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Mosque controversy showcases failure to lead American public to understanding

Douglas A. Hicks
Douglas A. Hicks is professor of Leadership Studies and Religion at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies and Religion of the University of Richmond and author of With God on All Sides: Leadership in a Devout and Diverse America.(Oxford Press, 2009)

A religious minority's mysterious rituals and seemingly un-American practices threaten civic order. The group's proposed building project is derided as a "national menace" in a publication.

The headlines are not from 2010, but 1951. The building project not the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero but Catholic schools.

I was not alive in the 1950s and thus did not experience the anxieties of the early Cold War. But along with the readers of these paragraphs, I do recall the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001. However rational we attempt to be, individually and collectively, in our analyses of the current situation, the shadows of the Twin Towers (and the Pentagon) continue to affect--to darken--our vision.

Leadership is, among other things, about framing issues for public understanding. The proposed Islamic center strikes at the very question of who is in part of the American community. For instance, local Muslim congregations helped support first responders on 9/11 with relief efforts. And people of all faiths -- and no faiths died that day. (So did citizens of some 60 other countries.) Yet in the rage against extremists who claim to speak for all of Islam, it has been easy for non-Muslim Americans to exclude Muslims from their narrative of who gets included in the American "we."

Thus the label "Mosque at Ground Zero" seems to fit the story. The debate over the Islamic cultural center is largely about the power of symbols and who is framing the symbolic message. The leaders of the project intended to build bridges, but before they have raised even a dollar, it appears that their detractors have succeeded in tearing down the foundations. The project's leaders, particularly Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, have failed to communicate the vision to the public. The coming days will tell whether it is possible to recapture the message.

The proposed Park51 project is modeled as a community center along the lines of a Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) or a Jewish Community Center (JCC)--an American form of civic space with ties to 19th and 20th century social reform and urban development. In this sense, it could not be more American in spirit. But is the project over-burdened with the symbolism of 9/11? Have the project's leaders been under-prepared for the kind of opposition they have received?

Abdul Rauf, a prominent Muslim American, has remained largely silent. He is traveling abroad on a trip long ago arranged and supported by the U.S. State Department. Abdul Rauf has served both the Bush and Obama administrations' public diplomacy efforts in the Muslim world. He joins a few dozen scholars and religious leaders who travel abroad as part of our non-military outreach to build bridges of cross-cultural understanding and mutual respect.

There is much irony in all of this. The very fact that he is in the Middle East becomes evidence, for his critics, that he is cavorting with terrorists. Does it not matter that he is on a U.S.-government-sponsored public diplomacy mission? At the same time, Franklin Graham and others criticize him and the U.S. government alike on the grounds that taxpayers shouldn't pay for religious leaders' travel. The even greater irony, of course, is that Abdul Rauf is serving as a spokesman for U.S. religious liberty abroad while being portrayed by many in the United States as a shadowy supporter of radicals.

A key leadership question at this point is how to move forward. Can the ironies be captured here and can the powerful symbols be reframed for a positive outcome?

In my judgment there are constructive ways to move forward. There are two levels on which to answer the question--the symbolic and the practical. The first centers on capturing the symbols that are at the heart of American values--and this story is so gripping because all sides seem to agree that the story captures the national ethos. The second level focuses on building some broad coalitions and strategic means for communicating those coalitions to the American public.

From my vantage-point in Richmond, Virginia, I begin the symbolic answer with Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom--the precursor document to the First Amendment. Jefferson argued that the Virginia Delegates who legislated religious liberty "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination." That is, although the fights in 1786 in the Commonwealth were largely among Anglicans, Baptists, and Presbyterians (with Catholics and Quakers more involved in other American colonies), Virginia's legislators had a much broader vision--Jefferson called it universal--of America's religious horizons.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in his Aug. 3 speech on Governors Island, cited a more local New York case, the Flushing Remonstrance of 1657, a statement of non-Quakers declaring the right of Quakers and others to practice their faith freely in this country. Bloomberg's was a powerfully symbolic speech, delivered against the backdrop of the with the Statue of Liberty.

The proponents of the Islamic center should not cede the symbolic terrain to its detractors. The "sacredness" of the World Trade Center intensifies the symbolic power, but the desire of Muslim Americans and their neighbors respectfully and peaceably to interact in a community center--from playing basketball to hearing concerts to worshiping God--is about as American as it gets.

