Dear readers: this post is one of many which grew out of Facebook conversations, one in this case which was actually about something else. I was asked for my opinion about this hot-topic issue and this slew of writing poured out. I think the stuff that needs to come out is always the best stuff, anyway, right? Let’s hope that’s true.

And let’s talk about this so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” shall we?

I think first off, we need to ask ourselves whether all these slogans and cliches we’re always hearing about our country actually mean anything. Like, do we “actually” have freedom of religion in the US? ‘Cause if we did, that would mean that any religion could be practiced by anyone, at any time, anywhere, so long as laws weren’t being broken. And to their credit, I think most of the conservative commentators have admitted this – Sarah Palin isn’t going around trying to say that its “illegal” or “unconstitutional” to build a mosque close to the towers, only that she finds it “distasteful.” Yet aren’t there also fast food joints, bars, and even strip clubs (!) that are closer to the site than this proposed center would be? Would she find the World Trade Center Memorial Strip Club “tasteful?” (It’s not really called that, but it is closer to Ground Zero than this proposed center would be.) I think more accurately, she – and other conservative politicians gearing up for the upcoming elections – are using this as a wedge issue to mobilize voters to get to the polls. We’ve seen this happen in the past (gay marriage, abortion, gun rights, to name but a few), and it’s really scary.

But why would this issue be so important, so emotionally compelling for people? Clearly it touches a nerve and re-opens a nine-year old wound that won’t ever quite heal, but what is it specifically about the issue that irks people? Without question, it’s the religious element, more specifically the fear of the unfamiliar. (Isn’t it always?) It’s the assumption that somehow this “mosque” would be a tribute to the evil, fundamentalist lunatics who commandeered those planes, and that the families of people who died that day who visit the site might have some strange, foreign religious clerics wearing turbans celebrating behind them as they mourn. Nothing could be further from the truth. The man who is proposing this center, blocks away from Ground Zero, has repeatedly denounced the tactics of the fundamentalist terrorists, and wants to set up this center as a reminder that real Islam is a peaceful religion, and that Muslims who seek to kill “in the name of Allah” are blaspheming the Koran. Which is a claim made by none other than George W. Bush (to his credit!), who repeated it numerous times after 9/11. Sadly, we’ve barely heard anything along those lines from Republicans since those days. Why? It’s simple: because it might cost them votes.

And it’s worth repeating: what the 9/11 terrorists were to the Muslim faith are equivalent to what the KKK is to Christianity – a tiny, extreme, whacko-fundamentalist, fringe minority who happen to shout very loudly and use violence to achieve their goals. And sadly, because of how the media tends to present only the loudest voices, what many Americans who might not know any Muslims personally believe is that 9/11 was caused by “the Islamic faith.” (I have Muslim friends and have worked alongside Muslims, and the shocking revelation I’ve come to is that they’re just as boring as the rest of us!) Psychologists and sociologists have proven many times – as human beings we fear the “unknown,” and to millions of people who don’t live in cities where multi-culturalism is an expectation of daily life, the “unknown” poses a major psychological threat. But the reality is that the vast, vast majority of Muslims want the same things Christians want – to provide for their families, the ability to worship in peace, and to maintain their traditions. But again, because most images which the media presents of Muslims amount to scary terrorists hiding in mountain caves with automatic weapons, many Americans who don’t personally know any Muslims take these images and use them to fill in the empty image spaces for that “Muslim other” in their minds. It’s an entirely mistaken, “straw man” assumption. Not surprisingly, American history reveals this very same “image plug-in” has occurred in many manifestations: the struggles of both African-Americans and gay Americans, and the battle over Latin-American immigration all offer strikingly parallel examples.

