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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Manhattan Islamic Center is Not a Local Issue

<e we really going to do this again? Can we really afford to fall victim to the same tribalistic tendencies? Is there no one that can stand up and say something? Over the month of August, as a result of the right-wing media’s blatant race baiting and Islamophobia, the story of a planned Islamic Center to be built two blocks from ground zero in Manhattan became national news. Those against the project labeled it the “Ground Zero Mosque,” and it stuck. No matter that it wasn’t a mosque but rather an Islamic Community Center with a prayer space, modeled after the Jewish Community Center. No matter that the leader of the project, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, is a Sufi Muslim, which is a completely different sect of Islam than that of Wahabi terrorists. The media is increasingly not interested in facts, interpreting balanced to mean simply covering all of the opinions out there.

Young, more moderate, media types yearned for the end of August to come. This story, they said, was a typical August news story where insignificant events are covered nationally because there isn’t anything else going on. Everyone is on vacation in August. After all, this was a local matter; why not let New Yorkers decide whether or not they wanted the Center, officially dubbed Park51, built? The news quickly fell into the destructive cycle of polarization. With those on the left calling opponents of the project racists, and those on the right calling supporters shills for terrorists and Sharia law, many moderates sat out.
But here’s the problem, Park51 is not a local issue, it is very much a national one. There have been controversies over the building of mosques all of the country.  Proponents of the New York project have made it a constitutional freedom argument and opponents an insensitivity one. Yet, at the heart of the controversy is a real adaptive challenge for the nation, which comes back to the question, are we really going to do this again?

Now, there is no doubt that America has been one of the most successful nations in the history of the world at assimilating outsiders. We are truly an international nation. I still remember watching the School House Rock movie in which America was referred to as the melting pot. My generation has grown up with that narrative. That said, we still have a history of making that melting incredibly painful. Whether it was the persecution of outside groups like Quakers, Catholics, Irish, Blacks, Jews, Russians, or the Japanese, while we have mixed, it has never been without some bigotry first. It has never been pretty. Do we really want that to be the mandatory price of entry to American society? While we have been more successful than any other, that fact does not mean it’s good enough. Who cares that synagogues cannot be built in Mecca? Who cares that Switzerland banned minarets? Who cares that the EU won’t let in Turkey because it is a Muslim nation? We shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to anyone but us. We’re America because we constantly strive to be better; because we are better. The only country we should be competing with is the America of yesterday.

So where does that leave us today? Debates about immigration and an Islamic Center in Manhattan need to be seen as what they really are, segments of the country struggling yet again with outsiders taking over and changing their way of life. But we cannot alienate those who feel that way. We need to bring them into the fold, help them adapt, and show them the openness they do not have the security to show others.
Surely, we’ve integrated before and we can do it again, but we must ask ourselves if want to do it the way we’ve done it before, or can we do it better? Perhaps the false controversy over President Obama’s religion is a good parallel. Instead of asking if he’s Muslim or not, let’s ask, who cares? It shouldn’t matter what religion he is or from what background he comes. In a nation of immigrants that should be the attitude we take. We need leaders who will engage the country, therefore, in asking the tough questions, so we can get back to what makes the nation great. We need leaders right now who will ask the right questions, and then reach out to others by engaging and educating. This country cannot make progress if these stories are interpreted as local news stories in a slow news month. Our nation’s attitude towards Islam is a big deal; lets start dealing with it.

-David Heifetz is a Carletonian columnist

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