Twenty years ago, I graduated from college as a double major in political science and religion. When asked by family and friends what I intended to do with those degrees, I explained that I wasn’t quite sure, but I knew whatever I did I was pretty sure to tick someone off by something I said at a dinner table when either subject came up.
Politics and religion have always been lightening rods in life, and the twisting of both issues in the current debate over the proposed mosque two blocks from Ground Zero has proven true the standing axiom that you shouldn’t mix the two.
The debate being fought on cable news shows, talk radio, the blogosphere and water coolers has put America’s always restless role in religion front and center. For a country that believes in the separation of church and state and was founded on the principal of being able to worship or not worship the religion of your choice, our country has long segregated faiths and religions by geography, education and societal norms. While our country has certainly “evolved” in recognizing all people’s civil rights, we can be downright primitive in our categorization of one another’s ways of worship.
Let me state very clearly I am not one of these people that believes the Muslim faith preaches hate, murder and intolerance. Now, there are undeniably elements within Islam that preach and live by such putrid codes, but there are just as many people in the Christian, Jewish, Hindu and other religions that are in lock step with such less-than-reverent behavior.
Sadly, there is not a religion on the planet that has not been victimized by extremists of some sort, who have taken whatever religious text they deem holy and twisted it into some sort of holier-than-thou justification for violence, murder or other nefarious purposes. Furthermore, every religion preaches respect and tolerance of others, and this is another area where we all fall remarkably short.
Such is the debate we have today.
In the sweeping rhetoric that has gripped the recent mosque debate, I’ve sadly not heard much distinction between those who are fighting for the soul of Islam against the extremist elements as those who seek to perpetuate it. For many in this debate, they’ve created a simple equation that Islam = anti-everything we stand for and have fanned whatever flames they’ve wanted to fan.
The fault for this condition lies in the hands of everyone involved in the current debate. From those who are against it, because they believe the mosque will be a trophy center paying homage to the 9/11 attackers, to the organizers/developers behind the project.
If the mosque organizers had proactively come forward at the beginning of this national debate to say their facility was about reclaiming their faith from those who bastardized it to justify mass murder, while also educating the public about the widely practiced non-violent aspects of Islam, the tenor of our national conversation on this subject would be remarkably different.
Unfortunately, that did not happen. The lack of candor and disclosure by the mosque organizers/developers about what they stand for, who is funding the project and what they believe has only created an information vacuum that has been filled with inflammatory rumors and rhetoric from every corner.
For as much as I believe that there is a right for the organizers and developers to have a mosque in lower Manhattan, I also believe the organizers and developers have failed in appreciating the sensitivities that people have for blood-stained soil. They have fallen into the same traps that Wal-Mart has fallen into time and again when it tries to build stores near historic properties; that a group of Catholic nuns fell into when they wanted to build a chapel adjacent to a Nazi concentration camp; that Disney ran into when it wanted to build a theme park near some of Virginia’s hallowed Civil War battlefields; and so on.
Any piece of land where blood has been spilled has a cultural radioactivity to it that cannot be appreciated until someone steps on it for purposes other than homage to those who died on it. Once tread upon, emotions become raw and reasonable dialogue and understanding is often the first thing out the window.
That’s where we are today.
It is my hope that the developers/organizers will select another site that will enable them to tell the world what Islam is really about, what they stand for, and so forth. By doing so, they can demonstrate that their faith has tolerance and respect for others. An actionable demonstration of that respect and tolerance for what has been deemed by many as “hallowed ground” would go a long way in muting some of the rhetoric of the past few weeks.
Unfortunately, the developers/organizers current practice of silence and lack of candor plays to the worst of fears and suspicions of people and that allows the anger and hostility to perpetuate even further.
Politics and religion have always found ways of doing that, but that is something I learned a long time ago.