On the practical level, Imam Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan face a mountain of work to recapture their message. They need to tell their stories to the American people. Just as important, they need coalition partners and allies. Yesterday was a beginning--perhaps a prologue to what could become a coalition campaign. On the ABC News program "This Week" with Christiane Amanpour, Daisy Khan appeared with Rabbi Joy Levitt of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan.

Daisy Khan stated that the leaders of Cordoba House/ Park51 project meet with the major stakeholders in New York City in the coming weeks. She stated that she, her husband, and other leaders of the project will remain bridge-builders and that the project will move forward. And to state the obvious, Abdul Rauf needs to get back from the Middle East and huddle with his leadership team--and then their coalition partners and supporters--in New York. And while their communications should reflect--not drive--their vision, their information buried on the "FAQ" page of the Cordoba Initiative Web site should become the core of their outreach plan.

It is time for leaders of Jewish, Christian, and non-profit organizations in particular to step forward as coalition partners with the Cordoba Initiative. I have written elsewhere about the difficulties caused by minority religious leaders fighting with each other in public and refusing to support each other's civic initiatives. It can get ugly: The Anti-Defamation League's public criticism of the project was a serious hit as this story gained momentum in recent weeks. The leaders of the project, with willing collaborators, also need to work beyond the media spotlight to work on the mundane details of a community center.

By Douglas A. Hicks

 |  August 23, 2010; 9:43 AM ET |  Category:  Crisis leadership , Leadership Behavior Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Beautifully written Mr. Hicks. Thank you.

Posted by: Lamb2 | August 25, 2010 8:47 AM

America is a pathetically stupid country, with a bunch of illiterate morons who couldn't name the date they were born. It's no unlike other countries in that respect, most people are dumb. But America somehow manages to inflict more damage on the world.

Posted by: dmblum | August 25, 2010 8:42 AM

Why is it called Park51 on first reference, and not Cordoba House?

Posted by: observant1 | August 25, 2010 7:45 AM

Those who practice white supremacy are angry and upset over this muslim mosque. They want their way or the highway when it come to their contrived sacred "ground zero"...

Posted by: demtse | August 25, 2010 7:39 AM

I don't think one can really understand the contours of the situation in the absence of a genuine curiosity to understand the 'other'... and a readiness to discard old ways of seeing for the newer ones... Isn't life rather boring, on either sides of the debate?

Anyway, it is true and I find it hard to dispute the claim that more civilians have been killed by US military adventurism than by extremist violence. It is most difficult for one to look into the darkness of one's own past than to point, misguidedly, at the monolithic 'other's'. Regardless, Ill pray that whatever the outcome, it be best for everyone.

Posted by: souljahzonfiya | August 25, 2010 3:15 AM


Posted by: chatard | August 24, 2010 7:39 PM

In a country where Sikhs were attacked after 9/11 because the rubes among us cannot differentiate between people not wearing jeans and NASCAR caps--do you really think opposition to a Muslim cultural center would be any less with a change in the theology taught there? You're giving the opposition to the Cordoba House much more credit than it deserves.

Posted by: youba | August 24, 2010 6:04 PM

Those attacks were done in the name of radical islam, but islam nonetheless, so the associations being made are not coming out of nowhere. There is going to be a message problem unless they (supporters of the mosque) keep unequivocally denouncing terrorists and those who support terrorist organizations. I think the builders need to be transparent about the funding and not accept funding from people, organizations, or governments that support Hamas or other terrorist organizations. I haven't seen them offer to do that yet.

Posted by: Arlingtonguy | August 24, 2010 5:42 PM

If ridiculous New Yorkers want to own the issue, and they want to build the mosque, let them. We then remove all federal funding for terrorism defense of the place, and throw San Francisco in for free.

Posted by: jhr1 | August 24, 2010 2:43 PM

Dr. Tawfik Hamid, a onetime member of Jemaah Islamiya, an Islamist terrorist group, is a medical doctor and Muslim reformer living in the West, said in an April, 2007 WSJ article:

"It is vital to grasp that traditional and even mainstream Islamic teaching accepts and promotes violence. Shariah, for example, allows apostates to be killed, permits beating women to discipline them, seeks to subjugate non-Muslims to Islam as dhimmis and justifies declaring war to do so. It exhorts good Muslims to exterminate the Jews before the "end of days." The near deafening silence of the Muslim majority against these barbaric practices is evidence enough that there is something fundamentally wrong.

"The grave predicament we face in the Islamic world is the virtual lack of approved, theologically rigorous interpretations of Islam that clearly challenge the abusive aspects of Shariah. Unlike Salafism, more liberal branches of Islam, such as Sufism, typically do not provide the essential theological base to nullify the cruel proclamations of their Salafist counterparts. ...

