In a recent Wall Street Journal article, terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann said that anti-Muslim rhetoric in America is bad news for anti-terrorism efforts: “We are handing al Qaeda a propaganda coup, an absolute propaganda coup.”
By many accounts, the man who could blunt the power of that coup is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the religious leader behind the planned Islamic Center near Ground Zero. The imam has been surprisingly mum on the issue while he travels in the Middle East. What message of faith could he offer to Muslims and non-Muslims alike that could turn this moment of division into a time of healing?
Not many of us get a chance at greatness, but one man has his chance right now. The man who can make history is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the religious leader behind the planned Islamic Center near Ground Zero.
He can lift America beyond bigotry and beyond hate by speaking a prophetic word as he travels to the Middle East. If he submits to God and speaks justice, then he can witness to his faith in God. He can give meaning to these words:
. . . Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be against rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts of your hearts, lest you swerve, and if you distort justice or decline to do justice, verily Allah is acquainted with all you do.
A few evil Americans hate this imam simply because he is Muslim. Such people are certainly not living out the Christian faith which commands Christians to love even their enemies and to do to others as they would have done to Christians.
Christians who would deny any right to build an Islamic study center at this moment should think carefully about the implications for their own projects. We do not live in times friendly to any people, including those of the Christian faith, who refuse the libertine spirit of the age. The same arguments may someday be used to create “religion free” property zones, if someone can express offense.
Some of the opposition to the Islamic study center is incoherent. Certainly any society drunk on secular values cannot then claim that the ground of the World Trade Center is “holy.” The sacred and the secular are at war and some secularists who oppose the center do so because they oppose all religious practice. They hypocritically use the screen of 9/11 to disguise their hatred of all religious practice.
However, most opposition to the center is not based on bigotry, but on reason and the experience millions of Americans have had with Islam in the rest of the world. It is hard to believe platitudes about Islam, when your grandparent’s priest was killed by an Islamic mob. It is difficult to be tolerant when your church’s medical workers are martyred by murderers never brought to justice in Islamic lands.
If Americans are to believe in a Western Islam, they have a right to be reassured that the past experience of Christians in Islamic lands will not be repeated.
It is difficult to see a study center raised near where other Muslims, even bad Muslims, killed Americans in God’s name. The Imam might be prudent to move the center he has a right to build.
The fact that he can do a thing does not mean he should.
A greater number of Americans fear for their future if Islam should grow in America. They do not do this out of unreasoning hate–rather, due to a sad history, they do not trust this man when he says that he respects the American ideals of religious freedom and the freedom to use private property to advance religious faith.
What is this sad history?
There is no nation where Muslims are a majority that Christians are not second class citizens. Christians have not always acted nobly or consistently with their own beliefs in respect to Islam, but it is a fact that no nation with Christians in the majority makes Muslims second class citizens by law.
The imam can scarcely take a step in Islamic lands without walking by a church made a mosque or near a spot sanctified to Christians by the blood of martyrs.
All over the lands where Muslims are a majority, churches are taken over and turned into mosques. Other churches have been sacked and sit in ruins while their congregations are forbidden to rebuild. Christians, those of other faiths, and even those of no faith, are murdered for practicing their deeply held beliefs.
This is a shame and a crime against humanity.
There is no excuse for bigotry or unreasoning hatred against Muslims, but Arab Americans have history to guide them. Where Arab Christians have become a minority elsewhere, they have died.
So not all opponents of the study center are bigots, some have had parents and grandparents who fled from oppression to the United States. What many Arab American Christians see when they look at this situation is New York City’s Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church in ruins, not rebuilt, and an Islamic study center rising near where Islamic terrorists destroyed an Orthodox church. They want to believe that American Muslims are as committed to American values and justice as they are, but they also know their own history.
What, they might ask, is different? A church is in ruins, but a study center is built. Money from Islamic states that do not respect freedom of religion or the rights of private property flow, but nothing is given to rebuild what was destroyed by co-religionists.
Saint Nicholas is not the first Orthodox Church destroyed by Islamic extremists and then not rebuilt while an Islamic center rises in its stead. All over the Middle East churches have been looted by men the governments publically condemn as “extremists,” but the churches are never rebuilt and the blood of the martyrs cries out for justice in vain.
In Egypt, Indonesia, the Sudan, Lebanon, and Turkey Christians live in terror for their lives.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf can submit to the will of God and stand firmly for justice for those who have no power to speak for themselves. He can stand for the Jews of New York City, forced to protect themselves behind metal detectors. He can stand for the Christian Copts of Egypt, terrorized by extremists. He can stand for the Christians in southern Sudan who are enslaved by Muslims from the north.
If he does, then he will find many of us ready to stand with him for justice. We know that every American has a right to do as he will with private property, but we doubt, for good reason, the commitment of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf to American values.
Christians know, to their shame, that there were times in the distant past when it was better to live in Islamic lands than Christian ones. By the standards of the times, Islamic lands were more tolerant than Christian countries. Jews, for example, had civil rights denied them in most Christian nations. But those days are long ago.
Christianity has learned the lessons of history, yet it is not obvious that Islam has. The United States has a huge, active Christian majority. It is politically potent, but individual Muslims still have greater civil rights than they do in most Islamic countries. This is certainly true of Islamic women.
My Muslim friends claim this is not because of Islam, but due to colonialism and other evils of history. Perhaps this is true, but it does not explain the treatment of the Christian “native” populations in nations like Turkey and Egypt. Christians have been in both regions longer than Muslims, but find themselves persecuted and embattled.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has the attention of the world at this moment. He can prove that he is not seeking extremist money or catering to the regressive elements in Islam. This religious leader can act prudently, help rebuild Saint Nicholas in New York while building a study center, and point the way to justice.
Non-Muslims are told Islam demands justice. Americans are committed to advancing justice and want to believe good of their fellow citizens.
Bad practices have often ended in America. A Christian majority learned to accept a Jewish minority as equal citizens. Women gained the vote without bloodshed or civil war. Now the wars of the Middle East can end here as an Islamic imam stands for justice in the nations where his voice is most likely to be heard.
This is a moment for greatness and one man can change everything.