A proposed mosque, two blocks from where the World Trade Center twin-towers stood, have unleashed emotions, which the New York Times described as, "vitriolic commentary, pitting Muslims against Christians, Tea Partiers against staunch liberals, and Sept. 11 families against one another." What began as a well intentioned project to promote interfaith understanding and to help American Muslims preserve their moderate Islamic identity has devolved into name-calling, mud-slinging and political grandstanding.
The proposed project is described by the organizers' Cordoba Initiative as a, "community center with Islamic, interfaith and secular programming." It is less of a mosque, in a commonly understood sense, and more of a public space aimed at celebrating our common humanity and increasing community harmony. Such a message seems to be the perfect anti-dote to the hate and anger that fuels violence and terrorism.
The fact that other mosque-construction projects across the country from Brooklyn and Staten Island in New York to Dayton in Ohio have also encountered similar acerbic opposition points to something more to than just outrage over the proposed mosque's proximity to ground zero. Fears of terrorism and its perceived links to Islam seem to be the most cited concern. Mistaken perceptions of Muslims having no more than six degrees of separation from terrorists have spread paranoia among detractors, obfuscating reality.
Take for example a basic fact that the so-called ground zero mosque is actually not on ground zero. This prompted commentator Chris Matthews on MSNBC to ask - what distance away from ground zero could any mosque be in order to be deemed appropriate? If building a house of worship two blocks away from where the worst terrorist attacks on American soil killed over three thousands innocent souls is sacrilegious then why has making money off the memory of this tragedy by souvenir and tourist gawking not evoked any similar protest?
The absurdity is further seen in the signage on display at a protest event. One sign read, "Building a Mosque at Ground Zero is Like building a memorial to Hitler at Auschwitz." Equating the building of a mosque, by Muslims who reject and condemn al-Qaeda and its violent ideology, to a memorial for Hitler at Auschwitz is fear-mongering and ignoring reality. No Ms. Palin, peaceful Muslims do not need to "refudiate" the building of this mosque. You need to repudiate people who harbor Islamophobic views such as Tea Party leader Mark Williams saying Muslims worship a "monkey god." You need to repudiate demagogues like Pamlea Geller who said that for Muslims to "pray next to" Ground Zero is "repugnant," and a "kick in the head" to Americans.
New York City is home to several thousand Muslims, many of whom work in Manhattan. They need a place to pray and are perfectly within their rights to seek a suitable space. By all accounts, their choice was not merely within their rights but their conception of the project is quite egalitarian. And yet detractors are upset and keep justifying their opposition based on Muslims flying airplanes into the twin towers on September 11, 2001. They either ignore or are ignorant of the fact that those who perpetrated this crime against humanity betrayed the teachings of Islam, which is why 9-11 has been unequivocally condemned by all major Islamic scholars, organization and countries.
We should preserve the memory of this tragedy and be respectful of those who lost their loved ones. But as a nation we cannot succumb to unfounded fears of everything Muslim. In a news segment on NBC News one of the lead protester's (Pamela Geller) main objection was that Muslims should not be allowed to build this 11-story mosque because then they will be able to look at ground zero from the upper floors of that building. Such frivolity would be comical if the issue was not this serious. Since Timothy McVeigh was influenced by the Christian Identity movement, should churches be inappropriate near the Murrah building in Oklahoma City?
The debate over the mosque near ground zero needs to be placed in the context of the protests over building other mosques now spreading across America. These protests are being led by the some of the most extremist elements in our society. Thankfully, well reasoned voices from Jewish Rabbis to Christian Pastors to a wide array of politicians and public servants have been consistently decrying such fears.
The voices of reason are triumphing over the voices of discord. Despite orchestrated opposition, mosque projects are gaining regulatory approval. While American Muslims are winning their rights they are not necessarily winning many hearts and minds. Overcoming misguided fears about Islam and Muslim will require gaining the trust of neighbors. More mosques, even those not seeking new expansion or new construction, will have to go beyond their usual religious functionality and undertake a leadership role in becoming a sanctuary for dialogue and understanding. Only then will the voices of paranoia be relegated to footnotes in history.
Professor Parvez Ahmed is a Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida. He is also a frequent commentator on Islam and the American Muslim experience. You can read his blog at http://drparvezahmed.blogspot.com