The Ground Zero madness is not an either-or proposition, or at least it should not be viewed as a for-or-against-the-mosque project. The larger issue, politics aside, is one of faith. Who represents the Muslim majority (or minority) in America? Therein lies the real challenge, or rather, confusion and chaos. In truth, with nearly 3 million Muslims in America, and thousands of mosques and schools being built (fundraising events are common during the month of Ramadan), the Muslim community in the United States is bound to multiply and therefore, magnify the role that Islam will (though perhaps should not) play in the American political scene.
The question of representation is rhetorical but relevant, as it is too often asked by Muslim and non-Muslims alike in this country. I make an attempt to answer the question by discussing it with my students and audiences that I am asked to speak to on the topic of Islam and Islamists (yes there is a difference; the latter represents a growing minority of Muslims who wish to govern by Islamic law in the United States and abroad). The answer is simple: no one represents Islam in America. After all, this is not Saudi Arabia where a particular view of religion dominates. Rather, there is a multitude of Islamic practices and preachers in almost every corner of America now. A new reality Americans are learning to live with (or not).
The Muslim voice in America has never been unified nor uniform. Just as people of other faiths are not monolithic, neither is Islam. While the historic battle among Muslims has been one of leadership (who should rule the Muslim masses?), there are now a wide range of issues that divide Muslims along the political, social and economic spectrum. When asked why Muslims fight, I tell U.S. military commanders, “We have always been fighting. But we also get along. The trouble is that we focus more on what separates us than what unites us as a faith-based community.”
And while debate often thrives in diverse communities and should be expected (though not always encouraged) by all religions, Muslims in America continue to be in the spotlight. More stories are now focused on how to cope with a growing community. TIME magazine’s lead story, “Is America Islamophobic?” is an attempt to take a deeper look at our feelings as a nation about a religion many Americans still don’t understand. I can’t even begin to answer how many times I’ve had to explain the concept of jihad in Islam, a term my editor says needs to be explained in my forthcoming book on Muslim women in conflict. A term that is common vernacular but not common knowledge.
Promoting understanding requires greater involvement. Too often, I hear Muslims advocate “We need to do something to change American foreign policy” but when not in the White House or in the halls of the Pentagon, the reality is that Muslims eager to contribute to shaping U.S. domestic and foreign policies will not be heard–unless they build a mosque at Ground Zero, which has become contentious, controversial and cause of conflict among Muslims and our political leaders on the rights of minorities in this country.
In truth, Muslims can shape the political debate by being a part of the political scene. I know I am not the only Muslim affiliated with the US Government. Currently I teach for the military and previously served in the intelligence community. Muslims need to take bolder and bigger steps for change in America. Standing on the sidelines in silent protest or gathering at Islamic conferences to discuss “community engagement”–the all too-familiar buzzword–is only one part of the solution. While Muslims participate in all sectors of American society, from philanthropists to peaceful activists, there are too few Muslims in the institutes of power, including the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. I realize that some Muslims might view the latter two organizations as symbols of the far-right or consider working as “spies” spiritually unethical. However, Muslim empowerment cannot come from constructing more mosques, alone. If, as many Muslims believe, understanding and tolerance are the key ingredients for mutual cooperation and a display of American citizenship, then it is time for Muslims to take charge and thus, shape Islam in America by joining hands with those who oppose the mosque project.
After all, it is possible to be Muslim and American. The purpose of Rauf’s mosque is to propagate that message, and yet, the opponents of the project increasingly view him as a staunch Islamist whose goal is to spread Islam. If Rauf intended the Park51 mosque to increase civic engagement among Muslim Americans and bridge religious divides, then the politically active debate (and disturbing discourse) about the mosque has had the opposite effect. More Americans are now aware of Muslims in their own backyard, and are perhaps being forced to take sides on the Park54 mosque issue.
I don’t know what Imam Rauf was thinking. Author of “What’s Right with Islam IS What’s Right with America,” he is not the only credible voice in the American Muslim spectrum. Before his book, Dr. Akbar Ahmed, the Dean of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., published Islam Under Siege (2003)–Rauf mimics Akbar’s approach and offers solutions to peace-building and inter-faith engagement between religious groups (though says little about Buddhists, Hindus and aethists).
Perhaps the imam should take the higher moral and political ground and move the mosque elsewhere. Relocating the mosque ten blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks will silence the political (and religious) discourse about a mosque that may not have intended to be politicized at all. Perhaps then we might also stop thinking that Rauf represents the vast majority of Muslims in America. After all, no one really represents Muslims in America.
Farhana Qazi is a Fellow at the Center for Global Policy and an internationally recognized public speaker on conflicts in the Islamic world. She is the author of Secrets of the Kashmir Valley (Pharos, 2016). She is the recipient of the 21st Century Leader Award, presented by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP) for her service to the U.S. government. This article was initially published by The Washington Post on Aug. 30, 2010.