An Interfaith Educator Responds to the Mosque Controversy

New Mexico mosque

by Jennifer Peace, managing director, Center for Interreligious Leadership Education (CIRCLE)

As a Christian, an educator, and a proud participant in the interfaith movement, I have been thinking a great deal about how to add my voice to the chorus of opinions surrounding Park 51 in Lower Manhattan.

What rises up for me out of the multiple perspectives and heated debates is a simple question. We do not conflate the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks with Muslims or Muslim-Americans in general. Why, then, does building a mosque near the site of the attacks suggest a lack of sympathy for those who died on 9/11?

Muslim Americans did not carry out the attacks. They died that day along with their fellow citizens.

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s compared Park 51 to Nazis putting up a sign next to a holocaust museum. Novelist and commentator Mark Helprin’s recent piece in the Wall Street Journal

Such analogies just prove the point that we are inappropriately generalizing blame for 9/11. The Nazis intentionally orchestrated the Holocaust; British and American planes did carry out the bombing of Dresden. In contrast, Al Qaeda, not Islam, is responsible for the attacks of 9/11.

Suggesting that no building associated with Islam should be built in proximity to Ground Zero is to suggest that all Muslims are irrevocably tainted by the acts of terrorists claiming (erroneously) to be acting in the name of this religion. Are we willing to suggest by analogy that all Christians are similarly tainted because of the actions of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda?

An eloquent rejection of the kind of reasoning that creates a generalized guilt by association comes from U.S. Congressman John Coffee in 1941: "It is my fervent hope and prayer that residents of the United States of Japanese extraction will not be made the victim of pogroms directed by self-proclaimed patriots and by hysterical self-anointed heroes. . . . Let us not make a mockery of our Bill of Rights by mistreating these folks. Let us rather regard them with understanding, remembering they are the victims of a Japanese war machine, with the making of the international policies of which they had nothing to do."

If I may make a generalization: we humans are notorious generalizers.

A suicide bomber from Japan throws into question the loyalty of all Japanese Americans. A suicide bomber who claims to be acting in the name of Islam casts a shadow on all Muslims. It wasn’t long ago that the face of terrorism in America was Timothy McVeigh – a White, U.S. Army Veteran of Irish Catholic heritage who grew up in New York and was bullied as a child. But that story played out very differently.

No one suggested that it would be an insult to build a Catholic Church near the Federal Reserve building in Oklahoma City. We did not lump together and malign all veterans, all White men, all Irish Catholics, all New Yorkers or all people who were bullied as children for that matter.

Let us not perpetuate this error of generalizing blame that has marred this debate. Perhaps then we will clear the way for creative solutions to an increasingly polarizing issue.

Illustration: Islamic Center, Abiquiu, New Mexico (designed by Hassan Fathy, built 1981).