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Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010

Islam and America

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I have been to ground zero and also to Milwaukee’s version of the kind of Islamic community center proposed for the site several blocks away from the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center.

I found both experiences inspirational.

We all remember where we were on Sept. 11, 2001. It wouldn’t have been difficult for Kit and me, anyway. We’d just returned to our hotel in Spain to pack to fly back to the United States.

We had a message to call our daughter in Milwaukee. That’s a chilling message you never want to receive. The only reason for an international call as we were returning home had to be some kind of tragedy.

It turned out to be a national tragedy.

I found out when I could not get through to the United States. I called down to the hotel desk to report the problem and got a garbled, horror-movie version of what had occurred.

The desk clerk said no calls could go through because there were terror attacks all across the United States and troops were in the streets restoring order.

Because flights were grounded, our stay in Madrid was extended a week while we pieced together what was happening on CNN and in Internet cafes. No one will ever forget those television images of people fleeing the collapsing buildings.

Almost as profound was later visiting ground zero with our son, who had walked home to Brooklyn from Midtown on 9/11 in shock. People naturally grow silent approaching the site. What happened there is still overwhelming nine years later.

The best, though, is remembering the national and international unity following that horrendous event. That rare moment in world history was President George W. Bush’s opportunity for greatness in leading a united America with support from around the globe.

Tragically, we now know even on that horrible day, officials around the president began talking about how to use it as an excuse to start a war against Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with the attack.

That act redivided America politically and turned almost every major ally around the world but Britain’s Tony Blair against us.

Nine years later, there have been ugly, inflammatory political attacks on Islam leading up to this year’s anniversary.

It’s not the leader of a tiny Florida hate group calling itself a church threatening to burn Korans. A small group of bigots would have been insignificant if the media had not fanned the threat into an international controversy.

Far more significant is the recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showing 49% of Americans have a negative opinion of Islam, the world’s second-largest religion.

That is actually higher than the negative opinion toward Islam in a 2001 poll shortly after 9/11.

It follows years of free-form hate-mongering on right-wing radio and, most recently, a decision by many Republicans to make opposition to an Islamic community center in New York an election-year rallying cry.

Of course, they don’t call it an Islamic community center. They call it “the mosque at ground zero.” It’s neither a mosque nor at ground zero.

The community center would be built several blocks away from ground zero, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich notes, “on the ‘hallowed ground’ of a shuttered Burlington Coat Factory store one block from the New York Dolls Gentlemen’s Club.”

An Islamic community center open to everyone would definitely be a welcome upgrade for the neighborhood.

Open Discussions Needed

Because so many people fear what might go on in an Islamic community center, the evening I spent at the one in Milwaukee is important.

It was in 2005, when memories of 9/11 were even more fresh. It could have turned negative because I went there to hear a Muslim who had been the victim of a deplorable injustice by the U.S. government.

James Yee is a Chinese-American Muslim who graduated from West Point and, as an Army captain, became a Muslim chaplain at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

After Yee objected to the treatment of some of the Muslim prisoners, he was arrested at the Jacksonville, Fla., airport returning home on leave and charged with capital court-martial offenses including spying, espionage, sedition and aiding the enemy.

Later all charges were dropped and Yee left the Army with an honorable discharge. He wrote a book about the experience, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire.

Here’s how negative it wasn’t. We had a great meal among friendly folks, mostly Muslims, but concerned non-Muslims as well. Yee and crowd members talked not with anger but with urgency about what we must do as Americans to re-establish our country’s ideals of religious and racial tolerance.

Every community in America should be so fortunate to have an Islamic community center where such discussions can take place.