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Zareena A. Grewal, Ph.D.

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Build the 'Mosque' or Burn the Qu'ran? It Hurts Some, But It Is Constitutional

Posted: 08/23/10 05:13 AM ET

"Allahu Akbar." This prayer conjures up a beautiful memory for me; these were the first words whispered in my newborn daughter's ear moments after she was born in Manhattan. I understand that for most Manhattanites these words probably conjure up dark memories of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Like many Americans, I have been following the 24-hour news cycle on the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy with grave interest. What alarms me most is the way misinformation about Islam and Muslims, and in many cases hateful disinformation, dominates the media coverage. Earlier this week, Pamela Geller, the blogger who incited this controversy, insisted on CNN that the 9/11 terrorists were practicing "pure Islam." I wonder how many Americans actually believe her. I wish more Americans would reconsider what they think they know about Muslims and Islam, interrogating why they think they know it and who they take as an expert.

One fascinating national phenomenon in the days immediately after 9/11 was the public rush to buy copies of the Quran, with bookstores back-ordered for weeks. The misguided, olive-skinned men who murdered thousands by driving planes into buildings did so in Allah's name, and despite President Bush's early declaration that they did not represent "real" Islam, many Americans felt an urgent need to read the Quran themselves to make sure. This impulse to "read-the-Quran-myself" reflects a scripturalist, DIY attitude towards religion that many Americans have, as well as a characteristically American over-confidence in our ability to diagnose the pathologies of religious traditions about which we may know very little. Those who actually read the Quran discover that it is not full of incendiary, hateful verses as some so-called "terrorism experts" claim. Unfortunately, the call today is not to "read-it-for-yourselves," but to "burn-the-Quran-yourselves" -- at least that is what churches in Florida and California are inviting Americans to do in protest of the proposed center. Our Constitution protects Muslims' rights to build the Cordoba Institute as well as Christians' rights to burn the Quran in protest of it. (The Church organizers are having trouble getting local burn permits, though.) These Quran-burnings are meant to send a threatening message to all Muslims, including the families of the 300+ Muslim victims of 9/11. Although the protesters have not done enough homework on Islam to know that Muslims often burn old Qurans as a respectful way of disposing of them, their hateful speech act still translates. Perhaps they are taking their cues from Nazi book-burners, another instance of an economic downturn exacerbating xenophobia and the scape-goating of minorities.

I worry more about the safety and the future of my family, my community, and my country today than in the seven years I lived in Manhattan immediately after 9/11. When I made the difficult decision to leave Manhattan for Connecticut, I did so in part for my daughter. Now I worry that someone will show up at our local mosque with attack dogs, as protesters did at the mosque in nearby Bridgeport. I am heartened by President Obama's affirmation of Muslim Americans' constitutional rights to practice their religion, even as cynical pundits predict it will cost him the White House. I hope that my daughter will be able to enjoy the same Constitutional rights and freedoms in twenty-first-century America that her grandparents struggled to earn in twentieth-century America, when they came as new immigrants from Iraq and Pakistan with little more than their American dreams.