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American Today

First Person

The Anniversary of 9/11: Islam in America

By Mike Unger

the view from Ground Zero in New York City

As the world approaches the ninth anniversary of 9/11, relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in America remain complicated.

Controversies swirling around the proposed Islamic center near ground zero and a Florida pastor’s apparently now-aborted plan to burn Korans demonstrate the complexity of the relationship. For a little clarity, we asked three American University experts for their take on the issues.

While it appears to be perfectly legal to do so, do you think it’s proper or insensitive for an Islamic center to be constructed so close to ground zero?

Joe Eldridge, University Chaplain: I think that they certainly have the prerogative to establish an Islamic center. I’m sure that when this announcement was made the folks who were planning the event had no idea that it would provoke such a national uproar. I affirm their right to construct this community center several blocks from ground zero. Sensitivities not withstanding, I would hope that our nation is grown up enough to recognize that the First Amendment trumps all other consideration and that this should and could be a place for dialogue and reconciliation. It could be a symbol for religious liberty and pluralism that is a bedrock to our national identity.

Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, School of International Service: I, as a Muslim, would always support the construction of a mosque. However I am also aware that constructing something which is so overly Islamic so near ground zero, which is hallowed ground to most people in this country, is something that is bound to transgress on cultural sensitivities. This is where the Muslim leadership needed to show greater cultural sensitivity. I don’t think the imam in this case took this into consideration.

Abdul Aziz Said, Mohammed Said Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace, Director of the Center for Global Peace: I agree with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. We must not back away from the project. We should not surrender to radicals on either side.

How do you balance the freedom of people to practice their own religion with the very real sense of grief that 9/11 victims' families feel in relation to that site?

Eldridge: I believe that prior consultation probably with the victims of 9/11 would have been constructive in this case. Some of the victims’ families have embraced it and some have opposed it. I think it would have been helpful to reach out to have a serious dialogue to assure them that in no way would the construction of this mosque undermine or diminish the honor with which they wanted to respect the grieving of the families. There’s a lot of discussion of victims’ rights in this country. They do have rights but they have to be looked at in terms of the broader national consensus.

Ahmed: We always have to give way to human emotion. If there’s been a tragedy on that scale, we need to respect that. We mustn’t impose our own legitimate houses of worship, which are guaranteed by the Constitution. We need to be sensitive to the larger human emotion.

Said: Through forgiveness. To experience the tragedy in relationship, not out of relationship. And through healing.

A Florida pastor plans to burn copies of the Koran on 9/11. While it has been universally decried by almost everyone, what if anything do you think this plan and the controversy it has generated says about the state of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in the United States today?

Eldridge: It’s not good. I just saw recent polling that suggests the majority of Americans have a negative view of Islam. That has increased even over the past several years. The statistics are discouraging. I am encouraged by the across-the-political-and-religious spectrum conviction that burning the Koran is abhorrent, disgraceful behavior. According to General Petraeus it puts our troops at greater risk. I believe that. It’s like striking a match in a tinder box. Our relationship with 1.3 billion Muslims is fragile. We certainly do not want to take any additional steps that would further alienate ourselves from our Muslim brothers and sisters.

Ahmed: I have personally appealed to the Florida pastor not to do this because I feel it is un-Christian, it un-American, and it is something that will create problems unnecessarily for Americans abroad, especially our troops.

The relations between Muslims and non-Muslims is a very unhappy one. It is fraught; it is tense; and it is volatile. As a scholar of Islam I am concerned and therefore totally committed, and have been involved 24-7, in trying to create bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims, but the chasm is wide.

Said: I agree with General David Petraeus. Burning the Koran will give ammunition to fanatics on both sides.