"Well-meaning interfaith dialogues with Muslims have largely been fruitless. Participants must demand--but so far haven't--that Muslim organizations and scholars specifically and unambiguously denounce violent Salafi components in their mosques and in the media. Muslims who do not vocally oppose brutal Shariah decrees should not be considered "moderates." ...

Tolerance does not mean toleration of atrocities under the umbrella of relativism. It is time for all of us in the free world to face the reality of Salafi Islam or the reality of radical Islam will continue to face us.


Posted by: marybimala | August 24, 2010 1:26 PM

Great column--coupled of course with some silly repetive rants from those who have forgotten about what Freedom of Religion is all about--and don't want to remember.

Posted by: yenta1 | August 24, 2010 9:32 AM

This column is a thoughtful, measured response to an issue that has spiraled out of control due to fear and distrust. Name calling and vitriol add only to the obfuscation.

Posted by: khrichmond | August 23, 2010 11:32 PM

Perhaps with all the present day litany of polarized debates we will find the needles in haystacks, needles of integrity and an ability to start dialogues for new solutions to old problems. In the mosque situation everyone is right! And everyone is wrong! The point is that we are sorely in need of dialogue to dig deeper,into the fears and prejudices that make us see "the other" as the enemy. My blog, "on the leading edge of change" at www.sylvialafair.com is an attempt to encourage dialogue. Our patterns of communicating are old and stale. We need to talk and listen before we need a mosque, or synagogue, or church.

Posted by: sylvia8 | August 23, 2010 10:26 PM

Quislings (like Hicks here) have apparently been in a coma (both before and after 9/11) since they appear to think 9/11 was the only incident of Muslims attacking non-Muslims. If they weren’t in a coma, there’s no excuse for such gross stupidity.

Muslims must take some responsibility for their global jihad when thousands of their co-religionists over the past two decades kill thousands of innocents of every religion around the world; and when they deprive non-Muslims of their human rights in 57 of 57 Muslim governed countries.

Look. American Muslims may be the very soul of moderation. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable for folks to ask for more from (allegedly) “peaceful” Muslims than disingenuous whitewashing of uncomfortable elements of Islamic sharia tradition, as practiced in Iran, Gaza, Kashmir, Malaysia, the Paris banlieue... and (pointedly) Cordoba House in NYC.

A genuine tiny minority of anti-sharia Muslims may be found @ SecularIslam.org.

Americans remain breathless in anticipation of the vast majority of (allegedly) “peaceful” American Muslims supporting this genuinely tiny minority of their anti-sharia co-religionists... but don’t hold your breath.

+15K deadly Islamo-supremacist attacks since 9/11 don’t lie. http://www.thereligionofpeace.com/

Don't parrot the propaganda lies of Islamo-supremacists your whole lives, Quislings.

Posted by: KaddafiDelendaEst | August 23, 2010 4:04 PM

I don't know how many times I need to repeat the message before it sinks into the thick skulls of Quisling apologists for Imam Rauf-- but my patience is spent with these lying, slandering idiotarians.

This has NOTHING to do with intolerance of mosques and everything to do with the apartheid Islamo-supremacism of Cordoba House, in particular. Somehow, I think Hicks wouldn't support an alleged neo-pagan's "right" to erect an eternal Crann Tara monument next to a MLK memorial.

But when patriotic Americans object to stealth jihadists-- and (yes) that accurately describes the Cordoba House cabal-- opening a 9/11 snuff porn vendor emporium (and jihadi recruitment center) on the hallowed graves of Ground Zero-- Quisling hypocrits shriek with indignation!

American Muslims may be the very soul of moderation. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable for Americans to ask for more from (allegedly) “peaceful” Cordoba House jihadists than insincere bromides and disingenuous whitewashing of uncomfortable elements of Islamic sharia law, as practiced by the Cordoba House cabal and their financial sponsors.

A genuine tiny minority of anti-jihadist Muslims may be found @

Americans remain breathless in anticipation of the sharia law vendors of Cordoba House supporting this genuinely tiny minority of their co-religionists-- but don’t hold your breath.

When will Quislings support Secular Islam advocates' right to live free from the sharia law intimidation of Cordoba House Islamo-supremacists?

Be advised these sharia-fascists have their eyes on your throats, too.

"Ye blind guides, that strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel!"
[Matthew 23:24]

Posted by: KaddafiDelendaEst | August 23, 2010 4:00 PM

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