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Reconciliation in the War of Symbols: Ground Zero, the Islamic Center and the Florida Church

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There was a "war of symbols" this week with people in every corner of the world discussing what is sacred. From a conflict resolution point of view, these events offer opportunities for reconciliation.

The war of symbols started with right-wing pundits claiming an Islamic Center is a symbol of terrorism, thus corrupting Ground Zero's hallowed ground. Afghans burned the American flag to symbolize their anger at the plan of a small Florida church to burn the Quran. Iranian President Ahmedinejad twittered ""I like to retaliate by burning a book that you Americans hold dear, but the only book you care about is Facebook."

This war of symbols reveals ugly stereotyping and prejudice on nearly all sides, including those on the left who spewed hateful rhetoric to those opposing the Islamic Center.

The majority of Americans who oppose building an Islamic Center know little about Islam. They resist building an Islamic Center with a mosque near Ground Zero because their limited experience can interpret the Islamic Center only as a negative symbol.

The Islamic Center in New York aimed to address this problem by helping Americans understand more about the history of Islam, its beliefs and the wide diversity of Muslims. Islamic Centers like this are part of the solution to the wide ignorance about Islam. To the vast majority of moderate Muslims in the US, the Islamic Center is a positive symbol of outreach to other Americans, an invitation to understand their history, cultures and beliefs so as to dissociate Islam with terrorism. Commenting on the possible move of the Islamic Center, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf noted the location did not intend to offend. He said, "We would not have done something that would create more divisiveness."

The Florida Church's plan to burn the Quran also fueled the war of symbols. The pastor aimed to 'send a message' to extremists through symbolic flames. Some Muslims then looked for symbolic ways to retaliate by harming symbols Americans hold dear.

For others the whole debate was about another symbol: the US constitution that represents a philosophy of democracy and human rights. Building a mosque is protected as a religious practice. The constitution protects the freedom of speech for those voicing support or opposition to the mosque. The Florida Church also has constitutional rights. Burning a sacred text is not a religious practice. The freedom of speech, not religion, protects this act.

Military leaders who spoke out added yet another symbolic element. For many Americans, US military personnel are the authentic voice of security and patriotism and the best messengers to deliver a positive message about Muslims. A Veterans group wrote "For our Constitution and for the safety of America and our troops currently in the field, we are writing in full support of your project [the Islamic Center]. As veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, we believe the construction of your community center isn't "anti-America" at all. In fact, building your community center is about as pro-America as one can get."

What is the way forward to reconcile this war of symbols?

The good news this week is that religious, political and military leaders were on the same set of talking points: "There is a difference between extremists and the vast majority of peaceful Muslims." And "Islamaphobia boomerangs back to hurt Americans."

World leaders helped the Florida pastor distinguish between his position that burning the Quran was the best way of symbolizing anger at militant extremists and his deeper interests in finding ways of venting that frustration.

The Islamic Center now wrestles with whether to insist on the exact location where it was proposed or to move several blocks away. There are costs either way. Supporters of the Islamic Center demand 'justice now' to claim the right to build anywhere. But at what cost to a reconciliation that brings other Americans along? Will a move symbolize a victory for the American right-wing extremists politically manipulating American fears and ignorance? Or would most Americans recognize it as a gesture of reconciliation?

Both sides take the "I'm right, you're wrong" approach demanding that one side lose. Constitutional rights come with responsibilities and choices of when to exercise them. We must always protect these rights, but also know when to offer an olive branch.

The goal of the Islamic Center is to educate Americans about Islam at a central location in New York. If a larger and more central space is available and moving would reduce antagonism with Americans still caught in post-9/11 trauma, fear and ignorance, it may be in everyone's interest to try to find a win-win solution.

As someone who studies the history of reconciliation and justice movements, I think social change rarely happens in a win/lose approach. When the door to reconciliation cracks open, we'd better slip in our toes.

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