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Limits on freedom of religion?

Sarah Mervosh | Friday, September 10, 2010

Sophomore Kerri Whelan has only seen her dad cry twice — once on Sept. 11, 2001 and another time when he was describing the horrific events he experienced that day.

Whelan’s father worked in the World Financial Center and was looking out his office window when the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center.

“He saw people jumping, people on fire,” Whelan said. “What he’s described to me was immense panic in the city.”

Though Whelan was fortunate enough to get through the attack without losing a loved one, family friends and many of her father’s coworkers were not as lucky.

It is her sympathy to those families and reverence for those who lost their lives that makes her uneasy about the proposal for an Islamic center, which would include a mosque, to be built two blocks from Ground Zero.

Whelan said she recognizes that the majority of Muslims are peaceful people, but her concern is about sensitivity to those who lost family or friends in the attacks.

“I’m all for building mosques all across Manhattan. I’m all for religious freedom,” she said. “I think they have every right to practice their religion. I just don’t know why it has to be two blocks [away from Ground Zero.]”

Mahan Mirza, assistant professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies, said the Muslims proposing the center are not foreigners. They are people who have been members of the community for years and people who were also victims of the terrorist attacks, he said.

“There is this idea that Muslims are foreigners and they are the ‘other’ and they as a collective somehow attacked us,” he said. “To pose it as ‘they attacked us’ and ‘we the victims reject this’ is inaccurate. They are also the victims and they are also us. They are also the residents of the city.”

John McGreevy, dean of the College of Arts and Letters, was one of two faculty members who contributed a blog entry to The New York Review of Books regarding the mosque controversy.

McGreevy and Scott Appleby, director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, compared current fears of Muslims to fears of Catholics in the 19th century.

“That they were anti-democratic, that they didn’t believe in American liberty,” McGreevy said. “In fact, over time, that proved not to be the case and I think that’s what will happen for Muslims as well.”

He also said Americans in the 19th century had a misunderstanding of the way Catholic nuns dressed — one that’s similar to the views some Americans now have of Muslim women.

“Some people in the 19th century looked at the way nuns dressed and said, ‘Wow, that’s strange and bizarre and women shouldn’t be wearing those clothes and why are they so covered?” he said.  “[Now,] most people are understanding of Catholic religious women who want to dress that way and I think over time that’s what will happen with Muslims.”

McGreevy said Muslims should be able to exert their religious freedom, just as Catholics did two centuries ago.

“It is a sensitive issue. I wouldn’t deny that,” he said. “But in the end I think we do more to honor the best American traditions by permitting the mosque than we do by forbidding it and stigmatizing Islam in a way that’s just not necessary.”

Junior Julia Cancro of New York, whose father was working in the city on the day of the attacks, said she supports the efforts to give peaceful Muslims a place to come together and worship.

But she said a location near Ground Zero is not the ideal place for any one religion to build a place of worship. Instead, she suggested a religious convocation center with a mosque, a synagogue and a church, for example.

“This might help resolve some of the conflict and would also give people who visit the sit a place to pray, especially since being at Ground Zero evokes a lot of emotions,” Cancro said.

Whelan said while she personally does not have negative feelings toward Muslims, Islamic extremists have changed the way many Americans think about a generally peaceful group of people.

“Terrorism is a factor,” she said. “It’s unfortunate, but I think it’s still a reality.”

Whelan said if she had lost her father in the attacks, a mosque so close to Ground Zero would be an “unnecessary reminder.”

“I just think it’s insensitive to people who lost a loved one,” she said.