On the surface Park51's Islamic cultural centre is controversial for two reasons: concern about the location, and plans for a September 11, 2011 groundbreaking. However, the real reason for the controversy is simple.
Al Qaeda has done such a good job of alienating Muslims and America from each other that most Americans simply don't know that Muslims could be their strongest allies in the war on terror.
Some right-wing media question Muslim loyalty. A recent article in The American Thinker concluded, "If moderate Muslims do exist, then it behooves them to fight the American traitors among us. If American Muslims continue to reflect a conflicted relationship with their country, putting Islam above all else, then other Americans will rightly conclude that a civil war is upon us -- one that al-Qaeda is steadfastly perpetrating."
But are Muslims really so conflicted? The answer is no.
A 2007 Pew Research poll found that America's Muslims are "largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world."
According to the Council on Foreign Relations records, "Members of Islamic communities have worked to establish good relationships with U.S. officials, particularly on the local level ... Most of the major successes the government claims within the United States have actually involved cooperation with the local Muslim communities."
Ideology is not a barrier to Islamic-American integration. Both societies were founded on the belief that God demanded His believers create a just society. The Constitution of Medina, Muhammad's flagship city, created a bi-religious society with equivalent rights and responsibilities for both Jews and Muslims. Jerusalem under Muhammad's followers had religious freedom for all.
Religious pluralism is a central value to both America and Muhammad's Islam. And Muhammad's example is being used worldwide to challenge and correct extremist Muslim views.
Muslims who hold extremist views, dubbed "the cheering section for Jihad" by President Obama's Muslim advisor Dalia Mogahed, are easily countered by enlightened Muslim teachers drawing on their more informed and accurate interpretation of the meaning and intent of misunderstood Quranic verses and early Muslim tales.
For example, the Christians of Najran and the Monastery of St. Catherine were promised protection and freedom "for those who adopt Christianity both near and far" by Muhammad, and Muhammad made his promises binding on Muslims to the end of time.
Even Saudi Arabia is beginning to change (in part due to North American Muslim pressure), although their human rights record remains troubling. However, there are troubles closer to home.
Newt Gingrich has proclaimed, "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." Rather than ensuring America's tradition of religious pluralism in the face of foreign failures, Mr. Gingrich seeks to emulate them.
In the end, whether a mosque is built anywhere in lower Manhattan will be a matter for the property owner and the zoning laws of lower Manhattan to decide. I'm sure another opinion would be another opinion too many. However, the growing controversy over the future of Islam in America, and the future of America's constitution, are different matters entirely.
As an outside observer who loves both Islam and America, I would like to share some advice.
Muslims the world over have repeatedly condemned terrorism but haven't always been clear on the details. Do we condemn the terrorists, their methods, or their goals? How should Muslims resolve conflicts, or strive for a better world? What form would that world take? If Muslims love America, is it because of our Islam, or in spite of it?
And when America's Muslims have answered those questions, America often hasn't listened. Instead of allowing America's Muslims to define themselves by their honest words and actions like every other American, America's non-Muslims have listened to the lies of al Qaeda and Islamophobes alike, and given in to fear.
The simple truth is this: America's founding values of faith and freedom are also Islam's founding values. And both Americans and America's Muslims will defend those values and their neighbors with their lives.
In Canada, our imams have issued a countrywide declaration rejecting false and radical interpretations of Islam, and committing to teach Muhammad's Islam promoting pluralism, gender equity and the right of an individual to choose how he or she lives, dresses, acts and believes. And Muslim communities are reaching out to non-Muslim communities, seeking ways to grow communities together by working together for the common good, building common ground.
It's funny, but despite all that, Canada's Muslims have better relations with the U.S. than we do with our own government, because our government is focused on Muslims in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, many of America's best Muslim leaders primarily serve the U.S. by building bridges to Muslims overseas. That work is important: our world is shrinking, and we need to learn to get along, but we should all pay attention to the quality of the bridges closer to home, too.
Once those bridges are wide and strong enough, the idea of a mosque at Ground Zero won't be controversial at all, whether it happens or not.
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