07/22/2010 04:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Justice as Tolerance: 9/11, Islam and New York City

"After eight years of delay, those allegedly responsible for the attacks of September 11th will finally face justice," said Attorney General Eric Holder eight months ago. Soon after, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four of his accomplices were to be flown from Guantanamo Bay onto U.S. soil to face a civilian trial in a Manhattan Federal Courthouse. However, overwhelming opposition -- ranging from projected annual security and logistical costs totaling more than $200 million, to the belief that such a trial would embolden al-Qaeda and invite further attacks against New York City -- forced the Obama Administration to reconsider its position. Eight months after Mr. Holder's statement above, the trial's location, method and details are still far from certain. With progress thwarted, delivering justice, too, has run dry. Looking back, however, I believe part of the opposition towards the location of the trial had much deeper roots in the psyche of some Manhattanite Americans: a now-crystallized aversion and agitation towards anything-Islam.

First, I do believe President Obama when he characterizes U.S. efforts and military engagements worldwide to combat terrorism as one aimed at countering perverse religious ideologies leading to violent extremism and the murder of innocents, rather than a war against Islam. However, given the flurry of controversy in New York City over the proposed building of a Muslim community center and mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero, one questions whether or not those opposed truly understand the implications of their opposition. In other words, do they understand that their attitude have international consequences. On one hand, the President of the United States unequivocally states to the Muslim world that the U.S. is not at war with Islam, and, on the other hand, some Americans are repressing constitutional rights to religious freedom by opposing such plans of the Muslim people to exercise that freedom to rebuild those very relations. The potential consequences of this disconnect are both simple and dangerous: al-Qaeda and its' affiliates can and will use such internal discord to recruit, rally, and regroup. It's not hard to envision an al-Qaeda recruiter in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, or here in the United States, pointing to the rejection of building a Muslim community center and mosque as yet another indication of American contempt towards Islam. Certainly, those who oppose this initiative do not want to embolden the enemy and invite further attacks, as was the argument against trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. I cannot begin to imagine the lifelong anguish tattooed upon those who lost their loved ones on September 11th, but outright rejecting a peaceful gesture and proposal to better U.S.-Muslim relations here at home, and therefore abroad, is an action to be welcomed and embraced, not slandered and marginalized.

Lacking knowledge of the Islamic world, an inadequate understanding of core religious principles, and a vengeful attitude towards Muslims following 9/11, combined, is the continued source of this conflict -- domestically and abroad. Indeed, instability in one sphere can destabilize the other. Breaking the barriers of intolerance requires one to internalize the fact that the majority of Muslims around the world -- 1.2 billion of them and increasing -- do not engage in violent extremism. Moreover, there are several million Muslim-Americans living in the United States, peacefully contributing to the betterment of their respective communities and the nation as a whole, every single day. There is no future in division. It is absolutely imperative that we come to understand 'the other.' Outright rejection en masse on this issue is counterproductive, and could very well cost more American lives.

There are a number of sound and sane voices in this debate, including that of Mayor Bloomberg. And in addition, several unique propositions have come to the forefront during this controversy. For example, calls for an interfaith cultural center at the site of Ground Zero to study and promote religious tolerance, similar to the currently-developing Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa, Canada. The center, an initiative of His Highness the Aga Khan, is "founded on the premise that tolerance, openness and understanding towards the cultures, social structures, values and faiths of other peoples are now essential to the very survival of an interdependent world." Stephen Prothero, a religion scholar at Boston University, believes that "a small mosque ought to be integrated into the redesign of the World Trade Center site itself -- a reminder in steel and stone that the United States is not at war either with Islam or with our core values." What supporters of the concept all have in common is that social cohesion, domestic relations, and the international security and stability of the world moving forward are all very much interconnected, and interdependent. We must amplify the positive impact of faith to alleviate the negative, and this movement forward begins right here at home.

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