Omid Safi: Muslims in the Mosaic of America

There is much heat, and not a lot of light, in the discussion about the Park51 Community Center.

No, it is not the “Ground Zero mosque.” In the crowded landscape of Manhattan, two blocks away from Ground Zero is a significant distance.

No, it is not a mosque. It is a community center with interfaith spaces, wedding halls, reading rooms, and yes, a place for prayer.

So what if it is a mosque? We have churches and synagogues close to Ground Zero. To say that having a mosque presents a problem is to suggest that Islam and Muslims somehow are held collectively responsible for the crimes of 19 terrorists. Those crimes are their own and cannot be used to label 1.3 billion members of humanity. Collective punishment runs against the very foundation of our legal system, in which each individual is responsible for his or her own actions.


Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has been a leading voice in the interfaith community of New York. The mere fact that the establishment of this community center has been viewed as promoting jihadism baffles the mind and would be laughable if the charges were not so serious. Are the critics aware that this community center would include a swimming pool? This is hardly the version of Islam the Taliban or Wahhabis would like to see established in America.

Most importantly, this controversy is not ultimately about Muslims or Islam or the place of Muslims in the mosaic of America. It is about competing and contentious visions of America. It is about what kind of a society we wish to be and to become.

We do have a culture war in this country, and on one side we have people who see us as being made richer through our existing diversity, and on the other side we have people who are displaying xenophobic anxieties about the increasing religious, ethnic, and sexual diversity of America.

Omid Safi is professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author, most recently, of “Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters” (HarperOne, 2009).

  • Janice Schattman

    We forget our heritage. Christians, Puritans, Mormons and Jews were once struggling religious minorities–misunderstood, maligned, despised, martyred, persecuted and outcast by the dominant culture. You do not have to accept any tenet of Islam to see how Muslims are being scapegoated. As a devout Christian, I pray the First Amendment stands fast for my own safety’s sake.

  • J. D. Tant

    My objection to the mosque in question is not an objection to Muslims. I have friends who are Muslim, and we have spent enjoyable time together. My concern has to do with the perception in the minds of Muslims–radical Muslims–if you will, and there are many of them, even in the U.S. They will consider this a great victory for their brand of Islam, as they did the World Trade Center disaster. Mosques are often built on the site of great victories for Islam. The very name proposed, Cordoba, refers to the Muslim victory over Christians in Spain.

    It would seem that the moderate Muslims would not want to give a cause for celebration to those they claim do not represent them–the radical Muslims. The moderate Muslims should respect the sentiments of the majority of Americans who see this as an “in your face” statement that “we don’t care what you think. We’re going to build it anyway.” — J. D. Tant

  • Linda

    Why the either/or dichotomy? Why only these two options? This opinion piece seems to be shooting from the hip and is no more ‘tolerant’ and dialogical than the position that it is ‘criticizing’. Have you considered all the angles? Have you considered factors other than ‘Islam’ its perception in the US? Are you really listening to the voices of concern and to what they may be articulating? Perhaps President Obama put it well, when he said that Muslims have every right to establish an Islamic centre wherever they please. But, he had not commented on the wisdom of building such a place in such a place. It’s not only about rights, and the kind of America we want to be, then, is it?


    If the mosque/community center is truly about building/bridging interfaith communities, then also build a church and synagogue at 51 Park. Re: sharia law – (which Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf follows and wants to implement in America), America stops being America and becomes a Muslim nation. What a rude awakening for Americans defending Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his followers only to discover when America is taken over that your choice is to convert to Islam, become second class citizens (pay a tax and what happens if you don’t) or death by the sword (beheading) . What other religion practicing in America has waged war against us and uses rights guaranteed by the Constitution/Bill of Rights to undermine us? How about bringing these rights to the Arab/Persian/Indonesian/African Muslim world? Can the Constitution/Bill of Rights coexist with sharia law? Because I am a woman, the aforementioned would be considered treason and I would be stoned to death or beheaded. Nice.