What is a danger, and one which extends across cultural and geographical boundaries, however, is fundamentalism. Timothy McVeigh was “supposedly” a Christian, yet did anyone “blame Christianity” for this so-called “Christian’s” heinous acts in blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City? (No, in fact thousands of people prayed to their Christian God immediately after!) The vast majority of Christians would respond by saying that McVeigh wasn’t a very good Christian, right? Just as the vast majority of Muslims would (and have) denounced the September 11 attacks. So the more accurate issue at hand is the dangers of fundamentalism, be it Christian OR Islamic, and the insistence that “my way is the ONLY way”… which in fact, is not very far from Sarah Palin’s way of thinking. So if you’re going on the assumption that “Islam” caused 9/11, the protesters might have a point, but that’s not only an entirely mistaken assumption, but also playing directly into what the terrorists (who sought holy war against the West) wanted! Fundamentalism caused 9/11, just like fundamentalism caused the Oklahoma City bombing. Yet in that case no one started protesting Timothy McVeigh’s Christian church, because Christianity is infinitely more familiar to Americans, and somehow Christian fundamentalism is seen as “safer” than Islamic fundamentalism, which is patently ridiculous. Either way, innocent people died, and I bet the innocent victims of the Oklahoma City bombing could care less which brand of religious fundamentalism ended their lives.

And let’s talk about this “mosque” a bit. In fact, let’s stop calling it that! What is actually proposed is closer in intention to a YMCA, to a community center (remember, language matters!) with a basketball court and swimming pool, than some sort of terrorist training camp. This center is no more a “mosque” than a YMCA is a “church,” even if both are affiliated with religious faiths. One of the intentions of this center is to foster positive dialogue and peaceful discussion between Muslims and non-Muslims. Seems to me that’s a GOOD thing, right? What’s more, if the center gets nixed on the grounds that its “offensive,” imagine what an incredible recruiting tool that becomes for the actual fundamentalist terrorists, who are convinced that they’re fighting a holy war with the West, and that America at best finds Islam “offensive,” and at worst hates the entire religion and its followers. Let’s not hand them that easy ammunition.

Yet another angle, and one which I remember well from my days living in the world’s craziest, most intense city. I experienced 9/11 on the island of Manhattan, scared out of my wits, not sure if we were all going to be blown to bits or going to trample each other in a rush to the bridges. I turned down a temp job which would have put me in the tower that day. And I’ve seen the bumper stickers on vehicles (mainly large trucks with plates far from New York) driven by people who I’m guessing weren’t there. (Obviously 9/11 was a national event, yet I think the major reason it gets “claimed” by folks who live outside of New York is that it allowed people to have a concrete event on which to pin their confusion and mistrust over a world spinning out of control. But that’s another blog post.) Look, no one needs to “remind” me to “remember” that day; it is seared into my memory, as it is in the memories of millions of New Yorkers. Yet in all of this discussion over the Islamic center, no one – least of all Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck – seems very concerned about what New Yorkers themselves (and their leaders) think – the people who actually experienced this tragedy quite literally in their own backyards! Shouldn’t their voices count at least as much, if not more, than those of the Kansas housewives? After all, it’s THEIR city? (How much say do New Yorkers have over monuments in Topeka? Very little, and frankly, they don’t make monuments in Kansas their business!) And of course, the reason why Palin and Beck don’t touch this is that many New Yorkers are in favor of the center. Which isn’t surprising, given the open-minded and tolerant nature of the world’s most multi-cultural city.

So ultimately it comes down to a question of taste, or “respect,” right? I don’t think it’s being “disrespectful” for people to want to practice their faiths in a peaceful manner, and to demonstrate to people that Islam is in fact a peaceful religion. (In fact, what could be MORE respectful?) As Americans, what could be more “tasteful” than demonstrating to the terrorists and to the rest of the world that ours is a loving nation, one borne of acceptance and not hatred, of true freedom, not popularity contests, of multi-culturalism and acceptance of foreign cultures, not fear of the unknown, and that the very things which these fundamentalists fight to death to end are the very things which we embrace. Let us never underestimate the power that symbolic gestures carry. After the calamities of the Bush years, we certainly have some damage control to do to restore our standing in the world, and I can’t imagine a more “tasteful” tribute to the thousands who lost their lives on that day than erecting a purposeful, living monument to religious tolerance and peace.

Also, here’s a terrific piece by Nick Kristof in the New York Times discussing how the anti-mosque protesters are in fact ‘taking bin Laden’s side’ which underscores a lot of what I’ve said. So… enough for now. Thanks for keepin’ tabs, campers.