I think the things we get angriest about are the ones that make us really, really sad. We try to deal with that sadness by yelling, calling names, writing very heated blog posts where we call certain groups of people certain not so nice names. But I don't want to do that anymore, because no name I call or rant I go off on will ever make anyone who disagrees listen to me. It won't change anything, not someone's mind, not their heart. So I'm going to try again, but with less yelling.
I simply cannot sit quietly and say nothing about the opposition to the Islamic Cultural Center to be built two blocks away from Ground Zero. I can't ignore the similar opposition that has sprung up around the country, to other mosques or Islamic centers, from Tennessee to California. I can't ignore the local American community which is planning to hold a Koran burning party on 9/11. I can't ignore Newt Gingrich who says that America doesn't have to allow mosques, because Saudi Arabia doesn't allow Christian churches or Jewish synagogues, because apparently those are the standards of religious freedom we're striving for now and nothing greater, to be even with Saudi Arabia. I can't ignore the governor of Tennessee who says that Islam isn't even a religion, but more of a nationality or lifestyle, because while I'm not familiar with the country of Islamia, I am familiar with the 1400 years of history Islam is founded on, the 1.4 billion followers it has around the globe.
I can't ignore the people who lump all of Islam in with terrorism, who have probably never talked in depth to a Muslim person or taken an even cursory study of the religion (and no, the sermon on Islam given at your local non-Muslim place of worship does not count). I can't ignore the devout Christians or Jewish people who shout these things, who don't even realize that they have far more in common with practicing Muslims, who abstain from alcohol and pray every single day and make God the most important part of their life, than they do with the majority of the atheist or agnostic people that make up this country.
I want to talk about the practical stuff first, because I think that gets ignored. People shout things like "hallowed ground" or "terrorists", and if they'd only calm down and look at the facts they wouldn't need to. This Islamic Center in NYC is being built two blocks away from Ground Zero in a former Burlington Coat Factory. I know to some Burlington Coat Factory is hallowed ground, but to most people it's just a store that sells cheap coats. And don't for a moment think I take Ground Zero lightly. I mourned for my fellow Americans the same way everyone did. I cried for weeks. And I consider it my duty as an American to always remember those who died on that day, to always grieve for them so that their families need not grieve alone.
There is already a mosque four blocks away from ground zero, which was built before the World Trade Center. Part of the problem with this whole debate is that like with many Islam related things, the media has stoked completely inaccurate terminology. Terrorists are never just terrorists, they are always Muslim Extremists, never mind the fact that 90% of their motivation is rooted in political and socio-economic reasons. Those reasons are glossed over in favor of the much catchier angle that they are zealots hell bent on world domination, and that they have no real goals or motivating factors other than their religion. And don't get me wrong, I think any and all terrorists, anyone who would use violence against innocent people, are giant ass hats who deserve worse but should go to jail for the rest of eternity. But it's not doing anyone any favors, especially not their victims, to grossly oversimplify their motives. The Ground Zero Mosque as it is being called (as it is written on signs of protest plastered on NYC buses) is neither to be built at Ground Zero nor is it a mosque. It's an Islamic cultural center, basically a YMCA, with a pool and a restaurant and programs offered to anyone in the community, either Muslim or non-Muslim. If a YMCA was being built in the former Burlington Coat Factory no one would raise an eye-brow, but because the word Islamic is thrown in there, people across the country (never mind the fact that the only people this really concerns are those living in this particular neighborhood in New York City, I mean how would we in Richmond feel if people in freaking Wisconsin were weighing in on our land dispute issues, like go finish your cheese and stay out of our business people), but because this is not just any community center, but an "evil" and "insensitive" Islamic community center, it's a huge deal.
