On Aug. 6 the Connecticut Post reported that "about a dozen right-wing Christians, carrying placards and yelling ‘Islam is a lie,' angrily confronted worshippers. ‘Jesus hates Muslims,' they screamed at worshippers arriving at the Masjid An-Noor mosque to prepare for the holy month of Ramadan. One protester shoved a placard at a group of young children leaving the mosque. ‘Murderers,' he shouted." On Aug. 14, Newt Gingrich equated Islam with Nazism. Closer to home, a Gainesville church is planning an "International Burn a Quran Day" this Sept. 11.
These are not proud moments for this country. But such ugly, shameful incidents are inevitable in the climate of bigotry and fear that is being stoked by zealots like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin who are leading the attacks on the construction of an Islamic community center in Manhattan. This issue has been framed and debated in a confused and dishonest fashion, leading predictably to hysteria.
The proposed building is not a mosque; it will be a community center, akin to a YMCA, and will include a mosque - and it is not even at Ground Zero. It is two blocks away, out of view of the World Trade Center site.
Opposition to the center stems largely from anti-Muslim prejudice and fear, which like all prejudice is based on ignorance. It is hard to imagine that a proposed synagogue or cathedral in the vicinity of Ground Zero would arouse such hostility. Gingrich, Sarah Palin and others implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) draw a direct link between the Islamic faith and the 9/11 attacks, which claimed several dozen Muslims among their 3,000 victims, victims who hailed from more than 50 countries. This was a crime and a tragedy for the entire world.
All the major religions and their scriptures can be interpreted for peace and tolerance, or for aggression and intolerance. Under the banner of Christianity, some of history's worst evils have been perpetrated: the trans-Atlantic slave trade, racism, colonialism, imperialism and even genocide were promoted or justified with biblical scripture.
As we all know, Islam has been usurped in recent years by cynical figures like Osama bin Laden to justify their deeds and win recruits. But fortunately, only a very small minority of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims support or condone terrorism. In fact, violent perversions of Islam are a problem above all for Muslims. "Islamist" fanatics have always targeted fellow Muslims whom the extremists deem to be wayward.
"Well, if most Muslims are so moderate and peaceful," I often hear, "why don't they speak against these people who are abusing their religion?"
In fact, countless Muslims have indeed expressed their dismay over the distortion of their faith to serve criminal ends. Just one example, which received no press attention in this country:
In July 2005, 170 leading figures from all corners of the globe convened in Jordan and issued a ringing, unambiguous condemnation of extremism and terrorism. This meeting represented virtually every school of thought within Islam. The Amman Message declared that "Islam honors every human being, regardless of his color, race or religion. Assault upon the life of a human being, be it murder, injury or threat ... is among the gravest of sins; for human life is the basis for the prosperity of humanity ... Islam rejects extremism, radicalism and fanaticism ... considering them as recalcitrant ways and forms of injustice."
I do not expect this brief commentary to change many opinions, but please consider the following statements from people who are more directly and emotionally affected by this controversy. Referring to firefighters and others who perished on Sept. 11, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently stated: "We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights - and the freedoms the terrorists attacked."
A group called September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows stated that opening the center is "consistent with fundamental American values of freedom and justice for all." In a letter to the New York Times, Rosanne Weston wrote of her "anguish of losing a husband and the father of her children in the Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, but added that "there is a difference between feelings and actions. Tarring every Muslim with the same brush will not, in the long run, assuage any pain or ease any anger. It will serve only to widen the divide and deepen the lack of understanding among people. On a personal, social or universal level, unabated anger is not the road that leads to healing."
Dr. John Cox teaches courses in European history, the Holocaust. and Islamic civilizations at Florida Gulf Coast University in Ft. Myers.