Many Americans find it difficult to believe that the U.S. has anything to learn from Europe when it comes to religion. The recent controversies over mosques suggest otherwise. That's because this is a story that has been playing out in Europe for some time, with results ranging from restrictions on religious liberty to a worsening of tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims. America cannot afford to go down the same path.
Anti-mosque sentiment is clearly on the rise in America. Efforts to block the construction of the proposed Cordoba Center in New York City are the most noteworthy, but proposed Islamic centers and mosques in places such as Murfreesboro, TN, and Temecula, CA, are also under attack. Why? Some opponents are quick to cite mundane reasons such as zoning laws or increased traffic. But one look at some of the placards in a recent Murfreesboro protest tells a different story. One stated: "Mosque Leaders Support Killing Converts Tell It!" And one protester told a local news station that "[i]n Islam, a mosque means 'We have conquered this country' ... They're going to say, 'We have conquered Tennessee.'"
Opposition to mosques is rising in America because of a deep-rooted fear that Islam is a violent religion bent on terrorism whose increasing presence and visibility is a threat to public safety if not national security. Sarah Palin's recent tweet confirmed this popular conception of Islam. Coining a new word for the occasion, she pleaded with "peaceful Muslims" to "pls refudiate" the plans for a proposed mosque near Ground Zero. By implication, to build a mosque near Ground Zero is to engage in a violent act that, in Palin's words, "stabs you in the heart."
Deb Feyerick, a CNN reporter, reinforced this perception of Islam while interviewing Sharif El-Gamal, one of the Cordoba Center's developers. When El-Gamal made the point that Jewish community centers and YMCAs were located throughout the country, Feyerick responded, "But the Jews didn't take down the two towers ... But the Christians didn't take down the two towers." Her choice of words was unfortunate. The implication was that "the Muslims" (as opposed to some Muslims) did destroy the World Trade Center. Islam equals violence, terrorism. It doesn't deserve the same freedoms as other religious communities.
All of this eerily resembles European attitudes towards Islam. In Europe, some extraordinarily tough measures have been enacted to counter Islam's increasing public presence, most notably through the bans on veils in France. But mosques and minarets (the prayer towers connected to mosques) have also been targeted. In 2008, two Austrian provinces banned the construction of "conspicuous" mosques and minarets. The Swiss people voted overwhelmingly to prohibit the construction of new minarets in November 2009. And controversies persist over mosques and minarets in cities such as Copenhagen, Cologne, and Marseille.
Many Europeans are clearly anxious over Islam's increasing presence and visibility because they, too, tend to define Islam as an inherently violent religion. The Swiss campaign against minarets succeeded because organizers tapped into popular fears concerning Islam, with minarets portrayed as weapons used by Muslims to conquer Europe. Polls indicate that plenty of other Europeans share these fears.
For their part, Muslims have adopted an accommodating attitude in the overwhelming majority of conflicts concerning mosques and minarets. They have agreed to relocate proposed mosques to less central (and less visible) locations. They have modified architectural designs so that mosques look, well, less mosque-like. They have kept minarets relatively short so as not to rival church towers and steeples, or they have simply not erected minarets. They have developed creative ways to issue the call to prayer, such as short-wave transmitters and text messaging, to ease concerns from non-Muslims over hearing the call from loudspeakers. In the Marseille mosque currently under construction, a flashing light will be used to issue the call to prayer.
Over and over again, Muslims across Europe have responded with respect and deference to local and national concerns and have followed the relevant laws affecting where or how they can build mosques. This is a far cry from the violent, anti-democratic reputation that the Islamic faith still has in much of Europe. But the second-class treatment Muslims have received is taking its toll, and tensions are rising between European countries and Muslims, particularly among the younger generations. Many Muslims continue to feel like foreigners and outsiders in their own country.
The European response to Islam continues in many cases to operate on unfortunate stereotypes and caricatures. It involves rendering that which is visible invisible, that which is present absent. In doing so, freedom of religion becomes the major casualty, hostility towards Muslims persists, and opportunities to build bridges between Islam and the West pass by.
We should think long and hard about whether we want to mimic Europe in its treatment of Islam. Our nation prides itself on religious tolerance and diversity. Our Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. But efforts to prohibit the construction of Islamic centers and mosques undermine these principles and move us closer to a Europe where restrictions on religious liberty are the most common means of "dealing" with Islam. We also risk missing some of the same opportunities as Europeans if we oppose the construction of religious centers whose purpose often includes helping non-Muslims discover what they share in common with Muslims, either as people of faith or as loyal citizens.
America has a long history of learning from some of the mistakes made in Europe when it comes to religious toleration and liberty. Here we have yet another opportunity to do so. Let's not miss it.