Mosque controversy: A case of ‘No Muslims need apply’?

| September 3, 2010 | 2 Comments

The debate over whether or not to allow the construction of a mosque and Islamic cultural center near ground zero in New York has ignited heated discussion in recent weeks among a steady stream of politicians, talk show hosts and demonstrators both for and against the proposal.

Supporters of the project cite the American principle of religious liberty as an important reason to allow the project to move ahead. Opponents, however, while noting they support religious freedoms, question the appropriateness of building an Islamic worship site in the vicinity where Americans were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

While the mosque has been the visible focus of the debate, one can’t help but sense a concern among some opponents regarding the Islamic faith itself, and that prompts a very serious question: Should the growing number of American Muslims be welcomed as an integral part of our nation’s 21st-century cultural and religious landscapes, or is Islam something we should fear as a malevolent, outside influence that is incompatible with American values and should be eyed with suspicion?

Our own history

Catholics should take particular note of that question because today’s American Muslims face some of the same kind of misconceptions and xenophobia that Catholics did when they began arriving on these shores.

“The neophytes in society are always on the outside,” Georgetown University theology professor Chester Gillis recently told Catholic News Service. “With Catholics, people feared they would have loyalty to a foreign power, the Holy See.” With Muslims, people fear a possible connection to an Islamic government or to a terrorist organization.

Gillis cited “No Irish Need Apply” signs in the 19th century as an example of the fears some people had about how American society might be changed by the faith and culture of Catholic immigrants.

The Catholic Church is certainly sensitive to such history, including the sometimes turbulent history between Christianity and Islam. But Pope Benedict XVI, who has had some challenging encounters with Islam, has nevertheless chosen to reach out in dialogue to Muslims. Back in 2008, he told members of a Catholic-Muslim forum that loving God and loving our neighbor are at “the heart of Islam and Christianity alike.” He said believing in one God obliges Catholics and Muslims to respect one another, work together to defend human rights and help those who are suffering.

The pope views Islam as part of the contemporary world’s religious and cultural landscapes, a religion with which we should be building bridges instead of burning them.

That doesn’t mean building bridges with those — like the 9/11 terrorists — who have perverted ideas about religion. Violence in the name of any religion must always be condemned. But it means building bridges with the vast majority of Muslims who are trying to live good lives just as the vast majority of Christians are trying to do.

The Muslim leaders behind the New York Islamic center appear to be among those willing to work toward improving relations between Islam and the West and promoting human rights. Right now in Manhattan, however, there is more bridge-burning than bridge-building going on.

The right approach

In the midst of all the heat the mosque controversy has generated, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan has tried to bring some much-needed light to the discussion.

Writing on his blog, the archbishop has noted that both sides in the debate have legitimate questions and concerns that need to be addressed. People can legitimately debate the propriety of building an Islamic center near ground zero.

But such matters must be addressed in a spirit of civility and charity, without presuming the worst about others. It is not acceptable, the archbishop said, “to prejudge any group, or to let fear and bias trump the towering American (and for us Catholics, the religious) virtues of hospitality, welcome, and religious freedom.”

Archbishop Dolan said the archdiocese “hopes to cooperate with other religious leaders in laying the groundwork for a long-term relationship with the city’s diverse Islamic groups, extending the hand of friendship long overdue between both of our communities.”

The goal is a good one for New Yorkers in light of the mosque debate. But getting to know the local Muslim community better and extending the hand of friendship is also a long overdue goal to strive for in other places around the country, including here in Minnesota.

It’s one necessary step toward building bridges with newcomers of all faiths instead of burning them, and avoiding controversies like the one New York is now facing.


Category: Editorials