I read a thoughtfully written piece by Roger Ebert today entitled, "10 things I know about the mosque." It was his assessment of the proposed construction of the Park 51 community center, which plans to house a mosque in addition to a wide range of recreational and educational spaces.
While I agreed with his final conclusion that the true reflection of American values would be to live and let live freely, I did not agree with his assessment that "[t]he imam would be prudent to chose another location, because the far right wing has seized on the issue as an occasion for fanning hatred against Muslims."
We should not be threatened by those who would promote fear and hatred in order to control culture and refuse tolerance. Islam is the world's second largest religion. A Pew Research study in 2009 estimated that there are approximately 1.57 billion Muslims in the world, which is about 1 in every 4 people.
Much like Christianity, which has an estimated 38,000 denominations, there are debates within the Muslim culture about the ways in which the religion is practiced, thus leading to a variety of sects and movements. There are radical, hate-filled branches springing from any religious culture, but these should not and do not define the vast majority. The Muslims living in this country are just as American as anyone else. They desire the same things as non-Muslim Americans: education for their children, adequate healthcare, employment, fulfilling relationships with others, and space to practice their faith.
The space proposed in lower Manhattan is not a selfish place, but an inclusive one. Park51 writes that its vision is "dedicated to pluralism, service, arts and culture, education and empowerment, appreciation for our city and a deep respect for our planet. Park51 will join New York to the world, offering a welcoming community center with multiple points of entry. With world-class facilities, a global scope and strong local roots, Park51 will offer a friendly and accessible platform for conversations across our identities."
The community center plans to house recreational facilities, a swimming pool, a culinary arts center, restaurant, a library, reading room, art studios, an auditorium, a mosque which is open and accessible to anyone, and a September 11th memorial with "quiet contemplation space, open to all."
Shouldn't we embrace such an idea? Why not build something like this so close to the former site of the World Trade Center? Why not use it as a beacon to the world that says, "We will NOT be afraid. We will NOT give into hatred. We will NOT let terrorists destroy our country or our culture. All of us, regardless of ethnicity or creed stand united as Americans."
There is a chance for this to be a positive turning point in our history. Don't let the hyperbolic, fear-based rhetoric win. This is not a game, nor should it be used as a political bargaining chip to sway voters. Those who would use it in such a way should be ashamed that they would deny fundamental civil rights and simultaneously encourage bigotry and fear to advance their own agendas.
Turn your face instead toward peace and tolerance. Only those who believe in liberty for all can truly be free.
(For more information on the community center)
(For Roger Ebert's comments on Park 51)
(The Pew Research study on global Muslim population)