So, What’s the Answer?

Published: September 10, 2010

By Jim Lichtman
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Everyone has weighed-in on the proposed Park 51 Islamic Cultural Center to be built two blocks from the site known as “Ground Zero” in New York. Local and national officials, pundits, and the fringe are having a go at what is, at its heart, a fundamental ethical issue.

But it’s also an emotional issue and there are no easy answers.

Two of the most notable arguments for and against the Center come from New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg and theAnti-Defamation League.

“…part of being a New Yorker,” Bloomberg said “is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11.”

“In our judgment,” the ADL said in a written statement, “building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.”

Many have pointed out the incongruity of the ADL’sannouncement in light of their own mission statement: “…to secure justice and fair treatment of all.” Strange, indeed.

Then there are the families of those lost in the attack. In an August 16th cover story, Newsweek magazine points to Sally Regenhard’s fireman husband Christian who “simply evaporated” saving lives that day. “It’s too soon,” Lisa Miller writes of Regenhard’s opposition to the location of the Center. “It doesn’t take into account the sensitivities of people like her.”

From the fringe, there’s Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida who announced that he will publicly burn a copy of the Qur’an on what he is calling, “International Burn a Koran Day” on the 9th anniversary of the attacks.

What do you think of when you read the words “dove” and “outreach”; certainly not book burning.

“Asked about his knowledge of the Qur’an,” The New York Times (Aug. 25) writes, “[Jones said], ‘I have no experience with it whatsoever. I only know what the Bible says.’”

Jones would be a strong candidate for “America’s Next Buffoon” if his statements weren’t so insanely provocative. Everyone from the Pope to U.S. Central Commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, has called for Jones to cancel his plans due to potential violence to both citizens and U.S. troops.

Fortunately, Pastor Jones has been persuaded against going ahead with his planned book burning.

Jones is but one example of what this growing anti-Muslim sentiment is really about – fear; fear of somehow losing our identity to a group that not only strikes many as foreign but prone to violence.

“We must abandon language meant to instill fear…”

That comes from an op-ed that appeared in the New York Daily News (May 13), written by Talat Hamdani and Adele Welty, two mothers who lost sons on September 11. Hamdani speaks as both a mother and a Muslim.

“We must make a conscious choice about what kind of nation we aspire to be. We cannot rationally blame all Muslims for the acts of a deranged few.”

And they’re right.

Would we sit still for a claim that ALL Americans are prone to violence based on the actions of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh or Discovery Channel gunman James Lee?

When we allow the Ku Klux Klan to march, it’s not because we support their cause. When dissidents burn an American flag, it is not our belief in their purpose that allows us to tolerate their actions. And when we allow individuals to openly carry weapons into a business establishment, it is not because we accept the rationality of their point of view.

The narrative of America is written with acts of intolerance against all manner of races and creeds beginning with the Native Americans, and including Irish, Jew, Catholic, Mormon, Chinese and Black.

In 1942, Franklin Roosevelt signed an Executive Order which ultimately led to internment camps for more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans. It wasn’t until 1988 that President Ronald Reagan signed legislation which officially apologized for the mistreatment of Japanese-Americans based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

The latest incarnation of prejudice and hysteria comes in the form of anti-Muslim emotion throughout the country. (In spite of evidence to the contrary, 24% of those polled by Timemagazine (Aug. 30) believe President Obama is a Muslim.)

“I never will, by any word or act,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “bow to the shrine of intolerance or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others.”

Many have claimed New York’s “Ground Zero” as sacred, but are we not a nation built on sacred principles?  If we truly embrace the principle of religious tolerance, we must demonstrate that principle, not just talk about it.

We cannot allow ourselves to be ruled by fear and anger. We’re better than that.

Now is the time for open dialogue over adamant dissent. Now is the time to open our hearts and minds to those who may be different from ourselves and not judge people harshly just because they are different.

“The most fitting legacy for all those who died on 9/11 is a world at peace,” Hamdani and Welty write, “devoted to the rights of every individual to pursue life, liberty and happiness, and to worship in the church, synagogue, temple or mosque of their choice. This is the future we should leave our children and our grandchildren.”

If we are ever to realize true change in our world, we must start with ourselves.

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