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Gross misunderstandings riddle New York mosque controversy

September 23, 2010

Award-winning journalism

This article won third place in column writing in the 2010 Collegiate Better Newspaper Contest sponsored by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation. Read more

Clearly this issue is going to be with us until at least the end of election time and since the debate has continued I feel that it is appropriate to address some misconceptions I have been hearing.

Starting with Islam itself: The Quran is a religious text which, like all religious texts, has an almost infinite amount of interpretations. This makes sense given that no two people believe exactly the same things. So when people claim that the Quran preaches pacification or that the Quran preaches violence they are coming at the issue from their own perspective. In fact, according to Robert Wright,  there are verses to support both arguments, something not limited to the Quran but experienced in the Bible and the Torah as well. So it is not an issue of religion inciting violence. It is an issue of religious people who just so happened to be violent. It is also clear that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful. The evidence of this is easily expressed through simple math. Looking at Afghanistan, the highest estimate of Taliban forces put forth by the General in charge of persuading them not to fight lays at 36,000 with the population being 28 million. That means, according to the CIA World Fact Book and Times UK, that even if one were to believe in Islam inciting violence, a generous .13 percent of Muslims in Afghanistan could be classified as “religiously violent.”

So about this Mosque. First off, it actually is not a Mosque; it is a community center with plans for places of worship for Muslims, Christians and Jews. Oh, and a swimming pool, basketball court and movie theater; hardly a terrorist training camp. Second, it is not actually on ground zero, it is two blocks away. It is replacing a Burlington Coat Factory which was damaged in the attacks, though this, as some would suggest, does not make it apart of “ground zero,” which refers to the center of an event, not the periphery. Thirdly they have yet to even start fundraising for the project, making any claims of the project being funded by terror supporters completely irrational.

Complicating this issue has been some recent interviews with the Imam behind this community center, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. The two most controversial statements have been about the cause of the Sept. 11 attacks and his rational for not moving the community center. Starting with Sept. 11, Imam Rauf has argued that the foreign policy pursued by the United States led to the terror attacks of Sept. 11. This statement, while sounding extreme, is arguably true according to Ahmed Rashid. Whether you agree with his argument or not, it is not extreme at all to be critical of the United States’ foreign policy. The only difference between Imam Rauf’s comments and people who have criticized President Obama’s or President Bush’s foreign policy is that Imam Rauf is building a community center which contains a mosque somewhat near ground zero.

Another statement he is criticized about is when he addresses the possibility of moving the center to a different location. He argues that if he were to move the site then the extremists would take this as a victory and be further emboldened.  He says, in his most recent interview, that he acts out of concern for the national security of the United States, that it would erode the safety of U.S. troops and citizens abroad. Some people take this as a threat; however, to me it seems more like a warning. The actions taken by the United States do have a large effect around the world and though this debate may seem internal to most Americans, it is not. Media around the world are covering this story too and, frankly, having this debate does not portray us in a favorable fashion. Imagine what it looks like to have the United States, the symbol of religious tolerance, debating the building of a religious outreach center because the man behind it is Muslim. If our goal is to seem like racist assholes then mission accomplished.  Imam Rauf understands this, probably more than anyone else and he is an authority on the matter. He has been employed by the United States to provide cultural and strategic guidance with regard to Muslim states and non-governmental agencies.

So should the center be built? I do not know. Clearly Americans do not want it, mitigating any affect a cultural outreach center may have; however, I find it sickening that this is even a debate at all. I am deploying to Afghanistan and I really am not looking forward to explaining to Afghans why our country, which is supposed to be a beacon of religious tolerance, is against this community center which just so happens to contain a mosque, a church‚ and a synagogue. While I sympathize with the families who have lost loved ones in the tragic events of Sept. 11, I cannot believe that we are compromising who we are as a country to appease people who cannot possibly be thinking rationally.

Jason Larson is a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.