Faith in Public Life hosted an unusual teleconference September 1, bringing together the odd couple of U.S. religious leaders and international relations and security experts to discuss the increasingly strident national debate, if it can be so characterized, over the Park51/Cordoba Initiative. That’s the Islamic community center and mosque proposed for lower Manhattan that has opened old wounds for some and provided Internet and political opportunists with new vistas of opportunity. While the religious folk, unified in their support for the construction of the Park51 facility, exhorted the members of their faith communities to honor America’s tradition of tolerance and acceptance of people of all beliefs, the security experts had a different, more nuts-and-bolts concern related to the ongoing and globally-publicized dispute: its impact in the Islamic world. Preventing the center from being finished through bureaucratic foot-dragging or bullying its organizers into moving Park51 somewhere else is no longer just a local matter for New Yorkers to hash out, they said, but a profound national security interest.
“Our national security cannot be based on stopping [individual] terrorists acts,” said Matthew Alexander, former military interrogator in Iraq, author of How to Break a Terrorist. “That will mean an endless whack-a-mole strategy. It must be based on stopping al Qaeda’s ability to recruit new fighters.” And Al Qaeda’s recruitment drives are best served by symbols that speak to Islamic resentment and confirm Muslims worst fears about the West. Abu Ghraib was a huge recruitment tool, Alexander said. Public opinion and political rhetoric preventing the construction of Park51 will be another. Americans will look like hypocrites “who don’t stand up for [their] values,” said Alexander. He said the controversy is being closely watched throughout the Islamic world.
Simon Greer, President and CEO of the Jewish Funds for Justice, said he was gratified that most U.S. Jewish leaders, representatives of a minority religious faith themselves, understood the importance of defending the right of Park51 planners to proceed with their Islamic Center when and where they wish to. “It is not merely a question of freedom of religion, although it is that,” he said, “or national security, although it is that, and not just a question of how we honor those who died on 9/11, although it is that, too. It is fundamentally a question about whose path we are following during this economic crisis: the Tea Party path of isolation and exclusion or a different path of interconnectedness and inclusion.
“As a native New Yorker,” he said, “it is clear to me that this diverse city has thrived because we have, more often than not, chosen the latter."
Constructing Park51 “will deprive al Qaeda of its number one recruiting tool,” discouraging terrorism abroad but also its homegrown variant. “Park51 would be a powerful symbol of U.S. tolerance and freedom that will stand in direct contradiction to al Qaeda's narrative that Americans hate Muslims,” said Alexander, who won a Bronze Star for leading an interrogation team that located Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. “As a symbol, its construction demonstrates that the U.S. is not at war with Islam and that Muslims are welcome in America. It communicates a message of moderation that stands in stark contrast to al Qaeda's bankrupt ideology. Symbols like this matter. Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and the policy of torture and abuse handed al Qaeda its number one recruiting tool. Those who think al Qaeda will not be able to spin this controversy to their advantage are disastrously mistaken.”
Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich, an international relations and national security expert, was also part of the discussion. Never one to mince words, Bacevich said President Bush did a lot of things wrong in the months after 9/11; one thing he got right was emphasizing that the United States was launching a fight against al Qaeda, not a war against Islam. “Being at war with Islam makes absolutely no sense,” he said. “Being at war with Islam means we in a war we cannot win.… The people who are contriving this controversy seem to will that such a war come into existence. It is absolutely imperative that we act together to deny them that ambition.”
The assembled faith leaders took U.S. politicians to task for fear-mongering and partisan maneuvering. "I feel compelled to stand against political leaders who are using this controversy to score political points. They are dishonoring the men and women, including the 59 Muslim Americans, who died on 9/11 at the hands of extremists," said Lisa Sharon Harper, Executive Director of New York Faith & Justice and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican... or Democrat. "If we allow fear and twisted truth to reign in this situation, we allow the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center to also dismantle our Constitution."
But U.S. Christian leaders did not escape criticism either. While some Christian leaders are actually cheering on those seeking to prevent the center from being built, just about no prominent Catholic, Evangelical or Baptist leader has come forward to support the proposal in defense of religious liberty. “I think that we are not in a moment of great religious leadership in the United States,” said David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University and co-founder of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. “Popular opinion is not going to determine what our faith dictates.
“Certain evangelicals are among those leading the charge, not just against Park51 but a broader attack against Islam as a religion,” Gushee said. “Jesus taught that they will know we are his followers by our love. Every time a self-identified evangelical goes on the attack against Islam and Muslims as a group, he or she hurts the cause of the Gospel. I call on my fellow evangelicals to cease and desist.”
While the national debate may have begun over the location of one Islamic center, it has now evolved into a definitive strategic and cultural moment. “The Tea Party [movement] is specializing in scapegoating and fear mongering, but they are doing far too little to offer real solutions,” said Greer, connecting the campaign against Park51 to a broader national reaction that includes anti-immigrant agitation and deliberate attempts to smear President Obama and sensationalize his efforts as “socialist.” Such reactions always he emerge during times of acute national crisis, as now, said Greer, with the United States at a crossroads. If the facility’s planners are “bullied” into halting the project or moving it somewhere else, these religious leaders fear, attempts to build mosques or other facilities for the nation’s growing Islamic community would universally be threatened.
Harper said she could understand the sensitivity of survivors of 9/11 to the Park51 proposal but wondered how those feelings could be factored into the civic debate. “Honestly, I understand the emotions that really are running high for many people,” she said, but “how many people need to be OK with it in order for it to be OK? Do we need 100 percent? Sixty-five percent? Seventy percent? What’s the quorum? The reality is many people lost family on 9/11 and among them are many who actually support the mosque.”
And how far away would it be OK to build? Gushee asked. “Four blocks, where there is already a mosque? Eight blocks? The issue feels like a red herring.” The American tradition of religious freedom has “drawn people here from around the world,” he said. Gushee called it a “bedrock belief" that "cannot be compromised."
"We’ve crossed the line if we say people can’t decide where they can build [their houses of worship].
“We’re in a fight to determine the meaning of 9/11,” Gushee said. “9/11 cannot be taken to mean a permanent state of fear, anger” and growing intolerance for Muslims. Religious freedom “is enshrined in our Constitution, deeply woven into our culture, and intended for situations just as these, where minorities need to be protected from fear, anger, political pandering and the whims of the majority."
Bacevich said he finds himself pondering the emerging concept of “sacred ground” as it has been used in the rhetoric raised against the center. He finds it odd that the “sacredness” of the neighborhoods in proximity to the World Trade Center can only be protected by the exclusion of Muslims, when liquor stores, strip bars and assorted other commercial enterprises remain welcome in the sacred precinct. “If indeed sacred ground is going to be a concept that we have to defer,” he said, “it seems to me it cannot be a concept that is used exclusively to restrict one group.”
“I speak as a Catholic, a historian of the United States and a student of U.S. national security policy,” said Bacevich. “It does seem to me we have in our past two competing traditions, one, a rich tradition of religious tolerance and diversity, and a another of religious bigotry that has fairly deep roots and persists to this day.
“Speaking as a Catholic—a religion subject to considerable discrimination—I cherish the fact that I can be a full citizen and also be committed to my faith tradition,” Bacevich said. “I find it unacceptable and deeply un-American to deny adherents of other faith traditions the freedoms I have enjoyed.”