At the beginning of August 2005, a DogCanyon friend in Austin, Texas, Glenn Smith, called me and said, “you’ve gotta get down here and help Cindy. She’s camped in a muddy ditch in Crawford with a bunch of veterans and military families, and she’s doing too much. She needs some support.” We had met Cindy Sheehan when we invited her to speak at an interfaith peace service at Riverside Church in New York on the April 4th anniversary of Dr. King’s speech against Vietnam.
In response to the call, another clergy friend and I flew down to offer pastoral care—this was just before the media feeding frenzy that summer, which turned Cindy into a national figure and shifted the polls against the Iraq War. We got there as the asphalt had begun its afternoon heat blast. Someone had found Cindy a tiny trailer as shelter from the unforgiving sun, sudden thunderstorms, swarms of mosquitoes, and fierce armies of fire ants. After walking down the road with her and meeting other campers, we took shelter inside for a half hour.
As we talked and prayed, there was a knock on the door. When we opened it, we saw a somber-looking man and woman. She was dressed in a hijab and long pale coat, and he wore slacks and a long sleeved white shirt; they looked Middle Eastern. The woman held a small picture frame with a portrait of a handsome, smiling young man wearing a mortarboard. As the man spoke, the woman wept and wiped her eyes:
We are sorry to bother you, but we came today from New York to speak to you personally, and we must return tonight. We came to thank you personally for what you are doing. [The woman handed Cindy the portrait and nodded as her husband spoke.] This is our only child; he was a good son. He was killed in the 9/11 attack. He was the most important thing in our lives; we loved him very much. We are so sorry you also lost your son. We want you to know our son would not have wanted your son to die for him. He would not have wanted a war; killing is wrong. The terrorists who killed him, they are not true Muslims. We want you to know Muslims believe in peace; we are Muslims and we want peace. We want you to know we support you. What you are doing honors us and our son. Thank you so much.
We’ll never know exactly how many people were killed in 9/11, but we know that at least 59 Muslims died and that Muslims were among the first responders who rushed in to help. Muslims suffered deeply in the wake of 9/11. One mosque was just 4 blocks from Ground Zero, and for 27 years, Imam Faisal Rauf led a community just 10 blocks away–Rauf also spoke at the same interfaith peace service we organized at Riverside in 2005.
On top of what the Muslim communities near Ground Zero endured from the 9/11 attacks, bigots have associated them with the terrorists who murdered those they loved and destroyed their neighborhoods.
We’ve seen this kind of hate-baiting before. Many of my older Japanese American friends were imprisoned in World War II on the basis of similar guilt-by-association ignorance and hysteria. The U.S. government eventually apologized for that travesty of justice. I hope we stop the travesty of Islamophobia now, this ignorant tossing of all Muslims into the cauldron of Al-Qaeda.
Fundamentalist terrorism is not Islam’s problem alone. I am a Christian, but I am in no way the fringe kind of Christian Tim McVeigh was. The Christians I have known all my life uphold compassion, love, hope, a fierce commitment to justice, and a desire to heal and transform the world, not blow it up. We know we often fail to be our best selves; we support each other in trying to be better people so we can help build a better world. We share this commitment with our Muslims neighbors. McVeigh’s kind of Christians, like his Al-Qaeda counterparts, believe God is a terrorist, ready and waiting to destroy the entire world on behalf of “true believers” when the time is right. Their ilk foments the emergency politics of fear, resentment, isolationism, outrage, and a murderous heart of violence.
A rabid Islamophobe and right-wing liar, Pamela Geller, founder of “Stop the Islamization of America,” stirred up this crazy fuss about the Islamic Cultural Center. Loonwatch.com called Geller “the looniest blogger ever.” She originally claimed the Center was an insidious terrorist plot. When it turned out Imam Faisal Rauf was a progressive Muslim leader who helped Bush reach out to Muslims after the 9/11 attack, the tactic shifted to claiming that the Center will violate sacred ground.
As Jon Stewart asked, how is an old, closed Burlington Coat Factory sacred ground? More sacred, say, than a space where Muslims can gather to pray? How many visitors to Ground Zero have ventured out far enough to notice the shuttered store or even remember it if they passed it? How many visitors have walked the neighborhoods around the area and seen the closed stores and struggling businesses? A thriving cultural center in the area could be an important part of neighborhood renewal.
Because of the venom of the attacks against Imam Rauf and the Cordoba Initiative, some Muslims are afraid moving forward will only lead to making it a flashpoint for Islamophobia. Though it took awhile, the U.S. eventually got over demonizing Japanese Americans, and, once the hateful and hate-filled nature of the campaign against the Center is more fully exposed, the hostility and uproar may eventually subside. Someday, we’ll able to point to the Center with pride as a symbol of all that is good about being an American and having the freedom of religion, and we’ll be grateful that the Cordoba Initiative built their Islamic Cultural Center at Park 51 in New York. What else could affront Al-Qaeda and Geller more than Muslims who welcome their neighbors, live peaceably with those of other faiths, and work to build a better world for everyone?