Following the tragic news of the recent suspected arson at the mosque construction site in Murfreesboro, TN, (which Nick commented on earlier this week), the local community mounted an inspiring response:
…about 150 people…attended Monday’s night’s vigil, organized in response to the recent fire at the construction site for the new mosque. Many in the crowd held candles or signs proclaiming such messages as “We’re all in this together” and “My God is not a bigot.” They also joined in singing “We Shall Overcome.”
The gathering came two days after a fire of suspicious origin damaged construction equipment at the site of the planned mosque. Federal investigators are still looking into the cause.
Organizers said the vigil was intended to encourage mosque supporters and opponents to demonstrate for a community free of violence, arson and other such activities.
However, Bob Smietana’s outstanding Tennessean article on the event ended on a more sobering note:
Still stunned from the fire that claimed excavation equipment on the site of their planned mosque, Murfreesboro Muslims avoided Monday night’s protest. They say their project has already attracted too much attention.
“All we want to do is build a place where we can worship in peace and quiet,” said Saleh Sbenaty, a volunteer who is helping organize the mosque project.
FPL held a press teleconference today featuring national security experts and diverse faith leaders making a compelling argument in favor of the Park51 Islamic Center and mosque near Ground Zero: the project not only has the legal right to move forward, it should be encouraged to do so because it would promote national security and embody American values of pluralism, religious liberty and interfaith cooperation.
Speakers included national security experts Matthew Alexander, a former high-level military interrogator in Iraq, and Andrew Bacevich, a nationally recognized expert on the military and international relations, as well as powerful voices (and strong allies!) from the faith community – Simon Greer of Jewish Funds for Justice, Lisa Sharon Harper of New York Faith & Justice, and David Gushee of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. (Full-length audio of the call is here.) Individually and as a group, they made a compelling case in support of the Park51 Islamic Center, and gave political opportunists who have used fear-mongering rhetoric to stoke opposition to the mosque the stinging rebuke they deserve. Quotes from each of the speakers are after the jump:
“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. 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.”
Lisa Sharon Harper:
“As a New Yorker, I feel this debate in a very personal way–the area where Park51 is being proposed is not on Ground Zero. It is in a quiet community that has had an active Muslim population for centuries. The Muslims in the community have loved their neighborhood. They have loved their neighbors. We cannot allow Al Qaeda to gut us of our soul. We need this community center and mosque. It is America’s opportunity to put the words of Jesus to work. It is our opportunity to love our neighbors back.”
“We seem to be in a fight over what 9/11 is to mean in this country over the long term. We should remember that in the aftermath of 9/11, America came together in a show of unity and cooperation. Let’s hold our political leaders, and ourselves, accountable for returning to that spirit. 9/11 cannot be taken to mean a permanent state of fear, anger, and grief, nor the directing of all of that at our fellow Muslims.”
“As a minority community with a history of persecution and exclusion at the hands of the majority, how can we not appreciate the dangers of a society in which it is acceptable to persecute and exclude minority communities, in which the individual is always placed over the collective? Our safety and security and prosperity in this country are directly related to the success we have had, with others, at making the United States a more inclusive place, with more interconnected communities.”
“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. 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.”
A new initiative aimed at combating anti-Muslim prejudice, titled “My Faith, My Voice,” launched today, with the release of a web-based public service announcement featuring a diverse group of American Muslims affirming their commitment to their country and its values. Watch it:
It struck me how Islamophobia runs so deep in our nation that our fellow Americans feel they need to state such basic things as “I don’t want to take over this country.” But given the fact that partisan pundits and even mainstream news anchors seem to have bought into the idea that all Muslims share collective guilt for 9/11, it’s a message that, sadly, bears repeating.
As my colleague John noted in his post last week, New York isn’t the only place where anti-Islamic sentiment is brewing. Mosques around the country are being protested and vandalized even in the absence of Ground Zero concerns.
