An earlier version of this article referred to the Cordoba House Initiative’s planned Islamic community center (also called Park51) in lower Manhattan as a mosque.
In late July the controversy surrounding the construction of the Park51 Islamic community center near Ground Zero escalated from a disapproving murmur into a pep rally of outrage. Politicians with much to gain (read: votes) and Christians with much to preserve (read: power) dedicated their voices to the protest and prevention of the center’s construction. Their words, angry and blind, serve not only as a convenient campaign platform, but a dark reminder of the prejudice that continues to fester within our nation.
After the 9/11 attacks, Islam was forced under the microscope. Within a matter of days the United States defined an entire religion by the handful of extremists responsible for the tragedy. America was afraid, creating a climate in which one population had the most to fear: Muslims. In the weeks that followed a large number of Muslims remained confined within their houses, terrified of misdirected retribution and forced to wait out the hostility. An Indian friend of mine was one of the worried. “But you aren’t even Muslim,” I mused. She looked at me plainly. “They don’t know that.”
They—the rioters throwing bricks through Muslim-owned businesses and spray-painting houses with death threats. Their behavior was excused under the guise of pain, fresh wounds still healing. But their excuses didn’t hold water then, and certainly don’t hold water now.
Sarah Palin, a usual conservative suspect, recently pleaded with “peaceful Muslims” over Twitter to “refudiate” the construction plans, claiming the pain is “too real, too raw.” Her statement was a shameful, shining example of the excuses made when oppression is supposedly warranted by hurt. Why expect support from peaceful Muslims when they’re included among the oppressed? Newt Gingrich, now embarking on an anti-mosque campaign fundraiser, joined in on the condemnation, declaring the construction an act of aggression.
To many conservative Americans, an Islamic community center in close proximity to the space where thousands of innocent citizens died at the hands of Islamic terrorists isn’t just an act of aggression. It’s a missile directed at their towns, their cities, the vacant lot for sale across from their grocery store, the empty building next to their child’s school. In their minds, the Islamic center’s construction would not only encourage a beehive of terrorist activity, it would signify change, a change most conservatives don’t want to endure in the form of a new neighborhood religion.
Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin understand this, throwing peanuts to the conservative media circus with every outraged tweet and comment. Appealing to the fears and prejudices of such Christian Americans is a political no-brainer. But an important component is absent from their logic: If building an Islamic community center with the intention to heal is an aggressive act worthy of American’s fierce protestation and fury, why should Muslims believe that America isn’t their adversary? That we’re in Afghanistan to end discrimination and injustice? To liberate the citizens and to educate the masses as the Bush administration emphatically claimed? If we’re so groomed to set the example of equality and respect in Afghanistan, why are we unable to do so in our own country?
Palin and Gingrich are hardly shocking advocates for intolerance, but a July 30 statement by the Anti-Defamation League condemning the location of the center set off a disquieting stir, leaving attentive parties to wonder where the fear will stop and the growth will begin.
The ADL’s spokesperson, Abraham Foxman, told the New York Times that the anguish felt by the loved ones of 9/11 victims “entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”
The grief suffered by the friends and family of 9/11 victims is of a magnitude beyond the comprehension of most. No one is suggesting they aren’t entitled to grieve; no one is suggesting they should forget. But allowing this pain to produce bigotry and hatred—social chemicals nearly impossible to contain once encouraged—creates in our nation a climate conducive to contempt. Contempt from its citizens, contempt from the watching countries of the world. Are we a benevolent super power? Are we an example? Or are we simply soldiers of Christian intolerance, masked by our bankroll and our government? Ask the Muslims attempting to build their community center. They may see us more clearly than anyone.