By now you know the Mosque story. About the plan to build a complex which includes a community centre with a mosque near Ground Zero. About how the organisation has gone out of its way to show that it represents mainstream, tolerant Islam. About how its leaders say it will be modeled on the YMCA and the Jewish Community Centre in Manhattan. It is even going to be named the Cordoba House, after the city in Spain renowned in mediaeval times for its tolerant interactions between Christians, Muslims and Jews. A town which, by the way, gained the moniker ‘the city of three faiths’.
We both were born outside the US but have come to make America our home. So, as individuals who have both lived in this country and love this country, and who know what it is like to regard this country as a foreign land, let us tell you how this debate looks from the outside.
When you are used to being allowed to believe anything you want, when you are accustomed to the freedom to express your religious freedom any way you want, and when you’re not used to feeling any fear in the back of your neck from revealing your religious opinions to your neighbour, you begin to forget what it feels like not to have these privileges.
Millions of people going about their daily lives around the world, however, know exactly what these things feel like. Many have never known any differently. For millions, living either in theocracies or simply in countries which are strangers to the concept of the separation of church and state, these things are just another everyday hazard of living.
So take a moment to imagine what people who lack religious freedom must think about America. Whatever else they might think about our movies, food, foreign policy, and the changing succession of presidents who represent us to the world, they know that if only they could get here, the mental shackles of religious oppression, censorship, self-censorship, or just inhibition would fly off. Because if there is one thing about America that everyone understands, it is this: that its citizens here are free to express their faith.
In 1996, intellectual Samuel Huntington wrote his book, ‘the Clash of Civilizations’. In it, he argued that in the years and decades to come, “the great divisions among humankind … will be cultural… The clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future.” In the days and years after 9/11, it looked like there was a chance that in the twenty-first century, Huntington might be proven terribly, catastrophically right. Al Qaeda, outrageously, claimed to speak for Islam, and many non-Muslims were fooled.
We are pleased to say that in the intervening years, many Europeans and Americans have seen this for the perversion it is. But we still have a responsibility for the future. We have a responsibility to make sure that Huntington does turn out to be wrong, and that our children do not see someone as a threat just because of his or her religion.
Nine years after America, the world’s greatest force of religious tolerance, suffered a devastating attack from al Qaeda, one of the world’s great forces of religious intolerance, what do those who oppose this mosque show about America?
Like us, millions of ordinary American Muslims shared their non-Muslim fellow citizens’ pain and suffering, and were just as shocked when the 9/11 attacks occurred. However, as twisted as they were, the fact that the perpetrators of those attacks called themselves “Muslim” gave us an extra sense of responsibility and duty to “reclaim” our religion from the radicals who for a moment seemed to appear as the authority on how Islam is projected and viewed around the world.
The radicals have nefariously chosen their perverse ways of advocating Islam, which the overwhelming majority of Muslims reject; and we want to promote Islam for what it is, a religion of peace, tolerance and justice. One of the best ways to reclaim Islam from the hands of extremists is to build centres just like the Cordoba Centre, where Muslims and non-Muslims alike, especially our future generation, can learn and experience true Islam.
The opponents of the Cordoba House and other Islamic centres mistakenly argue that extremists get their training and ideas there; when in fact it is these open and responsible centres which the extremists avoid, and the shunned and obscure locations which they tend to infest.
Those who oppose it stand on the same side as those who stand for the Clash of Civilisations which Huntington warned about. For judging a person not for their religion, but for a perversion of it.
And if they are successful, what message would that send? That Muslims can be as moderate as they like, but it’s still ok to connect them in the public mind with the murderous terrorists of 9/11? That when you meet a Muslim on your first day at work, or in a new school, or abroad, s/he has more in common with the enemies of America than with ordinary Americans? That Americans are tolerant of religion, unless it is Islam?
Yes, the Cordoba Centre near Ground Zero will be a victory — but a victory for America and everything America stands for; and against everything these fanatics wish to stand for.