By Kendal Conner
I still remember hearing these two words for the first time as I struggled to memorize them in the fifth grade. Our U.S. history class was covering a section on the U.S. Constitution and was taking the initiative to memorize its preamble.
To me, as I read through these aged words, I saw, for the first time, our forefathers’ deep and earnest desire for peace and unity among all the people of our nation.
Although there have been several moments throughout U.S. history where Americans have indeed lost sight of this original aim for unity, I consider none more recent than the current state of division we face between Muslims and non-Muslims in America.
This thread of disunity seemed to have begun ripping almost nine years ago after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the rip has only torn further in recent days with the widely publicized Park51 controversy.
Park51, more improperly termed the “ground-zero mosque,” is the name of the Islamic community center in the blueprint phase of being constructed in the lower-Manhattan region of New York City.
Although it is not actually on the ground-zero plot, the proposed community center and mosque project is only a short, two-block distance from the hallowed site. This close proximity is what has led to the inadequate yet familiar reference to the building project as the “ground-zero mosque.”
Over the past few months, New York City has been bursting with protest after protest over the location of the future Islamic community center.
The streets of lower Manhattan have been found on several occasions to be lined on either side with protesters who are either fighting against having any Islamic organization near ground-zero and those who believe Park51 is merely an expression of religious freedom.
For many, Park51 appears to be a battle over religion and terrorism, however, if given a deeper look, one might find that religion is not the central issue, but instead fear and misunderstanding are at this controversy’s core.
One of the main arguments for many on the pro-side of the controversy is that Park51 is a project not in partnership with any national or international Muslim organization.
According to their website, Park51 is an “independent project led by Muslim Americans.” Although some of the leaders of the Cordoba Initiative and American Society for Muslim Advancement, Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf and Sharif El-Gamal, are currently leading the project, Park51 is considered a separate program from these two organizations.
Also for me, as someone who does not practice Islam, and thereby has a very surface knowledge of the religion, I found a key in understanding this debate was to understand the difference between Islam and Islamism.
The first time this point was presented to me was in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal by Maajid Nawaz. In the article titled “Islam is not Islamism,” Nawaz makes the point that “Islam is a faith,” while “Islamism is the desire to impose any one of these interpretations (of Islam) over everyone else through state law.”
So, whereas Islamism is what has driven many Muslims to make extremist acts in the name of Allah, such as the 9/11 attacks, it is important not to blame these extreme acts on the religion of Islam.
This misunderstanding is what, I believe, has driven many Muslims to want to reach out to the community through the building of several Islamic centers all across America.
Although we did have much to fear after 9/11 for the protection of our country, my worry is that we are now falsely allowing ourselves to be fearful of all Muslim organizations and initiatives.
Yet, by saying I consider that we need to rid ourselves of this unjustified fear of Islam, I am not saying I agree with the building location of Park51.
While I do believe the desire to serve and reach out to the lower-Manhattan community is a respectable act, the fact is the controversy over the center has already overshadowed the center’s original intent.
It seems now that those behind the building of Park51 are not fighting this project because they believe in the location, but more so because they do not want to give in.
Yes, Park51 has every right to build its center in New York City, but it only seems respectful to choose not to build so close to such a hallowed ground in the city.
If Park51 is already experiencing this much controversy, fighting and anger before construction has even started, imagine what the organizers will face in the future of this project.
It seems that the wisest choice for the peace of both sides would be to change the location for the building project.
According to the Park51 website, they plan to include a public memorial for those who were killed in the 9/11 attacks and a reflection area within the community center. With this, Park51 claims it wants to honor those killed in 9/11, yet, with so many people considering the building of Park51 a dishonor to the 9/11 attack victims, it would seem the most respectable way to honor the victims and their families would be to move the building’s location altogether.
The question seems to have come down to this: Is fighting over Park51’s religious right to build worth jeopardizing the original intent of the building itself, which according to their website, is to “offer a friendly and accessible platform for conversations across our identities?”