Is Ground Zero mosque part of culture war or symbol of tolerance?

The debate over the so-called Ground Zero mosque planned for lower Manhattan is bringing to the fore a debate over the meaning of America's growing Muslim population.

Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor
Julia Lundy, a math teacher from the East Village and her boyfriend Matt Sky, a freelance web designer, show support for the proposed Muslim center near the Ground Zero site in New York City's financial district.

Most of the opponents of the so-called Ground Zero mosque, scheduled for construction two blocks from the old World Trade Center in Manhattan, say their objections are largely out of respect for the dead and concern for the families who have spent the past nine years trying to rebuild their lives.

But for a significant minority, Islam itself -- not the choices of some of its adherents -- appears to be the foe. In essence, that's a message of rejection to America's small but growing Muslim minority.

There's no way to know with certainty how many Muslims live in the United States. A census of America's roughly 1,200 mosques in 2000 by the Council for American Islamic Relations found that prayer leaders reported a total of 1.8 million worshipers in the United States. The actual number of American Muslims is certainly higher. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press estimated 2.35 million Muslim Americans in 2007.

Ground zero and beyond: four mosque battles brew across US

The good news is that most American Muslims are happy to be here. The 2007 Pew poll of Muslim-Americans found that 71 percent believe every American "can make it if they are willing to work hard," that "Muslim Americans reject Islamic extremism by larger margins than do Muslim minorities in Western European countries," and that 78 percent are happy with their lives here.

To be sure, there are splits within the community. While 68 percent of US-born Muslims -- mostly African-Americans – believe mosques should express political views, 60 percent of immigrant Muslims – most from countries without separation of church and state -- said they should not.

And Muslims are more socially conservative than America at large, with majorities saying, for instance, that homosexuality should be discouraged.

But the picture that emerges from reading such reports is far from some of the alarmist rhetoric being flung around on television and the Internet over the Ground Zero mosque.

Could opposition to Ground Zero mosque bolster the thing opponents fear?

Former house speaker Newt Gingrich said recently of the Cordoba project that "America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization." Voices like that of Robert Spencer, best-selling author of "Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam Is Subverting America Without Guns or Bombs," are growing increasingly influential. The staunch opponent of the community center recently told the Washington Post that traffic at his Jihad Watch blog increased 2.9 million this July, from 665,000 in the same month last year.

As a legal issue, the right to build the center appears to be well established. Backers received permitting approval from New York City, and with freedom of religion enshrined in the Constitution, it's hard to see a legal challenge against the mosque succeeding. Which is not to say its construction is assured. The group building the center still needs to raise the roughly $100 million expected to be needed to convert the former Burlington Coat Factory outlet on Park Place, which closed after it was hit by falling debris from the terror attack on the World Trade Center. With complaints about the mosque from a variety of quarters, raising that money has certainly just gotten a lot harder.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in his autobiography about the debate over the guarantee of religious freedom within the Constitution, making explicit it was meant to apply to far more than Christianity.

"A singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal," he wrote. "Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word 'Jesus Christ,' so that it should read 'a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.' The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim], the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination."

Recent posts at Spencer's site have described the developer of the center, variously called Park51, after its address, and Cordoba House, as an "Islamic supremacist thug." A recent video posted there by British activist Pat Condell had Mr. Condell saying the center was equivalent to "standing on their graves (of 9/11 victims) and burning the American flag." Islam "is a political ideology of hate ... Islam despises what America is, it rejects everything America stands for, including freedom and diversity, and any Muslim who denies that is a liar," says Mr. Condell.

In fact, Islam is a heterogeneous faith with a vast array of interpretations and ideologies embedded in the religion as practiced. Adherents like Osama bin Laden, whose personal views track with those ascribed to all Muslims by Condell, are in the minority. Far more mainstream are the views of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who will lead the mosque at Cordoba House if the project gets off the ground.

Mr. Rauf, who has worked with both the Bush and Obama administrations on Muslim outreach, has said he wanted to build the center near Ground Zero to work on tolerance and understanding and a rejection of the sort of hate that led to the attacks of 9/11. Speaking at B'nai Jeshurun Temple in Manhattan during the 2003 memorial service for Daniel Pearl, a Jewish Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped and murdered by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who helped plan 9/11 for Al Qaeda, Rauf said Islam and other faiths need to remember their common roots and come together.

"Today, we have come to pray for the soul of Daniel Pearl, who lost his life in the name of religious difference. We have also come to fulfill the spirit of the prayer his father Judea Pearl made... for a 'multifaith statement against intolerance on the basis of religion,'" he said. "We are here to assert the Islamic conviction of the moral equivalency of our Abrahamic faiths. If to be a Jew means to say with all one's heart ... hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one."

"I know the Muslim community's level of alarm has been raised significantly because of the widespread rejection of this mosque, and the polls showing 60 percent of Americans disagree with it," says Ihsan Bagby, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky who worked on the 2007 Pew study. He says the debate is being framed by opponents "basically to say that the mosque and Islam are the same as Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. I mean, to pick on Rauf is scary. If he can’t pass muster, then who can?"

To be sure, Mr. Bagby believes both Islam and America itself will ride out the current controversy just as past populist fears of Roman Catholics and Jews faded.

"After 9/11 and so many of the attacks on Muslims, there was anger," he says. "But it led to the establishment and strengthening of organizations that had as their purpose outreach, interfaith dialoguing, and I think the same will happen here. I don’t imagine it will increase in the number of people who opt for violence, but increase the establishment of organizations for dialogue."

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