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A Chance to Build a Bridge: Why the Mosque Controversy Matters

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A Chance to Build a Bridge: Why the Mosque Controversy Matters

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Opponents of an Islamic cultural center and mosque planned to be built near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan cheer a speaker during a demonstration on August 22, 2010 in New York City. Activists both for and against the proposed Park51 project two blocks from Ground Zero rallied supporters near the proposed building site as the controversy continued.

It is one of those 3,000-miles-away issues that has captured the attention of the nation and even those of us here on the left coast.

The issue has spit members of both the Republican and Democratic parties in an election year. President Obama weighed in only to later muddy his position and the debate.

Barbara Boxer says it is a "local" matter. Her opponent Carly Fiorina disagrees.

Forget 9/11. The real reason behind the debate over the building of the 12-story mosque near "Ground Zero" in Manhattan has more to do with what happened after 9/11. Islam has a public relations problem in the west and it may have something to do with perceptions following the September attacks on the United States.

While the nation’s leaders were quick to isolate responsibility to a "radical" form of Islam that had attempted to "hijack" a peaceful faith, there was an unease developing in much of the country. Such a terrible act in the name of Allah surely would outrage the entire Islamic world.

But if it did, it was hard to notice. Many took note of images taken of Palestinians celebrating the attacks in Lebanon and South Jerusalem. We were told those involved were not representative of the Palestinian majority.

Indeed there was sympathy to America’s plight and condemnation of the attacks from governments throughout the Arab world. The following was the statement from a host of Islamic organizations in the United States.

"American Muslims utterly condemn the vicious and cowardly acts of terrorism against innocent civilians. We join with all Americans in calling for the swift apprehension and punishment of the perpetrators. No political cause could ever be assisted by such immoral acts."

But it wasn’t all about us. Wasn’t this also about the Islamic faith? Were not people upset that the name of Allah was used in this stunning slaughter of 3,000 innocent people?

Such was the question a year later when I visited Lebanon in an effort to see the 9/11 anniversary through the eyes of an Arab nation. The series of reports also pointed to the commonality of interests and cultures in the cities of Los Angeles and Beirut. As part of my visit I was a guest on the Middle East Broadcasting Network’s "The View," a show patterned after the ABC gabfest here at home.

I was grilled about George W Bush’s intention of invading Iraq, the reliability of the western press and requests that I report how progressive many Arab countries were in their treatment of women. Nobody seemed interested in talking about Islam's image in the U.S. or the concerns over misunderstandings of the true meaning of the faith.

I started to think that a western bias was behind this feeling that, if not from the hosts of the TV show, there should have been a vocal and unequivocal statement from the Arab street against this "hijacking" of a great faith. Perhaps. But street protests in the Arab world are not uncommon. If 9/11 was an affront to the Islamic faith it certainly didn’t achieve the standard reached four years later when a Danish newspaper printed a cartoon depiction of the prophet Mohammed. That transgression resulted in violent protests across the Muslim world. Protestors set fire to the Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran with over 100 people being killed. Many in this country were no doubt struck by how the publication of a cartoon was enough to incite millions of Muslims but the insult to their faith on September 11th wasn't.

My guess is that question lingers for more than just a few. So too does the notion that other faiths would have long ago chosen to move the construction of their place of worship as a sign of good will. When the Catholic Church was criticized for placing a Carmelite convent near Auschwitz, Pope John Paul II abandoned the project. The church had a strong argument to place the convent there, as a memorial to Catholic and Polish victims of the Holocaust.

But John Paul rightly believed it was better to show sensitivity to the Jewish community. His actions helped build trust between the two faiths. The Islamic community has an opportunity to do the same. Nobody is arguing that they don’t have a right to build it... they just are wondering why there?

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