Unsettling Developments Touching on Muslim Communities in the United States


Reflections on the Unsettling Developments Touching on Muslim Communities in the United States during the Summer of 2010 (Koinonia, a quarterly online newsletter from the Paulist Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, 38, Fall 2010)

Our society in the United States is now embroiled in a series of broad debates revolving around Islam and the rights of Muslims. The most engaging story is the – now controversial – proposal to build an Islamic center in lower Manhattan not far from the site of the World Trade Center. But, in other cities,  Muslims are encountering new difficulties in their desire to build centers and mosques, and one small Christian community in Gainesville, Florida, the Dove World Outreach Center, has proposed September 11 as “International Burn a Koran Day”. Even thoroughly settled Muslim Americans admit to feeling uncomfortable. Eboo Patel, the widely known founder of Interfaith Youth Corps, was quoted in the news recently about feelings of uneasiness that he had not known before now.

Levels of discourse in all these stories need to be kept distinct. Regarding the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan, known initially as the Cordoba Initiative and now as Park 51, there was much confusion initially regarding the facts of the case, which Jon Stewart’s Daily Show subjected to political satire but which political leaders exploited for their own ends, not without creating further confusion and highly emotional responses and reactions. Certain groups, some of which are Christian, as in the case of Dove World Outreach, have used the heightened feelings and public drama to promote discrimination against Muslims, even to demonizing them.

Several Republican officials and commentators have dissociated their party’s agenda from the negative message of these debates. Others have especially identified Islamophobia for what it is in the heated anti-Muslim and Islamic discourse. Some Catholic commentators have reminded fellow Catholics that they were at the receiving end of such hatred and suspicion at earlier phases in the history of our country, often citing mob action against an Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1834 or John J. Hughes, the first archbishop of New York, standing up to a Know-Nothing mob on the steps of old St. Patrick ‘s Cathedral.

One wonders if a world-wide Catholic conspiracy would have been conjured up as a cause of the Great Depression had Al Smith won the election of 1928 or, if Catholicism would have been branded a terrorist religion had Spanish agents been operative in U. S. cities disrupting the peace and even assassinating political leaders during the Spanish American War. None of the latter happened, but history reminds us that bigotry and suspicion are not new to our society. Anti-Catholicism still has a living memory and even more so, racial bigotry.

First, regarding the events this summer touching on Muslims in our society, we need to get some of the principal facts right:

1. Phrases such as “ground zero mosque” or “mosque at ground zero” are not correct identifications. The site of the proposed Islamic center and mosque is not at ground zero, but two blocks away in a busy commercial area.

2. There are other sites in lower Manhattam where Muslims have gatherd for prayer for many years, even before September, 2001. Another mosque stands five blocks from what once was the northeast corner of the World Trade Center site.

3. What is proposed for the site is an Islamic community center with space for a variety of activities, a sWimllling pool, gym, auditorium ami othcr racilitics and will include a mosque or prayer space. It should be added that since 2009, Muslims have gathered for prayer at that site.

4. Muslims can perform their daily prayers in any number of places, setting aside a spot and following certain rules of cleanliness. Il is highly possible that Muslims prayed in their offices in the World Trade Center. Since Muslims are encouragecl to gather for mid-day prayers on Friday, they did so on one of these lower Manhattan sites, for such is the main functions of a mosque.

5. Hence Muslims were among the immediate victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Washington, Dc. Dozens were employed and working in the buildings at the times; others were engaged in business activities in the commercial space around the World Trade Center. These victims far outnumbered those who were carrying out those attacks, claiming to be acting in the name of Islam.

6. Three days after the 9/11 attacks, Bishop Tod Brown, Chairman of the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, signed a statement with five Muslim leaders, each representing one of the sets of ongoing relationships on a national level between the Catholic bishops’ conference and Islamic communities in the United States. The statement was quite clear on its central point: “We believe that the one God calls us to be peoples of peace. Nothing in our Holy Scriptures, nothing in our understanding of God’s revelation, nothing that is Christian or Islamic justifies terrorist acts and disruption of millions of lives which we have witnessed this week. Together we condemn those actions as evil and diametrically opposed to true religion”.

7. No one has established a link between Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the head of the project in lower Manhattan, and radicals. New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne said, “We’ve identified no law enforcement issues related to the proposed mosque”. In addition, Imam Rauf has enjoyed constructive connections with the United States State Department.

8. The project has the approval of the appropriate New York zoning commissions and Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York.

9. Imam Rauf is a Sufi by background and training. Sufis often are leaders among Muslims in promoting interreligious ties.

