Proposed mosque stirs controversy, old fears

At many times in America’s history, the country has been united by war or conflict. Students read stories of their grandparents coming together to overcome the Great Depression and World War II, exemplifying the American values of hard work and strength. But often amid crisis we forget equally American values: tolerance and understanding. In light of recent controversy over the construction of an Islamic cultural center two blocks away from the former World Trade Center, it looks like the country’s values are once again being tested.

The proposal to build Park51, an Islamic cultural center, prompted a rush of protests. Thousands took to the streets carrying signs with messages ranging from “It’s not about religious freedom, it’s about common decency” to the inflammatory “Islam Kills.” Some political pundits hopped on a chance to stir up support and anger through fiery rhetoric. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin sent out her notoriously misspelled Tweet “Peaceful Muslims, please refudiate,” either misspelling “repudiate” or just making up a new word.

Even one of New York’s candidates for governor, Carl Paladino, pledged to remove the mosque “by any legal means necessary.” That rings a bell. In 1957, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus used the National Guard to block nine African-American students from attending a segregated school. What he believed was a legal defense of segregation defied the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. Just like Faubus, Paladino is proposing misuse of a “legal” process to deny the rights of a minority.

No national or state law prevents the construction of the building. If anything, the Constitution protects the right to build independent religious institutions. The First Amendment guards the Muslim community’s freedom of religion, just as it allows the right to protest the building’s construction.

Forces opposed to the cultural center fear it would be used to spread Sharia law and anti-American sentiment. Yet Park51 isn’t that different from any religious-based community center. It will offer a swimming pool, gym, library, culinary school, prayer space and child care services, not to mention a memorial to September 11, which will be open to the public. For some perspective, look at the building’s neighbors: a strip club and liquor store. Is a strip club really less offensive than a prayer center?

Yet one of the most logical defenses of the right to build the center is largely ignored. When the 9/11 bombers destroyed the World Trade Center, they took with them a Muslim prayer room on the south tower’s seventeenth floor. Several dozen Muslims also perished alongside their fellow Americans in the attack, which Muslim leaders swiftly condemned. The Muslim community of lower Manhattan lost a place of worship in 9/11 and for years used an old Burlington Coat Factory for prayer. It’s only natural that Feisal Abdul Rauf (the organization’s imam and coordinator) would want to provide a legitimate space for his constituents. Yet still many fear the mosque would be a “victory” for Islam. 

The “mosque-phobia” goes well beyond New York. Just last month, the construction site of an Islamic center in a Nashville, Tenn., suburb was lit aflame by opponents who feared it would be used as a terrorist training ground. According to a TIME magazine poll, 34 percent of Americans would oppose a mosque in their neighborhood. That pales in comparison to the 61 percent who oppose one near Ground Zero.

The discord between religions reared its head in a more ugly fashion: book burning. As the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks drew closer, a Florida pastor vowed to burn Korans to protest Islam. In a nation where people burned Harry Potter for supporting “witchcraft,” such a display is hardly shocking. What was more alarming was how the media and the public responded. For weeks the spectacle held the country’s attention hostage. The media devoted hours to the story, and the top American general in Afghanistan even pleaded with the church to cancel the burnings, saying they would “fuel anti-U.S. hatred.”

Some are shocked by these outbursts of anger, but looking at history, fear and suspicion of minorities in wartime is nothing new. Not even a century ago, the U.S. government ripped 120,000 of its own citizens from their homes and placed them in internment camps for no reason other than being of Japanese descent. Today, discrimination is not much subtler and no less divisive to our nation’s moral fiber.

Yet those who say an Islamic center would be offensive to those who lost loved ones in 9/11 have a legitimate concern. Having a building that hosts the same religion that drove extremists to commit murder close to what many call “sacred ground” will offend many Americans. For all Feisal Abdul Rauf’s rhetoric on interfaith tolerance and understanding, the project does not appear to generate the desired good feelings. Even President Obama – who recently supported the group’s right to build – didn’t take a clear stance on the sensitivity of the organization’s decision. Very few in the U.S. deny the center overlooks hallowed ground at Ground Zero. 

Asking Feisal Abdul Rauf and the Park51 leadership to move their building elsewhere out of respect for those who lost loved ones in 9/11 is one thing. Calling for the federal government to force a place of worship to move is entirely different. A clear line separates the two. It’s up to our generation to decide: We can uphold the Constitution and allow fellow Americans to practice their faith, or let fear divide us once again.