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Faith Leaders, National Security Experts Claim Values, Security at Stake in NYC Mosque Debate

September 1, 2010, 1:05 pm | Posted by Kristin Ford

Join Voices in Support of Park51; Call for Post-9/11 Rhetoric of Unity and Civility

A former U.S. military interrogator in Iraq and a national security historian joined prominent faith leaders from New York City and across the country today on a conference call with reporters to offer a robust defense of Park51, a community center and mosque planned near Ground Zero that has sparked contentious debate and increasingly vitriolic rhetoric from opponents. They said Park51 would help deprive terrorists of a tool for recruitment, and cautioned that a rising tide of anti-Muslim bigotry undermines our nation’s historic commitment to religious freedom, pluralism and interfaith cooperation.

“Park51 would be a powerful symbol of U.S. tolerance and freedom that will stand in direct contradiction to al Qaeda’s narrative that Americans hate Muslims,” said Matthew Alexander, who won a Bronze Star for leading an interrogations team that located Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. “As a symbol, its construction demonstrates that the U.S. is not at war with Islam and that Muslims are welcome in America. It communicates a message of moderation that stands in stark contrast to al Qaeda’s bankrupt ideology. Symbols like this matter. Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and the policy of torture and abuse handed al Qaeda its number one recruiting tool. Those who think al Qaeda will not be able to spin this controversy to their advantage are disastrously mistaken.”

Faith leaders took political leaders to task for their fear-mongering and partisan maneuvering. “I feel compelled to stand against political leaders who are using this controversy to score political points. They are dishonoring the men and women, including the 59 Muslim Americans, who died on 9/11 at the hands of extremists,” said Lisa Sharon Harper, Executive Director of New York Faith & Justice and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican… or Democrat. “If we allow fear and twisted truth to reign in this situation we allow the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center to also dismantle our Constitution.”

David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University and co-founder of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good said religious freedom “is enshrined in our Constitution, deeply woven into our culture, and intended for situations just as these, where minorities need to be protected from fear, anger, political pandering and the whims of the majority.”

Gushee also exhorted fellow evangelical Protestants to extend love and hospitality to their Muslim neighbors. “Certain evangelicals are among those leading the charge, not just against Park51 but a broader attack against Islam as a religion,” he said. “Jesus taught that they will know we are his followers by our love. Every time a self-identified evangelical goes on the attack against Islam and Muslims as a group, he or she hurts the cause of the Gospel. I call on my fellow evangelicals to cease and desist.”

The project will not only help keep the U.S. safe and symbolize freedom and tolerance, the debate around Park51 has in some ways become more important than the project itself. As political leaders and pundits make divisive and unjust claims, and mosques and Muslims across the country are under attack, faith leaders called for a return to the civility and fair-mindedness President Bush exhibited in the immediate aftermath of September 11. They also drew a striking comparison between leadership that cherishes inclusion and that which cherishes division, denouncing Tea Party rhetoric for scapegoating of vulnerable communities and exploitation of people’s fears and anxieties.

“It is not merely a question of freedom of religion, or national security, or how we honor those who died on 9/11, although it is all of those things. It is fundamentally a question about whose path we are following during this economic crisis: the Tea Party path of isolation and exclusion, or a different path of interconnectedness and inclusion,” said Simon Greer, President of Jewish Funds for Justice. “As a native New Yorker, it is clear to me that this diverse city has thrived because we have, more often than not, chosen the latter.”

Several speakers drew on their own experience as a member of another religious minority. “Speaking as a Catholic – a religion subject to considerable discrimination – I cherish the fact that I can be a full citizen and also be committed to my faith tradition. I find it unacceptable and deeply un-American to deny adherents of other faith traditions the freedoms I have enjoyed,” said Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University and a historian of national security. “Whether intentionally or not, the contrived mosque controversy wrongly and wrong-headedly conveys the impression that the United States views Islam itself as a national security threat.”

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