Is Fear Contagious?

I was afraid to write this article.


Because I might ruffle a few feathers.

And because fear is contagious.

I've been following with great interest the story of Cordoba House, the proposed Islamic Community Center which has caused so much controversy because of its proximity to Ground Zero.

This story has created a lot of heated debate and fear. I've been afraid to express my opinions. But now I feel a need to speak out. Because I've met Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam from The Cordoba Initiative. In fact, I've broken bread with him. During Ramadan. In his home.

Like Jews all around the world, I had fasted on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, ending it most years with bagels, lox, and noodle pudding. At Imam Feisal's home, we broke the Ramadan fast by eating a single date, just as Muhammad did. Then we were served a delicious meal, along with powerful reflections and conversation. The mood was festive and warm.

My co-authors -- one Muslim, the other Christian -- were there as well. Along with a rabbi and several other people dedicated to our interfaith mission -- to change the world, one mind at a time, to be kinder, less afraid, and more open to discovering who "the other" is.

We fear "the other." We fear people we don't know. People we don't understand. People who we haven't even met. And fear is contagious.

My co-authors and I wrote a book about our interfaith dialogue and relationship, which was full of heated debates, tearful misunderstandings, enormous growth and powerful connections. We spent three years traveling all across the United States, speaking to interfaith groups from Boise, Idaho to Palm Beach, Florida. We spoke in a Holocaust Museum in El Paso, a mosque in Dallas, and an interfaith festival in Louisville, Kentucky.

We spoke to a Jewish mother fearful of her son's marriage to a Muslim. We spoke with Christians who had previously considered Christianity the exclusive path to salvation and were now re-examining their faith. Muslims everywhere joined the conversations we had about how to achieve mutual understanding and respect.

But, to be truthful, we were hardly the only people out there with this message. Everywhere we went, interfaith coalitions were thriving, all across the country, from Jacksonville, Florida to Detroit, Michigan. From the state of Arizona, through Colorado and up into New Hampshire. People were talking, listening, breaking bread together, taking action on social issues in their communities, and simply getting to know each other as people.

I remember the faces of so many people in so many places. But as I read about Cordoba House, I remember the face of one man in particular -- Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, as he described what fasting on Ramadan meant to him that night in his home. Quietly, he talked about the feeling of being hungry and tired, yet also clear headed. He described the sensation of lightness he felt when fasting, of hovering above himself, looking down on his body as he reflected on his life, soul and greater purpose. He brought tears to my eyes, and I never fast on Yom Kippur now without thinking of his words, without trying to be as pious and reflective as Imam Feisal was that night.

I know very well that Ground Zero is hallowed ground. My co-authors and I are all New Yorkers, who found each other in the aftermath of 9/11, when a Muslim mother had the courage to connect with a Christian and a Jew.

I also know how important and rewarding it is to take myself out of my comfort zone, to admit my own worst stereotypes and prejudices. To question my motives.

And my fears.

If an Islamic Community Center is built near Ground Zero, I can imagine the kinds of dynamic, courageous interfaith programs that will take place there, because I've seen them taking place all across our country.

"Usually when we can't show compassion for others, it's because we're in pain ourselves," the great Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein taught me this year. "Compassion is the quivering of the heart in response to pain."

As I hear people talk about Cordoba House, I'm trying to summon compassion for those on all sides of the debate. But I am also trying to stop fear from spreading.

Priscilla Warner is the co-author of The Faith Club. Her new book, about her journey from panic to peace, will be published by The Free Press in 2011. Follow her progress on her blog. And meet her mother at