Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Silver Lining

“The social cancer of Islamophobia must be recognized as unacceptable as anti-Semitism. It is a threat to the very fabric of our democratic pluralistic way of life…Political and religious leaders, commentators and experts must do more to counter hate speech; they must lead in safeguarding and strengthening religious pluralism and mutual respect.”

-John Esposito, Founding director, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University

When it comes to the political uproar surrounding the construction of the “Ground Zero Mosque,” responses such as this are regrettably overpowered by the bigoted responses of the likes of Newt Gingrich, Michael Savage, or Rush Limbaugh. The egregious opposition to the Cordoba House—the name of the proposed Muslim center—underscores a framework of an anti-Islamic, Islamophobic movement that fuels the blocking of this building. Even organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, a non-governmental organization whose main focus is fighting not only defamation of the Jewish people, but of members of any sect, are betraying their objective by opposing the construction of the Muslim center.

Many blog responses—including that of the Mobilizer blog—and news reports focus on the negative reactions (although, rightfully so) and act as a reprimanding force. However, it may be, not only important, but necessary to take a moment to understand those who have done good things for the cause. Not all is lost in this debate, and there are important figures that are helping to further the progress of the Cordoba House, which will hopefully stand as a center for religious and ethnic tolerance.

An example of these political and religious figures that support the Cordoba House is Arthur Waskow, a rabbi and founder/director of The Shalom Center. Waskow, and more generally The Shalom Center, have started a movement in response to the Anti-Defamation League’s opposition to the building of the “Ground Zero Mosque.” An initiative of over 30 rabbis from various Jewish backgrounds have signed a statement, and request more signatures, for the ADL to reverse their decision. Waskow and The Shalom Center also organized a vigil for August 5, 2010 at the site of the planned mosque to voice their opinions on the matter, in addition to encouraging supporters to actually call the ADL to request a reverse of their conclusion.

Arthur Waskow, and his supporters in and beyond The Shalom Center, act as an exemplar of inter-religious tolerance and support that is needed during situations of bigotry, such as that which surrounds the creation of the Cordoba House. Waskow at the rally stated that, "I want to catch us, us Jews, us Muslims, us Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, meditating, praying, not in the same identical ways with each other, but with each other toward the One who is beyond us all."

In addition to the support of religious leaders, perhaps the most absolute and forthright support can be found in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his speech delivered on Governor’s Island, in regards to the Landmarks Preservation Commission vote.

Mayor Bloomberg gave an inspiring speech, one that portrayed New York City as the foremost open and inviting city, a city that was built and sustained by immigrants, and a city that continues to be the freest city in the world. He explained that “[o]f all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish. And it is a freedom that, even here in a City that is rooted in Dutch tolerance, was hard-won over many years.” Mayor Bloomberg explained that although the mosque was not granted ‘landmark’ status by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, there are no legal reasons for denying the mosque, and doing so would be untrue to American ideals. Bloomberg also states that this mosque acts as the biggest test America will face in regards to the complete separation of church and state, and how we—as Americans—respond to this test is vital.

Bloomberg eloquently reminds the public of what is actually in question when it comes to this deliberation: “Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question – should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.” As such an important political figurehead in this particular debate, it is refreshing to know that not everyone is on the side of short-sighted intolerance and that as the politically symbolic personage for New York City, Mayor Bloomberg has not forgotten the ideals on which this nation and its constitution has been built.

The criticism of the “Ground Zero Mosque” is not simply a manifestation of religious intolerance but also a strategy or talking point employed by certain politicians to bolster their political stances, and thereby their support. John Esposito (quoted above) believes that Republican candidates are appealing to racist sentiments towards Islam as a way to polarize politics to gain electoral votes in upcoming elections. Many Democrats, on the other hand, are choosing their words carefully or, like Congressman Anthony Weiners, are refusing to answer completely—perhaps for fear of losing support as well.

Although few and far removed, the examples of vocal, active support for the construction of the Cordoba House acts as the silver lining for this dark and dismal political debate and it is important that they are recognized.

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