One particularly egregious example is happening in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where the local Muslim community has faced vehement opposition in trying to build a place of worship. The outrage seems to have taken a violent turn with the news of a fire at the mosque construction site this weekend. The investigation into arson is still pending, but two previous acts of vandalism at the site suggest the fire may be connected to recently escalating protests. In an even more chilling turn, members of the embattled congregation reported hearing gunfire while they gathered at the site yesterday.
Political leaders play an important role in creating conditions that either foster or discourage this kind of violence. Just last month, Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsay explained that his opposition to the mosque didn’t violate his support for religious freedom because “you could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion or is it a nationality, way of life or cult.”
At least those who oppose the Park51 project in New York have tried to insist that their stances are not based in Islamophobia. Unintentionally or not however, their nuance seems to be lost on a significant number of Americans who are unfamiliar with and afraid of their Muslim neighbors. Continuing to stoke the fears of the nation with talk of sharia law, “victory mosques” and connections between American Muslims and terrorists will only further incite those who see Islam as a threat and violence the only solution.
It’s time for pundits and political leaders who have spoken out against Park51 to stand up and denounce this rhetoric and violence. Even those who disagree on the particular politics of Park51 should be able to affirm that Islam is a peaceful religion and that we have nothing to fear from our Muslim-American neighbors. In the absence of such statements from leaders, we can only infer that they are happy to use some Americans’ dangerous misconceptions for their own political ends.
A church in Florida will burn Korans on September 11th. Angry protestors opposing the building of an Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero wave signs warning of Sharia law taking over America. Communities across the country are embroiled in fierce debates over proposed mosques. More stories are popping up every day about mosques being vandalized and Muslims facing threats. A young man consumed by anti-Islam fury brutally stabbed a Muslim taxi driver in New York City.
While it may be convenient to dismiss these incidents as aberrations, there is clearly a disturbing trend emerging that can’t be easily dismissed. Anti-Muslim fervor is even creeping into mainstream commentary and political races. Listen to syndicated political columnist Cal Thomas writing for the Washington Post “On Faith” blog:
Our enemies are using our Constitution and religious pluralism against us. They have a plan to infiltrate us, build mosques and ultimately impose Sharia Law. They say so. They mean so. People who are in denial about this are dupes and self-deluded. ..Go ahead and call me names. That won’t change the reality that the Muslims are coming. In fact, they are already here.
This kind of toxic rhetoric creates a climate that can easily lead to violence. Edina Lekovic, the communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, has it right in an interview with Talking Points Memo: “The hateful rhetoric that is being spewed by people like Newt Gingrich and then being amplified by mainstream media outlets poses a grave danger to the safety and well-being of everyday Muslim Americans like this cab driver, an innocent person,” she said.
Conservative activists and politicians have also been quick to wield the verbal weapons of demagoguery, and many liberals have failed to stand up to them. A new political ad from the American Future Fund goes after Rep. Bruce Braley, an Iowa Democrat, for supporting the Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero. The ad ominously warns that, “for centuries, Muslims built mosques where they won military victories. Now, they want to build a mosque at Ground Zero…It’s like the Japanese building at Pearl Harbor.” Watch it:
Considered in historical context, this recent wave of xenophobia, ignorance and simmering violence is deeply disturbing but hardly new. The “other” in American culture has always been demonized and faced accusations of disloyalty. As Catholic News Service recently pointed out:
“No Irish Need Apply” signs common in Massachusetts early in the 19th century were rooted in fears over how American society might be changed by immigrants, but particularly by their Catholic faith and culture…The Catholic Encyclopedia describes mobs descending upon a cathedral in Cincinnati in 1853, on churches in New Jersey, New York, Maine and New Hampshire the following year. It tells of a Maine priest who was dragged from his church, robbed, tarred and feathered; of Ohio churches being blown up and convents burned in Massachusetts and Texas.
As in years past, the public mood is swirling in sinister directions as economic anxiety, rising xenophobia and a new generation of demagogues create a combustible mix. We need to be vigilant to ensure that the ugly torrent of fear and scapegoating is overcome by a spirited defense of our nation’s core values and highest ideals. The bloody and shameful alternative is already written in our history books.