Mosque controversy showcases failure to lead American public to understanding
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.
Douglas A. Hicks
August 23, 2010; 9:43 AM ET |
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