Muslims, Ground Zero, Fear and Fairness

by Greg Garrett

William Ewart Gladstone, perhaps the greatest of British statesmen, stood to speak to the British House of Commons on March 3, 1857, over 150 years ago. It was another country and another century, but the things he had to say that day still resonate. Gladstone was a classic Liberal (which is to say he believed in property rights, individual rights, and limited government with real fiscal constraints–some might today call him a Conservative) who also believed ardently in what we would today call human rights. He came to the conclusion through political debate, theological study, and prayer that governments should safeguard these rights for their citizens–for all their citizens.

On this particular day in 1857, Gladstone turned his attention to the matter of the day, a rush to war on the far side of the globe in response to hysterical claims, and he condemned the appeal that had been made to the House based, he said on “fear, which is seldom a rightful and noble sentiment,” an appeal, in fact, based on “the worst kind of fear–the fear of being thought afraid.”

I sympathize with all those who are afraid of Muslim terrorists. I do not join them in that fear–statistically speaking, Americans are as likely to die in their bathtubs as they are to be killed by terrorists–but I am cursed by empathy, the writer’s ability to see how other people think, live, and love. If I were a New Yorker, perhaps I would also be upset by the news that Sufi Muslims want to build a spiritual center in lower Manhattan, not far from the site of the World Trade Center attacks. Maybe I would think that all Muslims were up to no good, and that their so-called rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of religion should not trump my fear that they might be training terrorists to take down the Chrysler Building.

Maybe. But I doubt it. Maybe I’d see neighbors instead of enemies. A Daily News poll actually indicated that New Yorkers approved of the building by a two to one margin. So does the city’s Republican mayor. And the state’s Republican governor.

It seems almost useless to interpose fact into political or religious debate any more. As Brad Hirschfield wrote today on FOXNews.com, Americans are increasingly drawn to the conclusions they wish to reach–even if they have little or no basis in fact.

But I was trained as a high school debater, damn it, and while I know fear is a more potent influence on people’s behavior than facts, I feel duty-bound to note a few actual facts about the “Ground Zero Mosque.”

First, it’s not a mosque. A mosque is a building set aside for prayer. There is a mosque in lower Manhattan, and there has been for many years. But this ain’t it.

This building will be a community center. It will have a basketball court. It will have a cooking school. And there will be space for prayer, and hooray for that, but the building is not oriented toward worship.

It is not a mosque.

Second, it is not at Ground Zero. As I understand it, the building will not even be visible to the crowds who make their pilgrimage to the former World Trade Center site, but will be several blocks away.

Third, this is not and will never be a home for domestic terrorists. The Muslims who want to build this community center  are Sufi, gentle, mystical people who are often persecuted by other Muslims. In July, in fact, a Sufi shrine in Pakistan was attacked by suicide bombers linked to the Taliban. The Taliban! The very people who want to destroy America also hate these Muslims for not being sufficiently something in their eyes.

I know and admire Sufi. They are generous, loving, and creative people. The great Persian poet Rumi was a Sufi. So was Kahlil Gibran. Sufi are Muslim moderates. They do not kill people who do not happen to share their Muslim faith. They are live-and-let-live people.

And yet, we do not seem willing to extend them the same courtesy.

Another 19th Century interjection: on another occasion, Gladstone said that the rights of Muslims (he used the dated term “Mohamedan”) had just as much claim to respect as the rights of British Christians. This was a fairly radical statement at the time–and remains important, given the climate for American Muslims after 9/11. I don’t want to put Gladstone up for sainthood; he was a typical man of his day, and he probably considered Muslims to be both wrong in their faith and somehow beneath him. But even in his day and time, Gladstone recognized that all human beings are created by God, beloved by God, made in the image of God, and (as Thomas Jefferson once wrote) endowed by God with certain inalienable rights.

One of those rights is the right to practice their religion, unhindered by the state, unassailed by the general public. When Barack Obama spoke out in support of the right of these peaceful Muslims to build on land they had purchased, it was a rare but welcome courageous moment in his administration.

They do have every right–and it would be wrong of us to oppose it simply because they are Muslim.

And while Americans in general seem to oppose the building, Ted Olson, Solicitor General in the George W. Bush administration, agrees with Obama. Although he lost his wife in the 9/11 attacks and has more reason to be bitter or frightened than any of us, what he said was this: “We don’t want to turn an act of hate against us by extremists into an act of intolerance for people of religious faith.”

We are better than that. As Americans. As Christians. Without love and tolerance, we cannot live together.

Luke Mitchell wrote in the Atlantic back in 2004 that “if the American people are terrified the terrorists have won.”

The Islamic fundamentalists who destroyed the Twin Towers wanted to scare us, to change us, to make us more like them.

And, from the way we are treating the gentlest, most mystical of their fellow believers, it seems clear to me that they accomplished what they set out to do.

