Interfaith Interaction: Global dialogue builds bridge for religiously tolerant future
This summer, controversy erupted over the construction of the Cordoba House – now renamed Park 51 – a couple blocks of away from Ground Zero. Costing an estimated $100 million to build, Park 51 is a proposed Islamic community center featuring state-of-the-art facilities including a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, gym, basketball court, restaurant, art exhibition, childcare services, 9/11 memorial, and mosque. Those behind Park 51, a group led by the progressive Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf, hope to use their project to empower the Muslim community of New York, pursue social justice initiatives, encourage open discussion and dialogue on issues of relevance, and promote greater understanding of Islam via interfaith dialogue. Despite these noble objectives, the construction of this mosque spawned a national controversy. Part of the controversy is understandable given the lingering national anguish over the events of 9/11. Some of the vitriol, however, demonstrates a brand of totalitarianism that is nonviolent but intolerant nonetheless. Fortunately, the protesters who have assembled at the construction site betray the cause of their fury: ignorance. We know this because their signs include slogans like “No Clubhouse for Terrorists,” “Stop the Islamification of America,” “Islam=Terror,” and “All I need to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11.”
This is not the only incident of a controversy over a proposed mosque or over Islam itself. Other controversies over proposed mosques have gained prominence in Tennessee, New York, Wisconsin, Georgia, Kentucky, California, and Illinois. In Gainesville, FL, a nondenominational church’s plans to hold an “International Burn a Qur’an Day” on September 11 were narrowly thwarted after riots in Pakistan and direct pleas from President Obama and General Petraeus. Muslims have become victims of numerous hate crimes, from a cab driver being stabbed after stating he was Muslim to a case of arson at a mosque in Tennessee. Ron Ramsey, a Republican candidate for governor of Tennessee, called Islam a “cult” which does not qualify for First Amendment protection. Tea Party Express chairman Mark Williams called Park 51 a monument to the 9/11 attackers, providing a place “for the worship of the terrorists’ monkey-god.”
These are just a few examples of what appears to be a growing trend of Islamophobia in the United States. If only Islamophobes would read the book they are burning, I believe that a lot of controversies regarding Islam in America would dissipate. A recent Pew survey on religion revealed that only 50% of Americans have ever met a Muslim. Certainly, we can infer a correlation between this poll and another one which found that 30% of Americans believe Islam is a religion that encourages violence.
On his website, Newt Gingrich posted that “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.” Gingrich and his supporters perceive a threat to the core American values that simply does not exist. According to a study by researchers at Duke University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the terrorist threat posed by radicalized Muslim-Americans has been drastically exaggerated. Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf emphatically states that “we [Muslims] condemn terrorists. We recognize it exists in faith but we are committed to eradicate it.” Indeed, the true way to undermine and destroy our civilization would be to reject our traditional core values of tolerance and pluralism. The Muslims of Park 51 are not seeking to establish Sharia law in the United States. Nor do they intend to contribute to Al-Qaeda’s global insurgency. Instead, they wish to combat the extremists and totalitarians within their own faith, something every American can get behind.
Policies and practices that treat Muslim-Americans as part of the problem rather than the solution are born of ignorance. Fortunately, there are organizations that recognize and combat this problem such as the Interfaith Youth Core, the Cordoba House, the Harvard Plurality Project, and Scriptural Reasoning. These kinds of organizations encourage people of all faiths to embrace the American tradition of plurality. Through education, they help not only to prevent the spread of Islamophobia and intolerance but also to diminish the strength of Islamic extremists who use any oppressive or hypocritical action by the West as a recruitment tool. Most of these organizations also emphasize community service initiatives, as most religions encourage combating social injustice and poverty. President Obama recognized the importance of the growing interfaith movement by signing a 2009 executive order to create the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Working together, these groups will not only create a more harmonious future for local communities but will also help young people establish firm religious identities based on mutual respect.
College campuses have been at the center of this new interfaith movement. As of 2009, the aforementioned Interfaith Youth Core has had a presence on over 50 campuses including Stanford University and St. Mary’s College of California. On June 10, the Claremont School of Theology announced that it was going “interfaith” and formed teaching partnerships with a Jewish academy and an Islamic center. The school will feature classes in which future imams, rabbis, and pastors will study together and hopefully learn from each other.
The Claremont Colleges have also embraced interfaith cooperation to some extent. The McAlister Center for Religious Activities has a chapel that is notably interfaith and invites all people to develop their understanding of religion. One of the most recent interfaith events was “The Eid Al-Fitr Celebration,” which the 5C Muslim Student Association and Hillel jointly hosted. Father Joe Fenton of the Office of Chaplains told the Port Side the event was a major success with a great turnout of people from a variety of religious backgrounds. Additionally, the Claremont Colleges feature a variety of Ecumenical organizations like Uprising, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and Populist Christi. What the Claremont Colleges lack is a student organization similar to the Harvard Plurality Project, which combines service and inter-religious cooperation. In this respect, Father Fenton acknowledged that there was a place for such an organization that encourages inter-religious dialogue.
It is remarkable to see prejudices disappear once someone takes the time to learn from someone else. To share a personal example, one of my mother’s most vivid childhood memories is of a burning cross placed directly across from a Catholic Church attended by people of Polish descent in Baldwinville, MA. A Protestant faction on the other side of town had put it there. It was a violent and terrifying image, which sent a clear message that the Polish were not welcome. Members of the Polish community, however, were deterred neither by this effigy nor by the local polarization. They recognized that the American Dream is pluralist. Funny thing about Baldwinville, MA – today, the town enjoys a relative harmony between those of different faiths. The visions of the totalitarians were swept away once the people grew to know one another as a community with shared core values of compassion and charity. A helpful reminder to those who would seek to divide us in order to score politically expedient points: history favors those who build bridges rather than burn them.