the rights of all individuals, regardless of race or religion?