Over the past few weeks, I have been seeing more and more stories pop up on the news that have saddened me. From New York to New Jersey to Tennessee to Wisconsin to California and elsewhere, Muslim-American communities are looking to build Mosques where they can share in prayer and community of faith as their Christian-American, Jewish-American, Baha’i-American, Hindu-American (though that may be debatable), Buddhist-American, Sikh-American, Pagan-American, and even Satanist-American brothers and sisters have been able to do since the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution first proclaimed that the “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ”
Now I am in no way saddened by the desire of our Muslim brothers and sisters to build places of worship. Instead, I am saddened by the response of non-Muslim community members to their proposed plans:
The very idea that people in what is supposed to be one of the most open, religiously-free countries in the world would hold signs telling Muslim Americans that “this is not your country” appalls me. I am saddened to think that the only thing people know about the long, rich history of Islam is what they learned on 9/11 (and that this could be all they would ever hope to know). To compare building a place of worship to a deer marking its territory with musk secretions is plain disgusting, and to see Mosques as little more than monuments to terrorism is sadly misguided. Having visited Mosques from Ohio to Egypt to Palestine to Jordan to China, in my experience I have only found them to be places of vibrant community building and faith-sharing. While undoubtedly there are Mosques that preach violence and hatred (as there are Christian Churches that do so), they are nowhere near the majority. I can’t help but wonder how many Mosques those holding the signs have visited . . .
As I move forward, though, I want to approach the opposition to Mosques being built in two distinct ways. First, I want to talk about the proposed “Ground Zero Mosque” (which is actually a Muslim community center – different from a Mosque) that is set to be built in a renovated building a few blocks from the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan, New York. Second, I want to address the wider anti-Muslim sentiment expressed in the protests against Mosques throughout the country.
For those who are not aware, a contentious debate has been sparked by plans by Feisal Abdul Rauf and other progressive Muslims to renovate an old Burlington Coat Factory building a few blocks from Ground Zero in New York City to create a Muslim cultural center and space for dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims. Critics have argued that it is insensitive to build a Mosque so close to the place where Muslim extremists killed 3000 people on 9/11. Advocates have said that it is an ideal place for building a more positive image of Islam and for encouraging the more progressive elements of Islam in America. A group of Jewish leaders recently spoke out in support of the Mosque while the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a group who claims its mission to be “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all,” has condemned the plans. In my opinion, though, CNN Correspondent Fareed Zakaria said it best when he announced that he would return to the ADL the Hubert H. Humphrey First Amendment Freedoms Prize that he was awarded in 2005:
As Zakaria notes, if there is any group that should have widespread support to build near Ground Zero, it is one led by an Imam who argues publicly that “American is actually what an ideal Islamic society would look like because it is peaceful, tolerant, and pluralistic.” We as Americans should be welcoming the most moderate and progressive elements of Islam into dialogue rather than ostracizing them!
Aside from the philosophical reasons why this Mosque deserves the support of the American people, it is frankly unconstitutional to deny a group the right to build a religious community center on private property! It scares me to know that 68% of the American people believe that the group should not be allowed to build on this site, meaning that a strong majority of Americans believe that a religious group of nearly 1.4 billion people world-wide and perhaps 7 million within the U.S. should be denied their constitutional rights because of the actions of a few violent extremists.
Which brings me to the wider discussion of anti-Muslim protests around the United States: if the only incident of opposition to building of a Mosque was at ground zero, I would likely think that the root cause of the opposition lay in a sensitivity around the events of 9/11. However, when groups around the United States are actively picketing Friday prayers and shouting “Murderers!” at Muslim children, I tend to think that this is a sign of a wider religious bigotry against Muslims in the United States. Now some might claim that those picketing the Mosques are extremists in their own right and don’t represent a wider American belief, but it this sentiment is not isolated to a few folks yelling outside of Mosques. When some try to scare people into voting against the president because he could be Muslim and when the Lt. Governor of a state suggests that “that Islam might be a cult and that Muslims might not qualify for constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms” and when a powerful social conservative argues that no more Mosques should be built on American soil because “each Islamic mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government,” I start to worry that we are beginning to see a wider reality of socially-acceptable religious bigotry. Further, at least one of the anti-Mosque protests was officially sponsored by the Tea Party, a powerful and growing political organization of conservative activists.
Because, as noted before, I think it is important to infuse these tough discussion with humor, I wanted to parallel this sobering reality with John Stewart’s brilliant take on the subject. However, wordpress won’t let me embed the video, so I recommend you check it out here.
Now all joking aside, I am not one to commonly make Nazi comparisons, for I think that if we overuse the comparison of present political reality to the rise of the Nazi regime, we can water down the example, and it can lose its historical power and weight. However, to have a majority of the United States willing to deny one religious group its constitutional rights and to have powerful politicians and political organizations spewing religious bigotry against this group and picketing their prayer sessions is an indication of a cultural sickness, a sickness that was seen in the early stages of the Jewish isolation in Nazi Germany. After all, we have now come to a place where American Muslims are feeling so unsafe due to the climate in this country that they must ask for protection in the upcoming season of Ramadan. We have seen a sharp rise in hate crimes against Muslims in 2010. Down what path are we walking?
Are we as Americans willing to walk down the dangerous path of denying one religious group its constitutional rights to freedom of worship and assembly due to the actions of a few who have managed to distort a religion that cannot condone the killing of innocents (Qur’an 17:33, 18:74, 81:9) or the compulsion of non-believers (Qur’an 2:256)? Are we willing to turn our backs on our Muslim brothers and sisters who are trying to reclaim their religion from violent extremists? Are we willing to change the very foundations of religious liberty in this country due to our hurt and confusion over terrorist acts?
I, for one, hope not. It is time that we begin to speak out in support of our Muslim brothers and sisters. It is time that we condemn this religious bigotry. Thus, when you hear discussions about the Mosques being built or the ensuing protests, have the courage to speak out! Have the courage to stand up for religious freedom! Have the courage to deny bigotry a home whenever you are near!
Peace be the Journey