By Justin Hienz
Radicalization and violent jihad are phenomena intimately linked to the United States’ homeland security efforts. Those who buy into transnational terrorism’s violent ideology are threats to America, but just as important to U.S. security is how the American public understands and responds to Islam.
On Friday, President Obama weighed in on the continuing debate over whether to allow construction of an Islamic Center near Ground Zero in New York City. Celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan with invited guests during a Friday dinner, the president said:
“I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan.”
A strong statement. A bold statement. A statement of leadership on our country’s values. In commenting on the proposed mosque (albeit indirectly), Obama sent a message to the country – the mosque should be built because our national principles demand it. Well said, Mr. President.
But then, on Saturday, Obama amended his statements for reporters. Quoted in the Wall Street Journal, he said:
“‘I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque” near Ground Zero. ‘I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding.'”
Did I miss something? His position on Friday seemed fairly clear, particularly because the mosque-in-NYC issue had been made so salient by constant media coverage. What else could he have been talking about? Yet on Saturday, the President’s stance was far less sure.
For those unfamiliar with this matter, the debate revolves around whether an Islamic Center can be housed in a building planned for a location two blocks – 45 Park Place – from where the Twin Towers once stood. The building would be open to all faiths, and the proposed name, Cordoba House, refers to a Spanish city where Muslims, Christians and Jews once lived together in peace.
Nevertheless, headlines have focused on the key words “mosque” at “Ground Zero” because it grabs attention and sells. This has served to inflame a national debate, with known opponents of the mosque sticking dead on message, peppering remarks with dramatic key words. There have also been other instances throughout the country where communities have argued against the construction of a mosque in their neighborhood.
A CNN/Opinion Research report shows that 68 percent of those surveyed oppose the mosque. While the question’s wording is somewhat leading, 68 percent is still a significant number, even with a wide margin of error. The ongoing debate reveals a great deal about how some Americans view Islam.
To be sure, those objecting to the Islamic Center are opposed not simply to the new place of Muslim worship but to the idea that anything related to Islam can safely exist so close to the site of al Qaeda’s greatest victory, without dishonoring the dead. This viewpoint is flawed, because it is based on a misunderstanding of religion generally, Islam specifically.
Islam, like all other religions, is dynamic, not static and monolithic. It is diverse across regions and has changed throughout history. More importantly, the concept of “Islam” (much like the concept of “Christianity,” et al.) is not standard across the world. An individual’s religious beliefs are unique to themselves because how a person interprets their faith is guided, in part, by forces in their environment, such as economy, lawlessness, poverty, etc. No person’s belief is identical to another’s, and so, to understand Islam as a singular idea and motivator is incorrect.
There is no legal, ethical or American justification for refusing the right to build an Islamic Center at 45 Park Place. It is ridiculous to oppose a house of prayer on the grounds that it is Islamic, citing the terrorists who brought down the Twin Towers as evidence of Islam’s inherent problems.
Denying the Islamic Center is tantamount to denying the construction of a Christian church (of any denomination) near the site of the destroyed Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Timothy McVeigh (the man responsible for blowing up the federal building) was Christian, but do you expect we would hear the same outcry if the site of a proposed church was adjacent to where that building once stood?
What we are encountering here is an emotional response, fanned by the media, revealing that, even a decade after the attacks on September 11, some Americans still just don’t get it. They don’t understand that al Qaeda and other terrorists are the Timothy McVeighs of Islam. Radicalized believers draw no more support from Muslim communities than militant Christians do from the global Christian population.
Debate is healthy. It’s one of the best attributes of the American social tradition. But if this debate leads to either 1. An action that prevents the construction of the mosque or 2. Further anti-Islamic attitudes preventing an American Muslim’s basic rights, then we have dishonored the memory of those who died on 9/11.
It means we have allowed Osama bin Laden, his followers and other enemies of America to construct a false opposition between Islam and America. “The Narrative,” a monstrous ideology advocating an inherent conflict between Western society and the Muslim faith, is what al Qaeda and other enemies of America believe. We must not perpetuate this lie by suspecting and fearing Islam. We must see clearly that the tragedies on September 11 were the product of terribly misguided people. The bastardized interpretation of Islam that they used to justify their actions does not reflect what most of the world’s one billion Muslims believe. Period.
If this mosque is not built (or if it is protested after it is built), then Osama’s greatest victory was getting Americans to believe what he believes – that there is a war between America and Islam. But if the mosque is built, we honor those killed, because it shows that we are continuing to triumph over bin Laden’s lies. Neither he nor his ideology has a home in America.
Had the President not made those weak-willed statements on Saturday, his initial endorsement of the mosque would have been a step in the right direction for the American people’s perception of Islam. Now more than ever we need authoritative voices to take a consistent stand and guide the public towards a more nuanced and accurate understanding of the Muslim faith.
Justin Hienz is Managing Editor for Security Debrief and a Senior Account Executive at Adfero Group.