Learning to live together peacefully again
The first time I heard about the plans for building a mosque at Ground Zero, I had immediately questioned the wisdom of such a move. However, since then, I have had a chance to ponder the deeper implications of this proposal as more details come to light, not the least of which is the fact that the mosque is actually a community center with prayer rooms for Muslims, Christians and Jews, and it is not at Ground Zero but two blocks away from it.
September 11, 2001 will be forever etched in our memories as the day when the world changed forever. The morning of 9/11 began for many like any ordinary Tuesday. For others, who left home with hasty goodbyes hoping to make it up later, it turned out to be a nightmare. A horrified world struggled to make sense of it as confusion, debris and death rained from the sky, while a group of bloodthirsty fanatics applauded. Sadly, as the twin towers collapsed, so did the world view as we knew it. Islam was suddenly thrust into the glare of international spotlight and scrutiny, and a new world order dominated by raw emotion took shape within hours that still continues to color our perceptions nine years hence.
The events that have ensued since 9/11 have also caused us to make many difficult choices, unfortunately many of which have resulted in more death, and fueled terrorism around the world. Consider this: if the little girl who had to grow up with a picture in the frame instead of a warm parental embrace in one part of the world questions her right to that protection, a little boy also mourns a family he lost in the middle of the night to the roaring sound of an unseen enemy that calls itself a freind. Who is responsible for their tragic share and the resulting changed perceptions? Meanwhile, a breed of fanatics swells their ranks around the world taking advantage of actions which reaffirm their stand of a world pitted against their religion.
The serious consequences of this linking of isolated radical phenomenon to mainstream Islam have resulted in detrimental effects evident on several societal levels in the US. On one hand, the American society has become increasingly insecure despite investing heavily in internal and external security, while on the other; alienation of huge sections of its own population is causing a systematic breakdown of societal cohesion – neither of which can help the cause of peace. On the global level, this means fuelling of further hatred and increasing acts of violence against innocent people, Muslim and non-Muslim, deemed guilty through perceived association.
What many patriotic non-Muslim Americans have failed to realize is that 9/11 has done more damage to mainstream Muslims across the world, and especially in the US, than any other single event in recent history. Not only have they not been allowed to grieve the deaths of beloved family members, friends and mentors, and fellow citizens whom they lost on 9/11, American Muslims are also urged to choose between their national identity and their religious preference – a choice no one should have to make in a land that prides itself for freedoms many in other countries can only dream about. Muslims and non-Muslims together must do their share to change this dangerous situation.
For their part, non-Muslim Americans need to stand with the majority of peaceful Muslim Americans - who are being isolated by the rhetoric of hate-mongers - in their endeavors aimed at promoting respectful engagement between different religious groups. They have to acknowledge that the true symbols of American power are the patriotic citizens of this country who have upheld the values their forefathers sacrificed their lives for. The constitution itself would be a useless piece of paper but for the willingness of Americans of all faiths, and no faith, to abide by it. If Americans were to lose that one value, there would be a Pandora’s Box of issues waiting in the wings to challenge everything their country stands for.
Muslims are not confused. They know who they are. Yet, they have not been able to help non-Muslims distinguish clearly between themselves and those seeking violence in the name of their religion. Judging from opposition to Park 51, even the second and third generations of Muslim Americans would seem to have failed to assimilate in their society since any perceived provocation from their community calls for their immediate ouster by their own countrymen. Or could it be because the hate-mongers in this society have been more successful in their manipulation of the psyche of post 9/11 non-Muslim Americans? Why does the average American not recognize that the revival of the ‘us vs. them’ politics and mass hysteria is merely a replay of previously applied strategies fulfilling selfish agendas, and can only result in undermining their strength as one people? Would closer contact between Muslims and non-Muslims remove misconceptions and bring some relief? If yes, can we turn this conflict into a teachable opportunity?
Park 51 may turn out to be the litmus test future generations would evaluate the strength of the American nation on. There is every probability the proposed community center would turn out to be everything Imam Rauf proposes it will be – a center fully devoted to promoting moderate Islam to bring interfaith harmony in a society widely fractured by suspicion and hatred. However, the proponents and opponents of this proposal are well within their constitutional rights to express their views. They must respond to each other with patience till they are able to address and acknowledge each other’s legitimate concerns and rights as citizens of this country.
Whatever effort and time is put into resolving this issue peacefully would be well worth it simply because Park 51 is not about revenge; it is about learning to live together peacefully again.
A version of this article was published in the Radical Middle Way Sept 14, 2010.