10. Much of the polarizing political discourse surrounding the proposed project in lower Manhattan has come from outsiders to the New York scene.

Il. The Dover Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, which has proposed an “International Burn a Koran Day”, is an independent Christian community with roots in the Evangelical and Pentecostal heritage of the United States. One of the first groups to condemn this proposed activity was the National Association of Evangelicals, based upon biblical principles.

12. Bishop Victor Galeone, whose diocese includes Gainesville, condemned the activity as a desecration and reprehensible.

Second, there are a number of principles to keep in mind when reflecting on these situations involving bigotry against Muslims and their faith in the United States:

1. On the level of American civil and constitutional rights, the project in lower Manhattan and other projects around the country have every reason to build their centers and mosques, as long as local laws are respected and due process in the courts is allowed. Discrimination against anyone for reasons of religion, culture, ethnicity, or race has no rights under the law. All discussion on the basis of religious freedom should remain within the confines of constitutional law.

2. Aside from civil discourse within the confines of constitutional law, there is also a level of civic discourse on the appropriateness of a project for the neighborhood or environment, based on historical, cultural, and other factors, some of which are particular to the area. Such discourse is best aided by careful communications among all groups, respecting one another’s rights to express their views but in the hope that respectful conversation will take place with and among all relevant groups. This conversation cannot take place through public media, but through a variety of forms of consultation, especially face-to-face meetings. Decisions are best made after consultation. Voices of reason should prevail over voices of bigotry.

3. Compromise with extremism gives credence to bigotry and only delays confrontation.

4. For reason of their history in the United States alone, Catholics, who still have living memory of discrimination against them, might feel more responsible for recognizing religious discrimination and doing something about it.

5. Catholic religious leaders have responsibility in several areas. Any continuing hurt and any hatred or bigotry remaining among those who suffered as a result of the acts of terrorism on September 11, 2001, and its aftermath, must be addressed in a caring and open way allowing the pain reaction to be expressed. At some point, pastors can engage any negativity towards Muslims and Islam, especially any attitudes based upon false generalities, misunderstandings and errors. The teachings of Vatican II and subsequent teachings of the church since the council could be recalled, as the leadership of the church sought to reverse and correct centuries of animosities and negative teaching.

6. Catholic religious leaders should ground expressions of support for the Park 51 community and other Muslim communities in America on these same teachings of the church. Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have left an ample legacy of public teachings on relations with Muslims. They have stated and restated their respect for the founders and sacred writings of other religions. More fundamentally, bigotry violates gospel teaching and any rhetoric by Catholic politicians that violates Catholic teaching should be confronted in truth and charity.

7. Catholic religious leaders should join other leaders in their communities, especially in and around New York and the other regions of the country subjected to the attacks on September 11,2001, but also areas in greater need of interreligious communication in supporting interreligious relations and dialogue. Such general calls for greater rapport and ongoing dialogue need to include specific plans in each locality.

8. On the level of communication among religious and civic communities, the present situation in lower Manhattan needs considerable attention and study. Interreligious communication is best left to religious leaders and not to political and civic leaders. It is for religious groups to determine their representatives and public witnesses in the civic forum. Next it is especially important that groups communicate among themselves; for example, in this case, for Muslims in various neighborhoods and boroughs to communicate with one another. Finally, communication needs to be encouraged among the religious groups in a community, and this can follow any number of models for interreligious dialogue. No one model works best in all locations, but some form of dialogue needs to be tried.

9. Civic and religious leaders might also engage in a discussion of an appropriate way to recall the tragedy of September 11,2001, and other tragic events that religious communities within cities, towns and neighborhoods might address together.

10. On the level of learned or scholarly discourse, accurate education about religions and those who follow religious practices should be promoted at all levels of society. For Catholics, this is a diocesan responsibility as well as a necessary ingredient for parish life.

Maintaining rapport and trust is essential to ecumenical and interreligious relations. All religious dialogue and consultation takes time and commitments of resources. The situation in New York demonstrates what can happen when such ongoing contact is neglected. The results are the very opposite of Christian values. Above all, it must be kept in mind that all bigoted and negative attacks on religious groups nowadays instantaneously makes it way around the global communications networks and becomes the basis for nets of hatred and of violence against religious communities. Calling attention to negative and hateful language is best avoided as a strategy for dealing with such bigotry; however, there are times when even a small minority community needs to be criticized when it violates civil law, constitutional law, or the teachings of religion.


Dr. John Borelli is special assistant to the president at Georgetown University for Interreligious initiatives and recipient of the Paulist Hecker Award 2008 (1).


(1)  Islamochristiana 36/2010/317-319


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