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Park51: Time to Move Beyond a Non-Issue

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It started with a small, but heated, debate on whether a mosque should be built two blocks north from where once the World Trade Center stood. It has now ballooned into a national debate where even President Obama had to give his two cents about the issue. While Americans are embroiled in this debate of upholding civil liberties or following emotional sensitivities, the world is awaiting the final verdict on Park 51.

Opposition to the building of this mosque -- which will actually be a small part of a larger community center -- can be divided into two groups: one is vehemently opposing it just for the sake of opposition, while the second group is citing the lack of religious liberties in the Muslim world as a reason to block this project.

Leaving the first group aside -- as no one can change the thinking of a chronic naysayer -- it is the second group that needs some answers from the Muslim world. Yes, there are restrictions in many Muslim countries regarding the construction of worship centers. Many countries also share a poor record when it comes to the protection of religious minorities rights. But, are not these countries having the poorest human rights records? Aren't they mostly repressive regimes and shun any civic liberties, even to the majority Muslim groups? The answer, again, unfortunately, will be in the affirmative.

This begs another question: Can the US equate itself with repressive monarchies and dictatorships? A country which was founded on religious freedom and whose constitution has strictly laid down the golden principle of the separation between the church and the state? The answer would most likely be in the negative. Any changes in that century old tenant -- by stopping the construction of this mosque -- will endanger the constitutional supremacy in the US.

I would also beg to differ from some supporters who are citing the empowerment of Al-Qaeda and other extremists groups if the mosque project is blocked. Extremists in the Muslim World will certainly make a mountain of this molehill but that is what they do best: to oppose anything and everything while invoking anti-Islamic actions of the West. It is common Muslims that need to be addressed while deciding about the mosque.

People in the Muslim world are waiting with bated breath the outcome of this debate. Any negative outcome in this regard can seriously undermine the efforts being done by the moderates to bridge the gap between the Muslim World and the US. Here in Pakistan, I have come across many academics and blue collar workers who have expressed doubts about the construction of the mosque. Zubair Ali, a retired professor of anthropology who has also lived in the US, told me that any decision to stop the mosque construction will empower the prevailing opinion that the US is waging a war against Islam.

"Forget about moderates or extremists. It is common, educated Muslims that will be questioning the real motives of the US," he said. According to him, these Muslims have grown up hearing about the civil liberties in the US but now they will change their opinions. And that is the group of people whose favors US badly needs to win the war on terror. Some in the Muslim world are questioning the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the American actions after 9/11 and on why the American media is reluctant in mentioning the Muslim deaths in the 9/11 tragedy itself.

Others are doubting the policy of American politicians to use the mosque at the forefront of the 2010 elections. Will the Americans who have lost their homes and jobs pay any attention to a non-issue or will they use their vote as a referendum against this mosque? One needs not to be a genius to answer this question.

To cut a long debate short, it is about time that Americans move beyond Park 51. Let a mosque be built that represents the moderate version of Islam. Let the constitution rein supreme and keep the church and state separate. That will, after all, be a truly American thing to do. Isn't it?

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