Okay, so people argue that it's only a big deal because of it's location. Why can't those Muslims go build somewhere else, never mind that this is a perfectly adequate, empty building that they already own. But it's insensitive, people argue. It's offensive. Well why? I want to know why it's offensive. Spell it out for me. Because it's Muslim. Because Muslims are responsible for 9/11 right? Except, that also doesn't hold water if you really look at it. There are 1.4 billion Muslims in this world. That's a pretty large number. 99.99 percent of these Muslims are moderate. The extreme faction of Muslims, those in groups like Al-Queda are there and they would readily kill more innocent Americans, but they are one faction of a massive religion. By saying that any Islamic center is offensive if built anywhere near Ground Zero, is by extension saying that Islam as a religion is responsible for 9/11. And so even if that's your argument, even if you narrow down your intolerance to this particular Ground Zero adjacent former Burlington Coat Factory, how do you explain the incidents around the country, in places like Tennessee, Wisconsin, Connecticut, and California where crowds of people are rallying against proposed mosques? Was there a terrorist attack in Connecticut I was not aware of? Did I miss that somehow? Or are those rallies, are those protesters, protesting simply the religion of Islam itself?
How are we okay with this? How are we having this conversation? What went wrong that allowed America to become the kind of place where massive crowds of perfectly sane and reasonable people protest a religion that is not in any way associated with Tom Cruise (I kid, as weird as Scientology is, I'd be pissed off if people protested that too). There's this simple thing called the 1st Amendment. In case we all fell asleep during history class, let's go over this:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Free exercise. What does free exercise mean? Does it mean that you can exercise your religion only if it's deemed inoffensive to other people outside of your religion? Does it mean that you can exercise your religion, but you can't build a place of religion, you can't build a place to gather and to pray and to mourn and to celebrate, not in this country, nope. Because in this country we can build Christian churches and we can build Jewish synagogues, but mosques are not allowed. Mosques are the breeding ground for domestic terrorists, and let's just all ignore the dozens of instances of domestic terrorism carried out by white supremacists and various religious or secular anti-government groups in the last hundred years. Let's ignore the Army of God, an anti-abortion group that acts in the name of their interpretation of Christianity, a group responsible for the murder of eight Americans, including four doctors, two clinic employees, a security guard, and a clinic escort.
If you're reading this and you're Christian you're probably pretty pissed off at me right now. Because how could I bring up those events and say that they are in any way a reflection of Christianity. Those people twisted their faith to justify murder. Christianity as a religion does not in any way condone murder. And if you're feeling these things, then please, just hold onto them for a little while longer, think about what it would be like if a group of people pointed to these acts and used them to oppose the building of a Christian community center in your neighborhood. Think about if these people wrote angry messages on posters and burned Bibles in their opposition. Think about how angry you'd feel, how misunderstood. Because that, that feeling of being unfairly judged for the actions of a tiny minority of extremists, that's what millions of Muslim Americans are feeling at this very moment.
Almost all religions are beautiful at their core. Take away the layers and layers of human flaws that have been heaped on top of them, and religion is almost always an incredibly brave, hopeful institution. It's daring to believe that there's more to life than just this, that we are greater than we appear. Muslims believe in one God. They believe that the purpose of life is to worship God. They do not worship Muhammad. They believe Muhammad was a prophet, the last in a long line of prophets that includes Jesus and Abraham. Now there's so much more to Islam than those things, and there are a whole lot of variations on Islam and there are books and books written about this religion. And I beg you if you know nothing about Islam go find one of those books. Heck, even just Google it. If you're Christian or Jewish or Hindu, you're never going to completely agree with Muslims, the same way they won't agree with you. But I honestly believe you'll find that with mainstream Muslims, you have a great deal in common. Isn't the most important part of any religion belief? Can't we all agree that any time anyone believes in something and uses that belief to make them do good things on this earth that's beautiful and valuable, something to celebrate, not to tear down?
