So the next best thing, or perhaps the very best thing, is for Muslims to actually mingle with their neighbors and get people to know them on a personal level. The better people know each other, the more commonalities they discover, and the more their common humanity unites them. Wouldn't it make sense that the reverse would also be true, that those who made the effort to reach out to Muslims would be able to understand what we are really about, rather than have only stereotypes to depend on?
To foster just such opportunities is the goal of the proposed Muslim community centre in Lower Manhattan, originally called Cordoba House and now called Park51. When asked if he'd have done anything differently over the many years he'd worked on the Middle East peace process, Ambassador Dennis Ross, a veteran U.S. Department State negotiator, answered, "More person-to-person contact."
So why the hate and the vitriol against the Muslim community center? Don't people believe Muslims have a right to honor the memory of those lost to 9/11, just as any other American? Or is the very idea scary, that getting to know Muslims up close and personal will threaten closely nurtured prejudices?
Yes, even as New York City wisely allows for the Muslim community center's construction, the flood gates of hate against Muslims have been opened. I dread to think of the backlash, both verbal and physical, our community may receive in the face of this, in the coming days.
The irony of the situation doesn't escape Josh Stanton, editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue:
In spite of Park51's clear value to the city and its citizens, its location several blocks from Ground Zero has prompted protests that aim to keep some Muslim Americans from practicing their faith in freedom and peace, and from opening their doors in a truly American way to welcome guests from all faith traditions.
The terrible irony is that under the guise of fighting extremism, some critics of Park51 are unwittingly furthering the agenda of the terrorists who attacked us so viciously on 9/11. The terrorists wanted us to be afraid. They wanted us to put our rights in jeopardy. They wanted us to believe that not all religions are welcome in America. They wanted us to undo ourselves by debasing our own principles.
Although the First Amendment of the US Constitution makes clear that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof", it is ultimately up to American citizens to ensure that the principles enshrined in the Constitution are applied in full. When a religious group, in writ or practice, is kept from establishing a gathering place for the community, those ideals are undermined.
The protests against Park51 are all the more severe, as they undermine the freedom of a religious community seeking not only to build a gathering place for itself, but to provide a space that is open to Americans of all faiths.
Yes, it's a space that will honor Islam and inter-faith learning. It will help us get to know each other better. Can we please give it a chance?