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).