And yet here we are, back to this never ending argument about the "Ground Zero Mosque" or any mosque around the country. They want to build. Others want to tear what they would build down. And if you are just an impartial witness to all of this, and don't really care to choose a side, I beg of you to consider becoming involved. Because this involves all of us. I've traveled enough and seen enough of the world to know what happens to a nation or a society when one religion is pitted against the other, when one religion is marginalized and made to feel unwelcome and unwanted. In India, I sat with a twenty year old kid who admitted very plainly that terrorism was a part of life for him and his fellow countrymen. In India it's domestic terrorism. It's not 9/11 when people from the other side of the world got on airplanes in an attempt to tear us down. It's for the most part people within India, people who have been made angry and violent by decades of marginalization , who have never felt that they had a voice. God, do we, here in America, even realize how lucky we are? 9/11 was so horrendous and so terrible, but it was one day. We don't live with this stuff. We argue about politics and Sarah Palin, but at the end of the day we don't kill one another over it. We let each other live and work and yes, pray in freedom and peace because it's the most important part of our country, that guarantee of freedom and peace for everyone, not just certain people.
And yet right now we're fighting over that freedom. There are people who are trying to take this big, all encompassing, beautiful freedom that America is blessed every second of every day to have and they're trying to lessen it and change it. They're trying to make it smaller and more confined. And they have no idea, no idea what the consequences are of pushing people into the margins, of telling them they don't belong, that their religion doesn't belong. On a global scale it confirms every lie that Al-Queda has ever used to justify their hatred of America. It gives them cue cards they can read to gather followers. Yes, you see, America does hate Islam. They won't even let their own citizens worship in peace. And what about those billion plus Islamic moderates who have no issue with America, whose children and children's children are the ones who can turn back the tide of radical, anti-America Muslim rhetoric. We're never going to stop terrorism on a battlefied. If we want to stop this breed of terrorism we HAVE to stop it in hearts and minds. We have to discredit those who would point to our country and say we think all Muslims are evil heathens, who say that we'll never stop until we Americanize the entire world in one Western/Christian image. If we can't show moderate Muslims how wrong this is, then we'll lose them and we'll deserve it, because we'll have demonized them. We'll have turned them into cartoon villains. And within our own country, we'll create generations of Muslim Americans who grow up feeling like they are not a part of their own country, who have been pushed down and shamed. Do you know what happens when that's the case? Look at India. Look at Northern Ireland twenty years ago. Look at countries around the world where one group closes off another group in society. It's so painfully ironic, that these people are defending their opposition to the mosque on the grounds that they are doing it for the memory of 9/11 victims. But don't they get that their actions will indirectly lead to a greater chance of more 9/11s, of more hatred toward America, of more violence?
I think when times are tough, when the economy falters, people want to find things to be angry about. And I think it's convenient right now in America, in a post 9/11 world, where people are still trying to blow up planes, to place that anger on Muslims. Never mind all the reasons I've listed above for why Islam as a religion is not the same as the radicalized Islam practiced by terrorists. But where does it end? It's obviously not just the NYC Islamic center. Because that doesn't explain the opposition to mosques all over the country. Do we ban head scarves like France did? (And France, by the way is another awesome example of what happens when one group in society is marginalized and made to feel like outsiders, it takes that society and it breaks it, from a unified whole to a splintered group, and it's almost impossible to fix that once it's completely broken). Do we pinpoint certain areas or certain cities where mosques are allowed? They did that at first in Europe with Jews, allowed them certain parts of their city. And that's a model we really want to replicate right? What's after that? Do we throw things through windows and burn down mosques? Because the whole Koran burning thing, that's just one step below that. Do we have our own Kristallnacht? Don't like a mosque in your community, do the American thing and tear it to pieces. How far do we push religious freedom, that most fundamental of American values, until it shatters? Because it will shatter. You can't bend freedoms and rights to your will and expect them to retain their original meaning. So where does it end then?
When do we draw the line? When do we stop fighting about this? We're protesting a pool and restaurant and a place for people to pray and American soldiers are getting killed on the other side of the world. By being born American, we've all been given this tremendous gift of tolerance, or not having to worship or vote in fear. People all over the world would die for that. They have died for that, and every day more of them do die for it. And we have it and we've never had to fight a day in our lives for it. And we're throwing it away. We're treating it like it's nothing.
And it's the opposite of nothing. It's the most important thing in the world. I really wish we could all just remember that.