I recently spent some time in Turkey among some of the most generous, hospitable people I have ever met. People hailed from as far away as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Greece, but the linguistic and cultural barriers were eclipsed by constant laughter and budding friendships. Though most of these people were Muslim, my race, sex, and religion didn't seem to matter. As a Jew I was embraced as a friend, as a woman I was embraced as a sister. (And personally, I think we could all learn something from a culture that calls for a moment of calm five times a day.)
Unfortunately, this is not the side of the Muslim faith with which many Americans are familiar. Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, to name a few, have recently denounced plans to build a mosque near the land once occupied by the World Trade Center. In doing so, they misconstrued the mosque's true intent. The Cordoba House promises to be a multicultural center promoting art, education, and religious tolerance. It will provide an auditorium, exhibition space, and bookstores to an area of New York in which these types of facilities are sorely lacking.
As a New Yorker, I do not have to be reminded of the atrocities perpetrated on 9/11. But there is a difference between Islam - a religion that preaches tolerance and compassion - and the militant Muslim extremists responsible for the World Trade Center attacks. To suggest that a mosque symbolizes the worst forms of radical Islamic terrorists is simply wrong. Should we stop building churches because the Ku Klux Klan rode under the banner of Christianity?
Yet some still fail to see the distinction. Gingrich recently called the mosque an "Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization." This clearly misguided depiction can be read one of two ways. Either it's empty rhetoric designed to score political points, or Gingrich actually believes that the same Muslims who would use the Cordoba House as a site for prayer and community outreach were responsible for 9/11.
I find both prospects disgusting and dangerous. The Islam I saw in Turkey was not the Islam we often see in politics and entertainment. Endorsing the Cordoba House provides a unique opportunity to trust in the humanity of all the world's people. This is why the mosque should be built -- as an opportunity to educate uninformed Americans, and to send a strong signal that the United States' true enemy is ignorance.