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Thoughts on the "Ground Zero Mosque " and the Better Angels of Our Nature

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The decision by CNN anchor and Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria to return the 2005 Hubert Humphrey Award for First Amendment Freedoms to the Anti-Defamation League last week, along with the $10,000 honorarium, has introduced a much-needed layer of intellectual and moral honesty to the national debate over the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque," to be built a few blocks from the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The ADL has taken a position in opposition to the planned building of the 13-story Islamic cultural center and mosque at that location, calling it "not an issue of rights, but an issue of what is right," citing "the anguish of the families and friends of those who were killed on September 11, 2001."

Zakaria pointed out that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Arab-American Islamic leader and author who first proposed the center, has spent his career promoting peaceful relations between Islam and the West. Said Zakaria of the proposed Islamic cultural center on Park Place, two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center and its proponent:

The man behind it, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has spent years trying to offer a liberal interpretation of Islam. His most recent book, What's Right with Islam is What's Right with America argues that America is actually what an ideal Islamic society would look like because is it peaceful, tolerant and pluralistic. His vision for Islam, in other words, is Osama Bin Laden's nightmare.

In returning the award, Zakaria challenged the ADL's position, questioning whether or not the esteemed religious freedom organization's perspective in this instance actually contradicted its own mission statement.

The ADL's mission statement says it seeks "to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens,"

Zakaria wrote in his August 6th Newsweek column.

But Abraham Foxman, the head of the ADL, explained that we must all respect the feelings of the 9/11 families, even if they are prejudiced feelings. "Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted," he said. First, the 9/11 families have mixed views on this mosque. There were, after all, dozens of Muslims killed at the World Trade Center. Do their feelings count? But more important, does Foxman believe that bigotry is OK if people think they're victims? Does the anguish of Palestinians, then, entitle them to be anti-Semitic?

The 9/11 attacks, unquestionably the defining moment of this generation, took the lives of 2,976 people (not counting the 19 Al-Qaeda terrorists who hijacked the four commercial airliners, crashing two into the Twin Towers, a third into the Pentagon, and the fourth into a field in Stonycreek Township, near Shanksville, PA.) The dead included citizens of more than 70 countries and numerous faith traditions, including both American and non-American Muslims. The national and international wounds left by the 9/11 attacks won't heal during any of our lifetimes.

In addition, the attacks have spawned a horrific cottage industry of destruction.

They were cynically co-opted, repackaged, and sold back to the American people by the Bush presidency as a justification to invade Iraq based on two fallacious premises: that Iraq was hiding "weapons of mass destruction" (read: nukes) and that it was not-so-secretly working in concert with Al-Qaeda.

That hijacking of America's grief over 9/11 has, conservatively to date, cost the lives of between 97,182 and 100,000 Iraqi civilians, as well as 4,414 U.S. servicemen and servicewomen.

On the home front, "9/11 Inc." has run the gamut from the commercial ghouls who hawk everything from pictures of the towers in flames, to bits of Ground Zero rubble, to "commemorative coins," to well-funded evangelicals like Pat Robertson who said Islam is "not a religion" and Jerry Falwell who blamed "pagans," "abortionists," "feminists and the gays and the lesbians,"(oh, and the ACLU), to politicians who've made free with both 9/11 imagery and the word "terrorist" during the last presidential election, flinging it at, or near, candidate Obama, desperately hoping that the scary word would highlight his "otherness" from "middle-America."

On July 18th Sarah Palin famously tweeted "Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn't it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate."

Aside from highlighting, yet again, the degree to which basic high-school English vocabulary eludes her, Palin's tweet fundamentally insulted the Islamic-American electorate by drawing a line in the dirt: if they didn't "refudiate" this "spear through the heart," they weren't "peaceful Muslims," they were the other kind, the scary kind, the un-American kind, who were out of touch with "the heartland."

The fact that this folksy cri-de-coeur came from a woman whose home church once bizarrely brought in a Kenyan witchfinder to pray over her and keep her safe from "the spirit of witchcraft" during 2008 election lent it a certain surreal, Sarah-through-the-looking-glass quality. On the other hand, Palin has never shrunk from creating division and polarization. A significant portion of her failed candidacy for vice-president of the United States was predicated on division, and she showed herself to be no slouch when it came to using the hot-button word "terrorist"--and, by extension, 9/11 imagery--to taint the Obama candidacy with the implications.

Across the country, goaded, in some cases, by Republican candidates and Tea Party groups that have successfully fanned anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiment, the establishment of mosques and Islamic cultural centers has been met with increasingly hysterical opposition.

Writing in the New York Times on August 7th, Laurie Goodstein quotes a grandmother, Diana Serafin, who believes that "in 20 years...we will be overtaken by Islam, and their goal is to get people in Congress and the Supreme Court to see that Shariah is implemented. My children and grandchildren will have to live under that."

The ugliest part of fear mongering is that the "they" and "them" being referred to are other Americans.

Perhaps the only honest justification for opposing the building of the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" is to admit that one believes Islam itself was to blame for 9/11, and that five to seven million Muslim-Americans share in the blame by association by virtue of their religion---and not the 19 Saudi, Lebanese, and United Arab Emirates-born criminal religious fanatics driven by a perverted, medieval vision of a theocratic Islamic utopia. That belief would, indeed, make the establishment of a mosque on, or near, Ground Zero an obscenity.

The only problem with that premise is that it's nonsense.

I freely admit that I myself initially flinched at the thought of a mosque so close to the site of the worst terrorist attack in American history, an attack that was intended to engender a primal and visceral feeling of terror. It's the same part of me, again entirely primal, that occasionally flinches when I see men and women in Muslim garb at airports before I board my flight.

At the same time, I realize that the part of me that feels that way is not one of the better angels of my nature, and certainly not the part of me I'd ever want to be defined by.

On some level, I know that those feelings can only be a form of symbolic and emotional internment of the millions of moderate American Muslims that want nothing more than to raise and educate their children in the same American dream shared by their Christian and Jewish neighbors.

Maybe the ultimate memorial to the murder victims of September 11th would be to categorically reject the forces of political and religious divisiveness who want this fear of neighbors to fester and spread, and in doing so, issue a clear, strong statement of mutual trust and unity to those who wish harm to America, to state unambiguously that the 9/11 murderers did not succeed in their assault, an assault that was as symbolic as it was literal.

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