ground zero

Manhattan Mosque

In recent years commentators have noted the degree to which fear drives many political campaigns. Perhaps it has always been an element of electioneering, but it has reached a new pitch in this heated and divisive election year. What does not get as much press, is the degree of hysteria that has gripped so many people of all stripes and persuasions, most notably those on the far right. Some of this is clearly rooted in the economic troubles of our society and world, in the uncertainty of our future, in the longing for a past that exists mostly in our imaginations, and, of course, in the over play of the term "War on Terror" (thankfully, the use of that phrase has subsided somewhat). Even more so, it may be rooted in the need to identify a scapegoat for all our problems. Almost by definition, this hysteria finds expression in inaccurate language that does not serve dialogue or the common good. For example, the proposed construction of a mosque in lower Manhattan has been incorrectly referred to as the "Ground Zero Mosque" or "WTC Mosque." Such terminology is anything but innocent, especially since the mosque is slated for construction blocks away.

The term "Ground Zero" has become ubiquitous as a designation for the site where the Twin Towers collapsed following the 9/11 attack. So be it. Given that there is a new tower and museum in construction on the Twin Towers site, one is left to wonder about the lack of integrity among those who refer to Park 51 as the "Ground Zero Mosque". I, myself, would merely marvel at the term if it were not so insidious. By design, some political leaders and commentators have used the term to fan the flames of hatred, mistrust and ignorance. Sarah Palin is intellectually vacuous and does not deserve any more press. However, Newt Gingrich is an educated and intelligent man. What could possibly possess him to weigh in on this issue from such a distorted and legally deficient position?

As Gingrich and others know, the correct name for the project is "Park 51," and it is not just a mosque. It is an Islamic community center that includes a fitness center, auditorium, pool and a restaurant. It will provide a much needed interfaith program seeking to advance dialogue and understanding. It will also include a memorial to the victims of 9/11. I wish it were simply a question of misunderstanding, but the deeper truth can be seen in the calculated and ultimately treacherous effect this kind of speech has. But that is what the right intends.

A significant part of the U. S. population is ignorant about Islam, and for that matter, the 9/11 attacks. Over 60 countries lost citizens in the terrorist attacks. Muslims were killed in the attack and they also participated in the emergency response and rescue. Major Islamic groups in the United States were quick to condemn the terrorism. President George W. Bush took great pains to state we are not at war with Islam, and a number of Islamic governments have joined the efforts to defeat terrorism. Yet for many Americans, particularly those who choose not to think or to be informed, 9/11 was the work of all Muslims and the Islamic world is at war with us. Sadly, Gingrich, et al, are counting on such ignorance to advance their self-serving agenda.

For the rest of us, freedom of religion cannot exist only for a few nor only for those we approve of. The First Amendment is remarkable for its inclusiveness and breadth of equality. It is clear that if the proposed center were Christian or Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu, there would not be this outcry. Just how "American" are those who oppose Park 51 because it is Muslim? Without the Constitution, this would not be the United States and the freedoms we treasure so deeply, including the freedom of religion, would still be only a dream. How ironic that descendants of the American colonists should turn that dream into a nightmare!