I’ve heard the debate raging around the so-called “ground zero mosque” the last couple of weeks, and I see a lot of confusion as to why Islam is in the argument at all.  Pundits say invoking Islam as a reason to stop the development of the center is simply “Islamophobia”, and that a center founded by Muslims built in downtown Manhattan is fully in accordance with the freedom of religion inherently built into our constitution.  Or, conversely, they attempt to disassociate Islam completely from ground zero with statements such as, “Why are these attacks always described as Muslim Terrorism?  We don’t call Timothy McVeigh a Christian Terrorist”– the theory being that the 9/11 terrorists just happened to be Muslim, in much the same way that McVeigh just happened to be Christian. 

In the first statement they are exactly correct.  Indeed, freedom of religion is one of the key pillars that led the original colonists to make the hazardous journey to the new world in the first place. Most Americans understand this fact; building a mosque anywhere is inherently their right.  In fact, there were already mosques established before 9/11 near ground zero that have caused no controversy, and Muslims regularly pray in a non-denominational chapel inside the pentagon, built on the very spot the aircraft struck on 9/11, without any outrage.

In the second statement, they are completely ignorant of the facts.  Islam is not attached to 9/11 because of Islamophobic western reactionaries, but because that’s what al Qaida professes as their reason for attacking.  In Osama bin Laden’s 1996 Fatwa against the United States, titled “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places”,  the central theme was his belief that United States military bases in Saudi Arabia were desecrating Islam.  Not Saudi Arabia.  Islam.  Bin Laden needs no help from Islamophobes to paint himself as a radical Islamic fundamentalist.  He proudly cloaks himself in it. 

I have heard, “We wouldn’t have a problem building a Catholic Church near the Murrow Federal Building, so the ‘ground zero mosque’ protest is just a hatred of Muslims”, when in fact that misses the point.  McVeigh, while having been raised a Catholic, didn’t attack America because of his religion.  Bin Laden did.  There were no devout Catholics in Mexico pouring into the streets cheering the fall of the federal building.  There were, however, plenty of Palestinian Muslims who cheered the fall of the towers.  The link between the Palestinians and the 9/11 high-jackers wasn’t nationalism.  It was religion.

In the words of the Arabic scholar Bernard Lewis, “Muslims complain when the media speak of terrorist movements and actions as ‘Islamic’ and ask why the media do not similarly identify Irish and Basque terrorists and terrorism as ‘Christian’.  The answer is simple and obvious – they do not describe themselves as such.”

 And that is precisely the point:  9/11 was driven by a grotesque, twisted perversion of the Islamic faith, but the Islamic faith nonetheless.  Thus, the Park 51 project invokes powerful reactions, no matter the good intentions.  Surprisingly even our current – and first Muslim – Miss USA can see the issue.  Or maybe it’s because she’s Muslim, she can wade through the rhetoric better than most.       

I was in Texas this summer and saw a great analogy to the debate, albeit writ small.  Near a recreational lake a small child had wandered away from her mother, fallen in, and drowned.  Two days later, at the entrance to her neighborhood, a public service billboard was erected warning of the danger of the lake and infants, complete with a jarring picture.  There was no linkage between the billboard and the tragedy.  The contract had been purchased months before.  Even so, the billboard was crushing to the parents, reminding them of their failings every time they came home.  The neighborhood protested, asking the billboard to be moved.  Nobody said the billboard was evil.  Most agreed that it was, in fact, in the public’s interest.  They didn’t ask for it to be destroyed.  Just moved, because of the sensitivities of the family.   

In my mind, everyone supporting the Park 51 project on constitutional grounds could learn a little bit from the story.