Muslims, like any other American religious community, have every right to practice their faith and build institutions for that purpose as guaranteed in the US constitution.
Should they build the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero? My suggestion is ... No, they should not. Not because Islam is responsible for 9/11. Not because Muslim Americans are violent or radical. But, simply because the majority of Americans, rightly or wrongly believe that it would hurt their feelings. Some 64 per cent Americans believe that building a mosque close to ground zero is not a good idea. So the first task of Muslims should be to win over the hearts of the people rather than their anger.
Unfortunately, the media and the politicians have framed the issue in a manner that promotes emotions over decency and common sense.
Some thirty years ago, a small scattered Muslim community in Las Vegas wanted to build a masjid in a residential neighborhood. When the matter came up before county commissioners, the whole neighborhood was there to oppose the proposed masjid. The president of the masjid withdrew the application instantly saying that his community failed in its attempts to convince the neighbors about the reasons for building the Muslim place of worship.
Thirty year later, Las Vegas has more than six masaajid, with two of them completed in 2010, the year when anti-Muslim incidents all over the country have become common as witnessed in Tennessee and Temucla, California.
There are three major issues involved in the Islamic Center Project in Lower Manhattan.
First, it is a project of a local community just like any other local community projects. The entire US Muslim community did not adopt it or initiate it. A group of local Muslims conceived in an idea and proceeded with that. Did they convince their neighbors? Did they convince the city? Apparently, the city government did not oppose. but the neighborhood had mixed reaction. An Islamic center in a neighborhood that does not understand the relevance of the Islamic center is a futile exercise.
Those who opposed the project initially were the ones who have shown a general hostility towards Islam and Muslims in the last 10 years. Most prominent among those opposed to the Islamic Center are Tea party leaders, Republican activists and groups such as Anti-Defamation League and Simon Wiesenthal Center who draw their support primarily from Christian right groups and the extremist Zionists who believe that only they have the right to speak on behalf of America and God. The leadership of these groups have used provocative language to exploit the emotions of people. They called the project a stab in the heart, a manifestation of violent Islam, a bid to take over America or an assertion of the radical Islam. The media promoted their ideas and thus created a situation where the entire issue appeared to be almost like a mini crusade. If these people had spoken to the organizers of the Cordoba Institute, the things could have been different. In fact, the Center could have been seen as a a symbol of an Islam that is opposed to the ideas of those who want to use violence and terror to promote their interests.
The third issue involving the Islamic Center is much more serious. The notion that Islam is involved in the destruction of America and engineering of 9/11 is a dangerous notion. Those who are opposed to the project assume that Islam is responsible for 9/11 and hence no symbol of Islam be allowed to manifest itself near the world trade center ruins as it would hurt the families of the victims. However absurd that notion is, the reality is that Islam is seen as a perpetrator of this act of violence. Obviously, Muslims have failed to dispel this notion and the objective mind has failed to separate the faith from some of its practitioners, despite the fact that some 300 people who died in 9/11 were Muslims.
America is a Christian majority country. Yet not many people are willing to even suggest that Christianity is responsible for the Vietnam War, or the first Iraq War or the Second Iraq war or the War in Afghanistan despite the facts that some of the top generals and politicians have used Christian symbols and phrase's to justify the US military intervention. Osama bin Laden did not represent Islam or Muslims. Osmana bin Laden was not given a mandate by Muslims to speak on their behalf. On the contrary, it was our congressional leadership that authorized our defense and state departments to support in his bid to raise money and an army against the Russians in Afghanistan. Osama did not speak on behalf of Muslims when his comrades are reported to have engineered 9/11. To use his justification to attack the world trade center as an excuse to blame Islam is absurd. It is this absurdity that is evident in the argument of those who are opposed to the project.
Off course, the Muslim American community has to do much more to convince the masses about this absurdity. But, it is this absurdity that is at the moment shaping this issue. Politicians like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich and the Tea party activists are taking full advantage of the situation and beating the drums of war against Islam and Muslims. They are preparing conditions that are reminiscent of Hitler's pre holocaust Germany. Their words and actions are encouraging extremists to unleash dogs at Muslim places of worship or to burn the Quran or to flush the Quran in the toilet.
However, there is another issue that cannot be ignored at this time. While Muslims are also quoting the freedom of religion as the most sacred constitutional guaranteed that is available to American citizens, they are generally silent about the freedom of religion to non-Muslims in places like Saudi Arabia or Kuwait or the Gulf countries. The Quran recognizes the plurality of religion in a given society and it demands respect for all religions. The silence of Muslims in general gives ammunition to the Islamophobes to claim that Islam and Muslims are not sincere in their commitment to freedom of religion. This is an issue that Muslims have to internally recognize and debate.
Now the issue of the constitutional legitimacy of the Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan is settled and the country's highest authority has spoken in support of the project, the Cordoba Institute leadership should thank all those who supported it in this project and announce that it would hold off the construction unless those who are opposed are won over and unless the majority of America becomes supportive of the project. After all the purpose of the project is to create goodwill and good relations among people of different faiths.
Dr. Aslam Abdullah is editor of the Detroit based English weekly, Muslim Observer, director of the Islamic Society of Nevada, Las Vegas and the recently elected General Secretary of the World Council of Muslims for Interfaith Relation. He is also the vice President of the Muslim Council of America, MCA.
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