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‘Ground Zero mosque’ debate reflects darker past

Credit: Maria Raffaele/Art Editor Credit: Maria Raffaele/Art Editor
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In recent weeks, the deceptively named “Ground Zero mosque” has moved to the forefront of public debate. On one side stand the self-proclaimed defenders of the First Amendment, on the other the champions of America’s vaunted Christian traditions and values. Despite the characterizations promoted by both sides, this debate is complex.

Even though both sides have valid points, in many ways this conflict is not between West and East or Islam and Christianity — it is between fear of the Other and commitment to principles. Building a mosque in Manhattan will not destroy the fabric of American society. But disputing Muslims’ right to build mosques in Manhattan, in Tennessee, in California — that is a dangerous step down a dark road.

It would be convenient to think that the recent debate over the Ground Zero mosque shows a disturbing new trend in American society. That would mean that America's past could be as glorious as we pretend and that only the present is plagued by such controversy. If only we could go back to our roots, this fallacy holds, we could bring back America’s core values. Both opponents and supporters of the mosque would like to believe this, with advocates referring to the First Amendment and opponents to the country’s Christian heritage.

But these ideals are only pleasant lies. Compared to this country’s past crimes, the mosque controversy is currently a friendly disagreement. This does not mean, however, that the debate is unimportant. This nation’s history makes it all the more necessary that we take a firm stand for the basic rights guaranteed in the Constitution, lest we repeat the darker chapters of our past.

At the same time that the United States was being founded on principles of tolerance, patriots were burning down the houses of Tories in the Revolutionary War. When soldiers were dying to free Europe from the Nazis and Marines were hoisting a flag over Iwo Jima, euphemistically named “internment camps” held over 100,000 Japanese-Americans. This does not even count the “enemy combatants” held indefinitely without charges while American soldiers fought for freedom halfway around the world. Hypocrisy is not new to this union.
Knowing our capacity for evil, it falls to us to avoid the mistakes that previous generations made. In the case of the mosque in New York, it is this time not the government that is trying to deny freedom but a combination of media outlets, opportunistic politicians, and grassroots organizers.

Many opponents of the mosque object to its location at the site of the Sept. 11 attacks. I also object to building a mosque at the former site of the World Trade Center. I object to building a church, a synagogue, a temple, or any other specific religious shrine at that site. People of many and no faiths died that day, and their deaths should not be appropriated by any single religion.

Fortunately for people who accept facts, the mosque is not being built at Ground Zero. It is not being built adjacent to Ground Zero. It is, in fact, two blocks away on Park Place. According to an article published in The New Yorker, the mosque will not be visible from the future Ground Zero memorial. When it is completed, it will be a symbol of America’s tolerance and a demonstration that we do not judge an entire people by the actions of a few.

While most media and popular references refer to the construction under debate simply as a mosque, this — like so many of the other parts of this argument — is a misleading simplification.

Though it should not matter if the building is a mosque or not, it is important to note that the mosque is only part of an entire community center called Park51. It has classrooms, a swimming pool, a restaurant, and a Sept. 11 memorial. Its operators, the Cordoba Initiative, have a mission to support intercultural understanding. Even the most cynical observer would have to admit that the complex will be under close scrutiny from law enforcement and the public alike given its location. The risks, then, seem minimal. The symbolic and practical advantages seem obvious.

The “Ground Zero mosque” — neither at Ground Zero nor simply a mosque — is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to demonstrate that the Constitution is more than words on paper and that tolerance can succeed in spite of challenges. It is an opportunity to show that America has not forgotten the darker times of its past but seeks a better future. It is an opportunity to accept diversity as strength, to put humanity above xenophobia. Above all, it is an opportunity to make our nation not what it was, but what we wish it to be.