The international NGO that butters my bread has a very diverse, multicultural and multi-ethnic workforce. Without considering our international field offices, the U.S. staff consists of many nationalities. It is a great environment to work in, and a great environment to gather unique perspectives on the world around us.
One of my colleagues, a Pakistani Muslim (although mostly secular in his outlook) gave an intriguing and surprising speech at our Toastmaster’s group today. He chose to speak about the recent controversy about the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, and offered a very surprising perspective on the controversy. As with most hot topics these days, rational debate about this issue has devolved into a shouting match across the ever-deepening canyon that separates left and right in America. So, it was good to hear a rational shout from the bottom of the divide, from a true stakeholder in the issue, a Muslim American.
The media has spread a lot of misinformation, and while some news organizations have tried to wade through the blather and bluster from politicians and others, stirring the pot seems to have caused more confusion than clarity. To cover the basic background points, the Park51 Center, originally named Cordoba House, is not a Mosque. It is a community center, planned to have a gym, meeting rooms, recreational facilities, and prayer centers for Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The organization behind the center works to bridge the religious and cultural divides between Muslims and other faith communities. The property for the proposed center is not on the World Trade Center site, or “Ground Zero”, but instead two blocks away.
When I first read about this issue, I wasn’t surprised that politicians would trot it out and dress it up as a wedge issue. The Right moved the center two blocks, and called it a Mosque. The Left invoked our democratic belief in religious freedom and tolerance, and oh, by the way, there was a strip club closer to Ground Zero, so quit calling it “Sacred Ground.” Manhattan residents, where the Mosque would be located, seemed to take an open-minded attitude; while many opposed the planned center, Mayor Bloomberg and a majority of Manhattan residents polled supported building the Mosque. My gut reaction to the matter was, if Manhattan is OK with it, they have the right to build it, so let center stand.
But, my colleague offered a different viewpoint. Yes, the group developing the Park51 Center has every right to build it, and no doubt it would be tolerated in Manhattan. But the people most offended, most thoroughly outraged, by this plan aren’t in Manhattan, they are in Alabama, Kansas, Nebraska, Florida, California, and all across this country. If an Islamic center is built in Manhattan, New York, what becomes of the prospect of building a Mosque in Manhattan, Kansas? While we all have rights, sometimes it is wiser to choose not to exercise those rights, in support of a larger goal.
I commend Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf for trying to build a bridge of understanding and tolerance between religions. But if the Park51 Center is not built, or moved to another location six or ten blocks away, perhaps that act will be the cornerstone of a stronger bridge of understanding and tolerance.