“How many times must we tell them?
Are they ever gonna learn?
This is sacred ground
Sacred Ground — “
The idea of sacred or hallowed ground has come into play on a national level in the past few weeks with regards to the idea of building a mosque near ground zero in New York City. New York Mayor Richard Bloomberg supports the idea in the name of religious freedom and tolerance. There are many who feel that a Muslim Mosque on or near the 9/11 site would be a desecration to the memory of the three thousand citizens who lost their lives that tragic day. The debate has come to a fever pitch thanks to the one/two punch or stumble (depending on your interpretation) of our President. On one day President Obama expressed his support for the mosque, which will replace a building damaged by the September 11th attacks and expands an already existing Islamic cultural center. He made this declaration at a White House meal celebrating Ramadan. He declared that the mosque had the right to be there. The President’s stumble came when he was asked on the very next day if building the mosque on the site was the right thing to do. President Obama stated that he was merely weighing in on the law and not the wisdom of putting a mosque at the ground zero site. At this stage of the debate most Americans know and understand that citizens have the right to worship anywhere they want. The question becomes is this the right site and right thing to do? The ideas of hallowed ground, equal rights, religious freedom and mutual respect have all converged on this issue.
To really have a sound debate on this issue we must first strip away the rhetoric on both sides of the aisle. We must first have an understanding that the United States is not at war with the Islamic Religion. We are in fact at war with Al Qaeda and the terrorists cells who do their bidding. We have to start from a basic understanding that Muslim does not equal terrorist. We also however, need to realize that many Americans (including Americans of Muslim decent) were deeply affected in New York City and around the country, the day the towers went down. Three thousand Americans lost their lives in one of the most insidious attacks on American soil since Pearl Harbor and the idea of calling ALL those who question the location of this mosque as racist gets us nowhere. This is the starting point from which we can launch this debate, away from the posturing of both the left and the right. What is at stake is the idea of fundamental rights including the right to practice religion, tolerance for all religions and tolerance for those who still grieve the senseless loss of life that took place. As stated before, Mayor Bloomberg, in front of the statue of liberty proclaimed his support for the building of the mosque, calling it a symbol of tolerance. He even alluded to the fact that the mosque may serve as a way to bring the city closer together and up hold the values of freedom and liberty we hold dear as Americans. On the other side of the aisle it has been interesting to hear Muslim Americans voice their concern against building the mosque. In a letter to the New York Times Neda Boulourchi let her feelings be known about the building by stating, “I have no grave site to visit, I have no place to bring my mother her favorite yellow flowers, no spot where I can hold my weary heart close to hers. All I have is ground zero”. Boulourchi’s mother lost her life in the 9/11 attacks. These statements beg the question, can we achieve middle ground on hallowed ground? I think the answer is a very complex yes.
In the last two years, there has been a rise of what seems to be some type of” acceptable bigotry” in America. In hard economic times folks look for some thing or someone to blame and in these times anyone deemed as “different” can be a scapegoat. This type of backdrop makes this conversation even more important. On one level we must remember our values and our potential for greatness when it comes to promoting our diversity as a strength, in this society. We must remember that the founders of this nation came here because of religious persecution. Having said this we must also remember a few things about Islam. The Islamic faith, unlike many religions, has not gone through a reformation, so the 7th century religion becomes the means of expression for fanatics and extremists both around the world and in the US. Must we hold it to a different litmus test than other religions? Due to circumstances beyond our control yes, yes we must. Remember the key word in the last sentence is different, and just as Muslim should never equal terrorist, different should not ultimately mean bad. It is this challenging balance that we have to work with, but this challenge also points to the potential this mosque can have and the idea of American resiliency. The key to this issue is indeed balance. Let’s have a nuanced dialog as this mosque gets built. If the owners go through with their plan (and I have to assume they will) then let’s hold them to their words. They have said that the mosque would be an interfaith sanctum where all religions are welcome. They have spoken about being open and honest about where they will be receiving their funding. Lets hold them accountable to these things. Let’s also be mindful of the men and women who mourn at ground zero and lets have the mosque be a true space for workshop, dialog, reconciliation and compassion on both sides of the issue. This past year America has indeed taken a few steps backward in its never ending quest to deal openly and honestly with difference. This could be the catalyst to show that Americans are willing to adhere to and respect the law while also engaging in civil debates and conversations without dumbing down our responses into sloganeering and sound bites. This can hopefully be the space where moderate American Muslims can come together in a safe space and dialog amongst themselves about more enlightened interpretations of the Koran. It can also be a space where all Americans can come together in remembrance of lives lost in the past and to hope for a safer and better tomorrow.
There will undoubtedly be more debate, anger and rancor over this issue. The questions and answers are all very complex. Can you find common ground on sacred, hallowed ground? My gut feeling is, if you use reason and understanding, a sense of history and at times painful honesty then yes; yes you can. For a multicultural nation dealing with issues of difference and same, the answer may have to be, yes we must, yes we can — yes we will.