Monday, March 7, 2011

To Build or Not to Build

At this writing, Muslim leaders in New York are still hoping to build a community center and mosque some two blocks away from Ground Zero, the now-sacred ground that once held the World Trade Center.  The WTC was demolished when Islamic terrorists commandeered planes and flew them into the buildings.  More than 3,000 people died in the horrific attack.  

No one recorded the religion of the victims, but best estimates are that 400 to 500 were Jewish.  Other religions represented included Muslim, Hindu and, of course, Christian.  A Hindu friend of mine worked in the Towers and survived because he was going to his office later that usual that day.  Many of his friends and colleagues did not.

The religion matters because the idea of a mosque next to such a site has enflamed the conservative sector of our society.  The complaints are vicious, laced with anti-Islamic sentiment and downright hatred.  

One friend wrote that the mosque was no different than building a monument to Adolf Hitler.  I respectfully disagreed.  No one is talking about building a memorial to the Islamic zealots who died in the plane crashes.  In fact, the leader of the moment to build the mosque is renowned for his interfaith efforts and was openly appalled—as were virtually all American Muslims—by the nefarious actions of their co-religionists.

There are compelling reasons to allow the mosque planners to go ahead.

1)      It’s legal.  Even opponents agree there’s nothing wrong with the plans.  How logical is it to defy the law to prevent the construction?  Does one illegal act, however awful, warrant a parallel response?

2)      It falls under constitutional guidelines.  The Puritans who founded Massachusetts came here for religious freedom.  That basic concept helped created Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Maryland, and is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  It is the basic cornerstone of our country and the one thing that separates us from other lands.  We cannot discard it simply because of objections to the murderous actions of some members of a particular faith.  No religious is free of so odious behavior.  You can bet no one would object if the plans called for a church and/or synagogue, despite egregious behavior by some members of each in support of religious beliefs.  Rabbi Meir Kahane was hardly a pacifist, for example.  Neither is the Hutaree, a self-proclaimed Christian terrorist group arrested in March, arrested and charged with plotting to kill police officers around the country in support of their extremist views.


3)      It divides.  Refusing to allow a mosque simply drives a wedge between Muslims and American society.  Ironically, that’s exactly what the terrorists were trying to do: they believe Islam was the superior belief and wanted to rid it of Western influence.  That puts opponents to the mosque on the side of the terrorists. 

Our country has always been inclusive: there’s room for everyone.   The Statue of Liberty proclaims that in the immortal words of Emma Lazarus (no relation): 

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Isolating one element of society in response to this terrible event only undermines our society and encourages anti-Americans.

I’ve heard people compare the events of 9/11 to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  They do not correspond.  The 1941 bombing was the deliberate act of a nation hoping to undermine America’s ability to wage war.  In contrast, the four hijackings in 2001 were the result of a conspiracy of a small group of terrorists bent on creating as much havoc as possible in misguided defense of their religious ideas.  The only thing the two landmark situations shared was that our country was less vigilant than it could have been, but, other than that, the events have nothing in common.

Unlike our war with Japan, we cannot easily strike back against the 9/11 plotters.  Some died in the crashes.  The rest are in hiding.  They were Pakistani and Saudi Arabian.  In our zeal for revenge, we attacked Iraq and Afghanistan, creating more deaths among innocent people and more animosities.

This has to cease sometime.  There is precedent: Germany and Israel are now allies, less than 70 years after the Holocaust ended.

One way to speed up that eventuality this time and heal the rift between the Muslim community and the rest of American society would be by welcoming the mosque.  Let’s make it a center of peace and understanding, rather than the subject of bitter controversy. 

Bill Lazarus is been a long-time writer, educator and religious historian.  He holds an M.A. in communication from Kent State University and is a full-time instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. You can contact him via his website: www.williamplazarus.com or wplazarus@aol.com.

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