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Islamic Center a step in the right direction

Alex Coccia | Wednesday, August 25, 2010

When the dust and debris from the World Trade Center towers had settled in New York City, the beautifully architected and historically significant St. Paul Chapel acted as a safe haven for firefighters, construction workers, police officers and others in the area, and as the source of monumental acts of charity. Across the country and even the world, mourners and emotional supporters joined together in a way that America, in its over 200-year history, had never seen. And St. Paul Chapel stood as the symbol of a unified nation, one that would not tolerate the atrocities of terrorism. It was dubbed “the little chapel that stood.” Some gave credit to God, and so religion fiercely entered the playing field. After all, it was because of religion and a perceived lack of moral competence that caused the terrorists to target America, wasn’t it?

“God Bless America” gained new meaning, as the song itself was sung more often than ever. The unification of the nation was growing, but as with many unifications of the majority, a small minority is further ostracized. Out of ignorance, fear, anger and hatred, American xenophobia rose monumentally. The Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee documented over 700 reported hate crimes only one month after the attacks. Reprisal killings by “patriotic Americans” took place in California, Texas and Arizona. After the towers fell, there often was no longer a distinction made between Muslim extremists who hijacked the planes and Muslims who had been living as good citizens of the United States for over thirty years. Americans lived in fear of another terrorist attack, and Middle Eastern-Americans lived in fear of Christian America’s reprisals.

Now, almost nine years after the horrific day, it has been proposed that an Islamic cultural center be built a few blocks away from the site Ground Zero. This possibility outrages many Americans, who believe that it dishonors the lives of the three thousand who died from the terrorist attacks. In a recent Quinnipiac Poll, 52 percent of New Yorkers surveyed opposed the Islamic center, and 31 percent supported it. The planned Islamic Center is two blocks north from the site of Ground Zero, but the idea of any sort of Islamic prayer center, mosque or not, gets deep under many citizens’ skin. Capturing the disgust of many Americans, a Republican Political Action Committe internet advertisement proclaims, “This ground is sacred. Where we weep, they rejoice.” Where we weep, they rejoice. This simple statement illustrates the xenophobia and alienation still present in the convictions of many Americans.

The Islamic cultural center will be a symbol, just as St. Paul’s is one today. If it is built, the proponents will view it as a symbol of America’s fostered toleration for the world’s religions, an oasis of inter-faith dialogue, an appreciation of the beauty and tradition in Islamic heritage. If it is built, the opponents will view it as a symbol of desecration of the lives of the nearly three thousand who died, and a figurehead of a deteriorating patriotism in a growingly diverse America. If it is built, it will be a symbol, but of what depends on your interpretation.

When Ronald Takaki wrote “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America” in 1994, he surely did not imagine the complex problem of xenophobia that would arise because of heinous attacks on the United States. He does, however, view the diversity of America as “an opportunity to open American minds.” What is needed, he writes, is “to step back in order to see the rich and complex portrait they [different cultures] compose. What is needed is a fresh angle.” The mirror seems like an appropriate metaphor for the debate over the Islamic center. In his provocative work “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers”, Kwame Anthony Appiah speaks about a shattered mirror as a metaphor for truth: “each shard of which reflects one part of a complex truth from its own particular angle … You will find parts of the truth (along with much error) everywhere and the whole truth nowhere. The deepest mistake … is to think that your little shard of mirror can reflect the whole.” The debate over the Islamic center, as with most debates, is about perception — perception for the families of the victims of 9/11, perception of the world towards America, perception of the minority towards the majority, and vice versa. Both Takaki and Appiah are correct. Away from the dust of the towers, a fresh angle is needed to understand the cultural importance for Muslim and American culture of the proposed Islamic center. Those who view the center as a dishonor to the families of the victims are not seeing the whole picture, only their shard of glass. Sally Regenhard, a mother of a firefighter who died in the towers, was interviewed by Newsweek, admitting that while she knows the Muslims involved in the building of the Islamic center are not the same as the Islamic extremists who hijacked the planes, “It’s a perception thing.” Regenhard is absolutely correct. It is a perception thing.

The building of an Islamic cultural center with a swimming pool, a gym, an exhibition space, conference rooms, a day care, senior center, an auditorium and prayer room would be an enormous step for this divided country. It would be one step in the right direction of cleaning up the pieces of the shattered mirror of ignorance, fear, anger and hatred that so consumed the American public following the attacks. And it would be one step in the right direction of taking a fresh look at the importance of cultural diversity, religious toleration, and religious conversation in America.


Alex Coccia is a freshman. He can be contacted at acoccia @nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
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