THE BLOG
06/14/2010 01:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Staten Island Mosque: Can We Have a Real Exchange This Time?

This is the other mosque story developing in New York City. And while it is unfolding not a mere few hundred feet from the site where the World Trade Center was attacked, but in a quiet neighborhood of NYC's quietest borough, the rage provoked is no less real or disturbing.

The struggle is between members of the Muslim American Society, a group seeking to build a mosque on the grounds of a former Staten Island convent, and members of the local community, some of whom have described this as "the community's D-Day" and an important part of "the war against Islam". To be sure, neither side is behaving well, if by behaving well one means actually trying to find a solution which works for as many people as possible.

Instead, as is so often the case, each side is simply operating out of their worst fears and tendencies. In the case of the local Muslim community, that means two things. First, they seem to have an allergy to direct answers to direct questions. Whether that is simply cultural, or indicative of something more nefarious, does not matter. Until direct questions from the larger community, however stupid they may be, get direct answers, suspicion and fear are created.

Second, as with many minorities struggling to attain the full civil rights to which they are entitled, the people representing the local Muslim community, at a recent town hall meeting which exploded into an ugly shout fest, kept talking about what they had the right to do and failed to address what was wise to do. Too often, having the right to do something and the eagerness to assert that right blinds us to the more important questions about what is wise and productive to do.

Issues of transparency and the distinction between rights asserted and wise action remain genuine challenges for the Muslim groups trying to establish mosques, both in Staten Island and at the site near Ground Zero. But none of that excuses, or even explains, the kind of rage which these attempts have stirred.

D-Day? Is that really how locals want to frame the issue of their objection to the building of a mosque in Staten Island? Do they really experience this struggle with other New Yorkers trying to build houses of worship as the 21st century equivalent of the Allied war against the Nazis?

Leaving aside the pathetic irony that in choosing this metaphor, those supposedly defending the shores of our nation and its culture would be the Germans, must they invoke the language of war to raise awareness? And if they must, then how different are they from the Jihadists they oppose? In each case, a group waves a banner of holy war against some group whose existence they claim threatens their own.

There is an old adage in combat which teaches that the longer one engages an enemy, the more alike the two sides become. While it may not always be true, it seems to be the case here. And frankly, for most of us, the prospect of being caught in the crossfire between these two groups is not so good.

I would love to see a series of town hall meetings across the country (the issue is stirring anger and defensiveness all over the nation) in the months ahead -- meetings in which the tapes of the public conversations which have already transpired around the building of these two New York City Mosques were shown to audiences who were asked not to respond to the question of whether they should be built, but instead to the following questions:

1. With which side do you most identity in this conflict and how could representatives of that side have behaved better in the conversations which you are watching?

2. What is the real fear which animates the side with which you disagree, and what could you do, without giving up your position, to address that fear?

3. If the mosque to which you object could be built elsewhere, would you support it? How come?

4. What is it that the "other side" most doesn't get about the side with which you identify? And are you willing to learn as much about them and their concerns as you want them to learn about you and yours?

Whether this process will ensure the result that either side wants is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that when different religious, ethnic or even political communities operate with these questions as their guiding principles, we are all safer and better off.