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The Controversy Over the NYC Mosque Shows We Really Don't Know Each Other Well Enough

08/21/2010 02:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last Saturday afternoon, some Jewish friends who are fans of the Muslim Women's Fund came for tea at our home. They were eager to discuss the front page news story in the NYT on the Mosque at Ground Zero which has elicited high intensity emotions, passions and political machinations.

The concept for Park51, the interfaith community center and mosque near ground zero was inspired by the Young Men's Hebrew Association and the YMCA's in New York. But talking with my friends, I'm reminded that not everyone knows that historically in Islam markets, mosques and public squares converged to serve the community -- whereas churches and temples are in their own, separate, sacred precincts -- away from the bazaars. We really don't know each other well enough.

You see this in Istanbul where the souk adjoins the Blue Mosque. Or in Jerusalem, where Muslim merchants renting space at the edge of the Mosque of Omar sell -- not Muslim prayer beads (tasbih in Urdu) but Christian ones (rosaries) -- because ten yards down is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The board of the new interfaith center will be composed of Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders and the center's goal is to build bridges between faiths. Further, this unique interfaith center/mosque will promote a pioneering model of moderate American Islam -- an anti-dote to Saudi Wahabism and Salifism, which are fueled by America's oil dependence. The center/mosque was approved by the local community board (23-O) and NYC's Landmark Preservation Commission (9-0) unanimously.

As I followed the issue, I was struck by how the word mosque became the dominant conflict driven media frame of the story and how interfaith bridge building and creating a space for moderate Islam receded into the background.

The interfaith center/mosque hit a nerve emotionally and understandably. As my friends who came to tea said, they supported the idea of the center but at another location. They empathized with people's emotions, however irrational, and believe that they need to be respected. And I would add especially if they are families, including Muslims, who have lost loved ones at ground zero -- these are some of one's worst nightmares which rank with losses in wars, earthquakes and famines.

The mosque debate became an exploitable political torch for Gingrich, Palin and Lazio. But it also became a values test for Mayor Bloomberg, Thomas Friedman and the NYT editorial board.

Standing by the Statue of Liberty, Mayor Bloomberg in a stirring speech on the proposed mosque said: "It is as important a test of separation of church and state as any we may see in our lifetime, and it is critically important that we get it right."

Tom Friedman in his column speaks to the quintessential American values that make an immigrant like me proud to be American when he writes:

I greatly respect the feelings of those who lost loved ones...

When we tell the world, 'Yes, we are a country that will even tolerate a mosque near the site of 9/11, ' we send such a powerful message of inclusion and openness. It is shocking to other nations. But you never know who out there is hearing that message and saying: "What a remarkable country! I want to live in that melting pot, even if I have to build a boat from milk cartons to get there.

And finally my friend Daisy Khan, wife of Imam Feisal Rauf, (a Sufi who conceptualized the interfaith center/mosque), Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) and a founding board member of the Muslim Women's Fund, has stayed the slalom course on the center/mosque hearings mindfully. When I asked for her take away last night, she said: "This is a victory for America. It affirms the preservation of religious freedom and supports faith communities."