Ground Zero for American Islam

A few weeks ago, we were all talking about race. An event—the accidental firing of Shirley Sherrod, a USDA employee—set off one of those “national conversations”:  a spurious debate driven by a cable chatter, rising incessantly until the next blip arrives. The conversations are then capped off by one, maybe two, Times columnists.

Now we’ve turned to religion. This “conversation” centers on Park51, the proposed Islamic center better known by the pejorative “Ground Zero mosque.” But we’re talking the wrong talk. All of the opposition to the center, and the many eloquent defenses (none perhaps more succinct and powerful than Jeffrey Goldberg’s), focus on whether or not the center should be built. Before this question erupted, however, the leaders behind the center were not concerned with the First Amendment. They hoped to carve out a new space for an American religion.

I wrote a piece over at Religion Dispatches trying to hash this out. When Park51’s creators first conceived of the center, its location did not even cross their minds. It was close to their mosque. This was more than 10 years ago, mind you, and the plans were disrupted by the tragedy of 9/11. Here’s what Daisy Khan, a Cordoba Initiative leader, told me:

For the Muslim religion to truly evolve, to be truly seen as an American religion, it has to evolve from a pure place of worship to one that serves the wider public.

It’s a step, fraught with tension, that each American faith has taken. In the piece, I briefly mentioned an article by Hussein Rashid, a fellow RD writer and New Yorker, that touched upon the inherent complications of speaking for American Islam. He brought up Park51, noting he was “deeply ambivalent” about it for these reasons.

So I called him up. He is an adamant defender of the right for the center to be built. “Everyone is talking about the right of religious freedom,” he said of the center. “No one,” he went on, “is talking about what good the center will do.” Once you move past the “mosque” hysteria, it’s fairly easy to learn that Park51 is modeled after other religious centers. The Cordoba Initiative consulted with the Jewish Community Center and hopes to host an interfaith board. “They’ve done a really good job of getting interfaith support,” Hussein continued, “but I don’t think they’ve got a lot of intra-faith support.”

New York City contains a multitude of expressions of Islam. Park51 recognizes this even while it intends to forge an Islamic identity that is authentically American. As Hussein wrote, this tactic can easily fall prey to a dangerous “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim dichotomy.” (He does not accuse the Cordoba Initiative of employing this dichotomy, but merely cautions against it.) Hussein agreed with Khan that Islam was moving through a period of integration into the “American religious landscape.” The important question, he posited, is whether it resembles the top-down culture of the Catholic Church or a more horizontal approach. The source of his ambivalence, and that of other New York Muslims, Hussein told me, is that he has yet to see the clear model Park51 is using to shape this integration.

Of course, this model is muddled by the ballyhoo of our national “conversation” about the “Ground Zero mosque.” Once the center rises, and the dust settles, maybe we will turn instead to this deeper dialogue about the future of American Islam.

Mark Bergen is a contributing editor at KtB. He lives in Chicago and blogs here.