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Faith column: Searching for balance, reason in mosque debates

September 4, 2010

My latest column. I hemmed and hawed over this one. I consulted friends … and Barton Springs swimmers … and really just spent a lot of time reflecting on where we are as a country with regard to religious freedom. I worry about what some people are saying. I worry about the conversations we’re NOT having. This was my attempt at taking our collective temperature and giving my humble diagnosis. Not that we need yet another opinion about the so-called Ground Zero Mosque … but here it is:

Where are the voices of reason in the angry ground zero mosque debate?

I hesitate even to begin writing a column on the controversy over the proposed Cordoba House, the so-called Ground Zero mosque. So much noise surrounds this issue it seems impossible for a voice of reason to rise above the cacophony.

At this point, I’m not even sure what that voice would say. Or whether it would matter, because it appears that no one is listening to each other. How things have changed in the past decade.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the mantra repeated by many — from President Bush to local interfaith leaders — was, “Islam is a religion of peace, and the terrorists hijacked that religion.”

Sure, there were plenty of people who pointed to the attacks as proof that the Muslim faith was violent and dangerous. But from the smoldering wreckage in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania rose a desire for understanding and dialogue. Non-Muslims realized they didn’t know their Muslim neighbors and began inviting them to their houses of worship. Muslims realized they had a responsibility to educate people about the Islam they upheld — and to condemn the version al Qaeda embraced.

Almost a decade later, Park51, a proposed Muslim community center two blocks from where the World Trade Center towers fell, has sparked a much uglier response. People have threatened to burn copies of the Quran and smear pork products in front of the center and worse. At the same time, polls reveal a deeper distrust of Muslims, with substantial percentages of Americans saying believers in Islam should be barred from sitting on the Supreme Court or running for president. And a growing number of Americans — about 20 percent — believe (incorrectly) that President Barack Obama is a Muslim.

As we approach the anniversary of the attacks, it seems we as a country are angrier and more suspicious than we were nine years ago. I suspect there’s a sense of hopelessness — or at least heightened frustration — about world affairs. Our enemies have more endurance than we expected. Violent Muslim radicals have a stronger and wider grip than we imagined.

Some of this frustration is directed at Muslims living in the U.S.

Even though I know American Muslims who rail against tyranny and injustice wherever they arise, I also know the perception is they are not vocal enough. The perception is that Muslim organizations in the U.S. will raise their voices to condemn Israeli, European and U.S. governments for unjust policies and actions against Muslims but will not as strongly rebuke Muslim countries that persecute non-Muslims.

The current uproar about Park51, which would house a mosque and community center two blocks from Ground Zero, reflects all of these swirling fears and resentments.

On one side you have those vehemently opposed to the Islamic center. And let’s face it, that side has its share of religious bigots who are playing on an old tradition in this country. As far back as colonial times, we’ve witnessed this kind of hatred. The Congregationalists maligned the Baptists. The Protestants persecuted the Catholics. And the Mormons. Christians shunned the Jews.

Today Muslims represent “the other,” the ones who threaten our way of life. And to make matters worse for American Muslims, there are people acting in the name of their religion — among them the Iranian government, al Qaeda and the Taliban — who pose a very real threat to what we hold dear in this country.

The backlash against Muslim establishments is not limited to Lower Manhattan. Protests against Muslim community centers have cropped up around the country. Federal officials are investigating a fire — believed to be arson — that damaged construction equipment at an Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Mosques in that area have had to hire security guards.

On the other side of the debate stand the champions of religious liberty. And while they might be on the side of the angels ideologically, some of these voices have escalated to shrill, lecturing tones that drown out reasonable questions. Surely not everyone who expresses concern about Park51 is an Islamaphobe ready to trample on religious liberty.

Somewhere in the middle is a quiet group of people who feel conflicted about the center. They are Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’is and, yes, Muslims who have toiled for years to promote religious understanding and dialogue.

But some of them are starting to ask: If emotions are still so raw, why not compromise on the location of the center? Why won’t Park51 backer Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf label Hamas a terrorist organization? Why not pledge transparency on the center’s funding?

I’ve had informal conversations with several such people during the past few weeks. They stand with the champions of religious liberty but want to be able to ask questions about Park51 without being labeled anti-Muslim. They stand with their Muslim friends against the bigots but want to be able to look critically at those friends on occasion.

These voices are sorely needed in this polarized climate. But right now, they sound like a whisper in the din.

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