  • Leadiya

    In anothe place… Why isit no”

  • Mark Richards

    If we are to consider “Ground Zero” to be “Holy Ground” then we need to have some understanding of what we mean by “holy ground”. Is it a place where we hold onto the memories of an act of hatred, or a place where hope is kept alive? If we are to have hope, we must begin a healing process that overcomes the bitter hatred of the event that is memorialized here. That healing process requires us to build bridges and reach out for mutual understanding. A Muslim community center can only serve to enhance the healing process. I would like to see all of the fast food joints, tatoo parlors, and card table T-shirt vendors replaced by community centers serving Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist communities. If it is truly “holy ground” then let us honor it with “holy community”.

  • Michael Connolly

    Let us of the Christian world first see freedom of religion in the predominantly Islam regions which includes the building of Churches, and then and only then should it be right for mosques to be built wherever in our Christian countries. Meantime the building of mosques in the Christian world should cease until there is a level playing field.

  • Lisa Garcia

    The world not just the U.S.. We have people from all around the world here. Each group is unique and valuable with much to share. I think its a good idea. We could learn so much from each other if we stop the fear. Someone needs to make the first step. Why not take it. History is full of missed opportunitys.

  • Eric

    If this 9/11 site is truly ‘holy’, then why is it surrounded by fast food vendors, t shirt hawkers, and the like? If it is truly holy, then it should be sacred ground, with ‘quiet’ space around it.. We should not allow any commerce for a space of two blocks around it, empty all of the buildings and turn them into nunneries and cloisters and spiritual places of prayer and peace.

    That is, unless the area is ‘holy’ due to the commerce, the exchange of money, and the generating of PROFIT.. Is profit ‘holy’? Is that why it is ok for hot dog vendors and t shirt sales, but not a place of prayer and community activities?

    Does anyone remember that this same anti-minority religion bashing went on with a Jewish Synagogue many years ago, also in New York City? It took an act of Congress to mandate that it be allowed, due to the sheer volume of hatred and fear of Jews at that time… There is still plenty of that going on, but now there is a new target. Fortunately, calmer, more peaceful heads prevailed with the Jewish Synagogue. Now the same thing can happen with this community center. As a matter of fact, the Jewish Community Center, is now working together collaboratively with this Muslim Community Center, to raise funds in the local community to get this done…

    That is, unless people are afraid of local home grown New York City citizens spending money on their own community. Should we start calling anyone who contributes to the building of this community center and is an American Citizen, a terrorist? I am willing and able to donate to this community center, and I believe many other Americans will also, given a chance.

  • Peace Think Tank

    Yes, Muslims and Islam are trying to take over the world. Get over it.. So is every other religion, including CHRISTIANS… They want to take over the world too.. and God is on their side.. So if every religion has God on their side, and everyone else is going to Hell, who is really going to Heaven? Now add in Armageddon, which most also believe in, and it is easy to see the problem facing all humanity.. Most religions want to destroy the world, and everyone else in it, except for those who truly believe as they do… Hmmmm.. does not sound like a long term successful strategy to me.. How does it sound to you, having all of these radicals with buttons for Armageddon type weapons at their fingertips?

    Christians have been killing and going on holy crusades for many ages, trying to wipe out the evil infidels in other religions and belief systems, as well as carrying their riches back home to use for the good of Christians. How could they object if these other religions did the same thing back to them? What is good for the goose, is good for the gander, or did I miss something?

    It may seem hard to believe, but this Christian plan for Salvation and takeover of the whole world, also included torture and the forcible taking of property, of US citizens, to enrich the church elders. This was exemplified in the case of witches being tortured or burned to death both in this country and in other countries.. Torture and killing others who have a different belief system, all for profit is good for Christianity, I guess. Nothing has really changed.

    Now the target may be oil rich or resource rich nations, that all good Christians can PROFIT from.. Under the banner of freedom and democracy, all good Christians invade, install dictators and hold the nations until all of the wealth is extracted and shipped back home, or protected from those other evil empires and religions; make up a name, Wahabism, Communism, Socialism.

    Just do not include Nepotism, or Capitalism in all of the evil ISMS that must be wiped out for the good of Christianity.

  • Lynne Monds

    I would ask J.D. Tant why the Park51 Center would be a victory for radical Moslems. It is not being built by radical Moslems.

    If a Southern Baptist congregation wanted to build a church two blocks from the site of a previous KKK cross burning episode or lynching, would anyone consider that a victory for the Klan?