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Change the tone of the debate

Published: September 3, 2010
Section: Opinions


Perhaps the biggest national controversy that has emerged this summer has involved the proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero. After reading countless articles and opinions on the matter, I honestly still don’t know which side I should take. Instead, I believe that the conversation itself has to change, and that the proponents and opponents of this project need to take into account certain issues that, up to this point at least, they seem to have ignored.

Firstly, the left, who form the vast majority of the advocates for this center, have framed this debate in a misleading way. Specifically, they consider themselves to be the upholders of religious tolerance and freedom, but at the same time, dismiss their opponent’s concerns as being either bigoted, fear-mongering or misguided.

However, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the Islamic community centerthat are not necessarily Islamophobic. For instance, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, who is leading this initiative, holds many highly controversial views. He is ambiguous on the nature of terrorism, has written in support of sharia law, does not condemn Hamas, implied that the U.S. brought 9/11 upon itself due to its policies and supports bi-nationalism for or the destruction of Israel. Yes, he is a Sufi, which is a more mystical and moderate brand of Islam that is opposed by extremist Salafists and Wahhabists. However, that does not excuse him from making statements that most objective observers would perceive as radical and anything but conciliatory.

Additionally, there are many individuals living in New York and elsewhere who seriously view this initiative as provocative and disrespectful to the 9/11 victims due to its location. Also, they may find it counterproductive in regards to its goal of promoting religious reconciliation, considering it has engendered so much controversy and division.

I am not saying that everyone should oppose the Islamic community center for these reasons. Rather, liberals should look past their ideological convictions, address the direct sources of people’s discomfort and educate Americans on Islam and the traditions and beliefs of Muslim people. A solely abstract, legalistic and constitutionalist approach, as embodied by Barack Obama’s comments during the White House Ramadan Dinner, is not enough to address the visceral and emotional reaction many Americans have to this project.

At the same time, the Islamic community center’s opponents, who mostly consist of conservatives and some Democrats, have simply taken their rhetoric too far on this matter. What began as opposition to this particular center for reasons related to sensitivity and location has turned into a broader indictment of Islam and the Muslim people. There is a fine line between concern about this particular center and an ideological and political drive to incite fear into the hearts of the American people and turn them against those of differing faiths.

Such rhetoric concerns me for several reasons. In excess, it can threaten America’s democratic and liberal character. This has been evidenced by disturbing reports of protests about not just over the downtown Manhattan site, but mosques across the country. Additionally, it plays right into the heart of the clash of civilizations narrative, in which the West is at war with Islam, that Al Qaeda and other extremist groups persistently promote to justify their heinous acts. And, this general Islamophobia can potentially alienate and even radicalize more moderate and peaceful Muslims who have integrated into American society.

The ground zero community center issue is a complicated one that touches on such topics as America’s national identity, the limits of religious tolerance and freedom, and our relations with the Muslim world. Perhaps changing the tone and substance of the debate will make the question of whether or not to build it easier to answer.