The problem is not Islam but orthodoxy

Instead of a mosque, how about an ecumenical center devoted to religious tolerance?

August 23, 2010|By Thomas F. Schaller

Should the proposed Park51 Islamic Community Center be located so closely to the Ground Zero site in New York City?

Constitutionally, this is a no-brainer. The First Amendment is pretty clear about the right of citizens to exercise religious freedom. Symbolically, however, the controversy is much thornier. This is hallowed ground, a site of terror and tragedy created by the horrific, hateful actions of Islamic radicals. To deny that is to willfully ignore history.

Retired firefighter Tim Brown, a Sept. 11 survivor who lost many friends that fateful day, has been particularly vocal in opposing Park51. He believes Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, leader of the Cordoba Project associated with the project, has ulterior motives. "Imam Rauf intentionally chose a location this close to leverage 9/11," said Mr. Brown. "We do not want the deaths of our friends and families to be used to leverage recruitment into the Islamic ideology of Shariah, the same ideology that drove the Islamic terrorists to murder them in the first place."

Meanwhile, many American Muslims both inside and outside of New York City would rather avoid the tensions caused by the proposed project. Islamic moderates — who already have enough problems trying to carefully explain why they should not be linked to Khalid Sheikh Mohammad any more than your average Christian should be linked with Timothy McVeigh — don't want the added headaches.

I hold no special brief for or against Islam or any other religion. Faith is faith, but formalized religions are fraught with all the problems and dangers of any human-designed institution: hierarchy, hubris, greed, oppression, intractability and myopia. Whether it's the hard subjugation of honor killings or the soft moralism of "What would Jesus do?" religion begets orthodoxy.

But when orthodoxy begets violence in the supposed name of God, don't citizens have a right to defend sacred ground against a religion that openly preaches violence against nonbelievers? And the Quran does contain exhortations to kill nonbelievers, as critics of Islam love to point out. Consider this quote: "But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me." Oh, wait — that's a quote from Jesus in the Bible (Luke 19:27).

I cop to being intentionally provocative. But you can bet few Muslims around the world view America's invasion of Iraq as a secular attempt to bring peace and stability to the Middle East. As the Bible enjoins, beware the hypocrisy of noticing the speck in your neighbor's eye when there is a beam in your own.

Religious organizations perform valuable public functions. But the social benefits churches deliver and the altruism that powers those good deeds derive from the hearts of the congregants. In the age of social networking, the Sunday sermon is no longer necessary to organize a food bank, winter coat donation drive, or a humanitarian trip to Haiti: A wi-fi connection will do just fine, thank heavens.

Given how much angst this controversy is creating for nearly everyone involved, as an alternative, how about honoring those killed in New York on Sept. 11, 2001 — including Muslims, remember — by building an ecumenical community center devoted to religious tolerance?

And by tolerance I don't mean a pluralist, culturally relativist center where each of the world's monotheistic religions is celebrated and honored on equal footing, which is the stated mission of the Cordoba Project. I mean a place that instead celebrates the idea that we ought to divorce our public behaviors from our beliefs in God — and, for good measure, respect those who don't believe in God at all.

Unfortunately, I fear we are many years and plenty of religious-inspired suffering away from reaching the point where such facilities flourish. It suits the agenda of few imams, priests or rabbis to relinquish their status in the interest of a broader peace. Assigning the task of preaching religious tolerance to religious leaders makes as much sense as having drunks teach safe driving.

The sad truth is that no matter where this Muslim community center is located, religious intolerance and violence will continue unabated.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly. His e-mail is

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