Shame on us.

Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including the forthcoming The Other Jesus from Westminster John Knox Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.  He blogs at The Other Jesus.

Read Greg Garrett’s articles Hope Yet for Mainline Denominations and How Churches Break as part of the Future of Mainline Protestantism series at Patheos.

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  • “And, from the way we are treating the gentlest, most mystical of their fellow believers”

    What a load of taqiyya! Sufis are just as violent as the rest of them, see links under ‘Sufis’ at http://crombouke.blogspot.com/2010/01/everything-you-need-to-know-about-islam.html

  • Beyond my personal experience:

    From the New York Times, this week:

    “Sufism is the most pluralistic incarnation of Islam — accessible to the learned and the ignorant, the faithful and nonbelievers — and is thus a uniquely valuable bridge between East and West.”

    The Rand Corporation agrees:

    http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/2007/RAND_MG574.pdf

    Another of those fact-y things.

  • Man, I feel so torn by this thing, Greg… In general, I want to agree with you, but then I read reports about the imam of this community center (with a mosque-y thing in it), Abdul Rauf, saying in Arabic newspapers, etc., that religious dialogue in the US is a sham and that a Muslim state can be established even in a democracy (see here – http://pajamasmedia.com/blog/ground-zero-imam-i-dont-believe-in-religious-dialogue/?print=1). So then I go, “Wait, these people are not the ‘innocent sufis’ the American public thinks they are… there’s an agenda here”

    So my Christian conscience pulls me in two directions… shalom-making on the one hand, truth-telling on the other. Blech. What are we supposed to do about this?

  • Andrew–I hear your blech, and that goes to the fear thing I talked about. No one wants to think we’re encouraging some sort of danger on our own soil, least of all down the street from the Trade Center site. Thanks for sharing this. Since I don’t read Arabic, I’m trusting the writer of this post for translation, but I don’t see trouble in the same way he (?) does. I don’t know the context for this conversation about Sharia law, but nothing indicates to me he’s saying he wants it to be the law of the US. And nine years after 9/11, many people would acknowledge that bin Laden chose to hit the US on account of actions the US had taken in the Middle East–as heinous as that decision might be.

    My desire to extend respect–and my absolute belief in the freedom of people to hold beliefs opposed to mine, something I learned from Jefferson–would encourage me to give the benefit of the doubt even if I encountered more troubling thoughts than these. But I don’t see anything in these comments yet that makes me want to change what I’ve written.

  • Julie

    Dear Greg, I feel like Andrew feels… there is a hidden agenda here, and this reaction to the “community center” is not fear , like you mention in your article… it’s a demand for respect, for what is correct… polliticians only care about the money it’s going to bring to the community… which is a good thing, especially during hard economic times.

    I’m a Christian, and I have Muslim friends, and I highly respect them, and they respect me.. I just have this weird feeling that somehow this building is backed by an organization that definitely wants to “imprint” their hidden agenda onto the city and the country…

    The American people are a very smart people… we love our country and respect our constitution… you’ll see what’s going to happen. My prediction is: the mosque will not be built there… things will cool off, and another favorable spot will be picked in NYC, if not, elsewhere.

  • Artisanware

    I live in NYC. I watched from my terrace, where I had a beautiful view of downtown Manhattan, as the World Trade Center disappeared in a cloud of debris. I was so shocked at the gaping hole in the first tower, that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. However, I don’t have a problem with the building of an Islamic Cultural Center (with a prayer room), down the street from a “gentleman’s club”, on the site of the old Burlington Coat Factory, several blocks away from Ground Zero. I don’t like it when people come from other places and bring all sorts of anger and a lot of lies to MY city, and then act as though that is how “Americans” feel. As I said, I have no problem with this Islamic Cultural Center, even if it is funded by the fellow who owns an enormous piece of Fox News. The only people whose feelings I am concerned about are the families of victims of 9/11 (including the families of the Muslims who were killed), and the feelings of the families of rescue workers who died there, or who are ill now from their exposure. If those people were out there protesting, I would pay a lot of attention. However, that does not seem to be the case. People talk about how the Imam of that cultural center has an agenda. EVERYONE has an agenda these days. Even the so-called “patriots” have an agenda. I wonder how the Iraqis felt when a bunch of Christians came over and bombed their country and killed hundreds of thousands of their people. Remember, there were no Iraqis among the 9/11 hijackers. There were a bunch of Saudis, like the Saudi who is funding both this downtown Islamic Cultural Center AND Fox News, among the 9/11 hijackers. I am not Islamophobic. I can’t be. I live in NYC. There’s so many different people living here and we all have to live together. I’ve come to trust my feelings about people and I have not had any problems with people who are different from me. Quite the opposite…I have had many, many more good experiences than bad, and I feel that my life has been enriched.

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