Debate over planned mosque near ground zero seen as opportunity to set story straight about Islam
By Patrick Gallagher
The debate swirling around the planned Islamic cultural center two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York has been steadily gaining attention in the U.S. and around the world.
After weeks of protests, fiery comments from the opposition and numerous hate crimes committed against American Muslims, the Islamic world continues to react to the controversy, according to a media analysis by Babylon & Beyond.
While many around the world are outraged over opposition to the cultural center, others see the resistance to the project, called Park51, as an opportunity for Muslims to confront the proliferation of what they see as Western bigotry and set the story straight about their religion.
The United Arab Emirates-based Gulf News published an Aug. 7 op-ed article expressing resentment over the opposition’s use of the controversy for political gain.
“It is a deep outrage that opponents of this mosque persist in fanning anti-Islamic rhetoric for their own narrow political purposes. They are wrong to deliberately confuse the destructive and violent tactics of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, with the true Islamic way espoused by billions of people worldwide.”
In Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world, the Jakarta Post published a Sept. 1 opinion article by Achmad Munjid taking a firm stance against those who oppose construction of the 13-story Islamic center, which will include a prayer room. Munjid specifically argues against Republican Party leader Newt Gingrich’s comments, in which he accused Muslims of trying to impose Islamic law, or sharia, on the West.
Munjid responded, “People don’t need to sign up for graduate class on Islam to know that, much like Halakha in Judaism, sharia is understood by most Muslims as the Islamic principle on how to practice the faith in daily life, for example, how to pray five times a day and how to fast during Ramadan. Islamization of America? Even in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country with more than 230 million Muslims, the idea of state-a sponsored implementation of sharia is rejected by majority Muslims.”
Munjid continued to lambaste those in opposition of the Park 51 project by attributing their stance to ignorance, and offered this advice to Americans: “Don’t let bigots use Ground Zero to exercise zero tolerance on others and create a world full of prejudice and hatred.”
However, most Muslim commentators are arriving at the conclusion that there are serious issues with the West’s view of Muslims and that now may be the opportune time to correct misconceptions.
An Aug. 31 article in the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper by Abd-al-Aziz al-Tuwayjiri, the director of the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, scolds the opponents of the cultural center but concludes that it’s time to buff up the image of Islam in America.
“I believe that now is the time to move at more than one level to spread the facts about Islam, Islamic civilization, and Muslim world across the United States by all the available means, which are many. I have visited the United States last spring, and I have become more convinced that the Muslim world is absent from the United States. Correcting the information about Islam and Muslims (I do not say correcting the image of Islam) is required urgently in order to confront the currents of hatred and racism.”
Even though the debate over the planned $100-million cultural center is far from over, most Muslims around the world simply want to escape the image that has been forced upon their religion. Despite a recent poll showing that 71% of New Yorkers oppose the project, the majority of Muslim commentators favor the project and say it should be used as a means to tackle racism and misconceptions about Muslims and bring Islam closer into the mainstream.
Writer Aijaz Zaka Syed wrote in the late August issue of Egyptian online weekly Al-Aram, “I see an opportunity in this brewing crisis. Muslims must use this opportunity to clear the cobwebs clouding the image of their faith in the minds of Americans. They have an opportunity to remind and explain to Americans, and the world, that the destruction that struck the Twin Towers does not represent Islam, but peace, compassion and equality do.”
-- Patrick Gallagher in Beirut