Over the summer, protestors listing a series of emotional grievances have attempted to halt the building of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s 13-story complex, The Cordoba House at Park 51, 2 1/2 blocks from the site of the World Trade Center. These grievances include the timing of theCordoba Initiative, coming almost nine years after the attacks of 11 September 2001, the site of the cultural centre, and claims of forced assimilation with Islam and Muslims in Lower Manhattan.
If you are watching this debate from abroad, you may ask: is America really ready to move forward in peacemaking and reconciliation with the religion of Islam? In this case, doing so will require firm public support from Washington and moderate Islamic voices within America.
Speaking last Friday at the White House’s annual Iftar dinner to commemorate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, President Barack Obama cited religious freedom and the need to support moderate conceptions of Islam within America. He affirmed:
As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.
Anchoring this argument in the US Establishment Clause in his short address, the President set a new tone in the chaotic debate. The 1st Amendment to the Constitution, crafted by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” To prohibit Muslims from gathering within the public sphere or on private property would be akin to setting the nation back a half-century or more to an era marked by Jim Crow and legal segregation.
However, moving in this unjust direction is being lauded by anti-Islamic organisations such as Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) and Pam Geller and Robert Spencer’s Freedom Defense Initiative (FDI). With emotions boiling over throughout America, a sensible conversation as to why exactly the Cordoba House is pertinent to peacemaking is being shrouded by misinformation and xenophobic rhetoric.
Take, for instance, the recent interview with New York gubernatorial candidate, Carl Paladino, and the director for the Center of Islamic Pluralism, Stephen Schwartz, with MSNBC’s Chris Jansing. Neither Paladino nor Schwartz were able to articulate a logical position for their opposition to Park 51. Schwartz admitted the current furour is insensitive to some Muslims, as well as the victims of 9/11. But what he failed to realise is that reconciliation is --- or should be --- a part of America’s post-9/11 healing-process and that the time is always right to explore it.
Currently, a xenophobic strand in American society is making headway by capitalising on an opportunity to promote subtle forms of religious and racial difference, scoring political points with some voters before the autumn elections. FDI and SIOA have begun planning a joint protest on 11 September outside Park 51. Headlining the rally will be conservative blogger, Andrew Brietbart, former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders.
With an anti-Islamic movement gaining ground, led by ambivalence, cheap shots, and even slander of Muslim audiences, it is vital that Washington steps out front to present continued, firm public support for moderate Islamic organisations in America which are sincere about preventing the spread of radicalism.
Fareed Zakaria writes, “Ever since 9/11, liberals and conservatives have agreed that the lasting solution to the problem of Islamic terror is to prevail in the battle of ideas and to discredit radical Islam, the ideology that motivates young men to kill and be killed. Victory in the war on terror will be won when a moderate, mainstream version of Islam—one that is compatible with modernity—fully triumphs over the world view of Osama bin Laden.” To assure that this radical Islam is discredited within a context that does not offend the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, US officials must take seriously inter-religious cooperation and socio-political discourse to engage moderates. Washington should consider the following:
- Establishing a national bi-partisan interfaith commission (comprised of religious and political leadership) to address domestic issues related to religious freedom;
- Allowing this commission to pursue a peacemaking and reconciliation agenda aimed at supporting moderate organizations and voices in America;
- Ensuring that feed-back loops are created to garner community-wide support and trusted relations with moderates; and
- Engaging moderate Muslims from the centre, rather than relying on indirect methods as public diplomacy to reach them.
As Washington considers its next move, its imperative that concerned liberals and progressive conservatives consider the value of applying post-secular approaches to combat both radical Islamic and xenophobic extremism in America. "Post-secular" acknowledges that America has entered an era where widespread religious issues are presenting new challenges to US domestic and foreign relations. The approaches includes interfaith dialogue, sensitivity training, religious-political analysis, and sacred-secular engagement to handle America’s new set of concerns.