Building Shared Cultural and Spiritual Spaces: Lessons in the Mosque Debate

As an American Muslim and a mother about to send my child to a high school located just blocks from Ground Zero, I am taken aback by protests around the country about the building of mosques -- the sacred and solemn spaces that I and my family seek out to find peace and prayer. This past Sunday, as I escorted my son to the first meeting of his new football team, I witnessed a heated protest against a planned Muslim cultural center close to his school. As strong sentiments against a Muslim presence and place of worship in parts of New York continue to build, I add to the list of a mom's first day of school worries: how safe will my son be as he navigates the journey from home to Lower Manhattan? Will he have to board a public bus that juxtaposes the crescent of Islam with images of the Twin Towers on fire? What lessons are my child and other Muslim students learning about freedom of speech when politicians like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich have turned our religion into a political football, erroneously associating Islam with terror and fascism? Can I really trust the Anti-Defamation League as a sound educator on racial and ethnic stereotyping, not just for my child but also for other students around the country?

Interestingly, I chose to send my son to Muslim school as early as Pre-K. He completed eighth grade in this same school, his Muslim identity sheltered. Yet, as someone who has been engaged in interfaith work for more than a decade, I was aware that he was missing out on a chance to be enriched by the diversity of beliefs that make up New York. I therefore made a concerted effort to connect him to diverse people, by encouraging his participation in neighborhood soccer and football, and bringing him to gatherings where he has met Jews, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists. When he gained admission into one of the most selective public schools in this City, I was excited that he would have a chance to study with children from many backgrounds. His admission offered another opportunity to actualize a teaching of the Qur'an: "God created nations and tribes so that that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other)." But lately, I have started to wonder if I did the right thing. Should I have kept my son in a more homogenous environment, far away from Lower Manhattan?

Critics of mosques are anxious that this place of worship is a hotbed of terrorism, where people congregate for the nefarious purpose of taking over America. Their fear is that young and old men, perhaps women and girls too, will go into these places of worship and emerge armed against America. I try to empathize with this sensitivity to Islam and Muslims, borne of a grief of having lost loved ones and having our country attacked. As a Muslim, I, too, deeply grieve the lives lost on 9/11. Yet I cannot accept a conclusion that my religion caused this violence, as much as I would not accept a claim that Christianity is responsible for the Holocaust, that Judaism is responsible for the crucifixion of Christ and the oppression of Palestinians, or that Hinduism caused the massacre of Muslims in Gujurat, India. It is not Islam or any religion that is a problem -- it is extremists within each faith that distort religious teachings to serve a political cause.

My own real worry is that without mosques, young men like my son, and all of us, will miss out on an opportunity to stop for prayer, and grow in inner calmness. For that is what houses of worship, whether a mosque or a synagogue, offer to our otherwise rushed lives -- a restorative healing that helps us build connection to self, family, friends and community. It is a place where we can be reminded of the power of all faiths to help us rebuild what is lost.

It is up to us to stop and notice, especially for the sake of the next generation of Americans, that what is being constructed, in addition to mosques and a cultural center like Park 51, is the architecture of a shared psychic space. Words are the building blocks of this shared space -- we can choose to lay down, brick by brick, the foundation of a polarized rhetoric, fear and stereotyping. Or we can choose words and images carefully, so they build an informed discourse, safety, hope, and reconciliation. We can choose words that educate the next generation of Americans about what it takes to create a public square of civility, respect, and tolerance for difference, where all our children -- no matter what their religion -- value the shared heritage they have as Americans. For it is our work today, and our words today, that will help make -- or break -- the next generation of peace wagers. That is my dream for my son -- I hope we can share this dream.