September 1, 2010

Maine Voices: Mosque opponents following long tradition of distrust of difference

Americans are capable of acting to oppose discrimination when the need is apparent – as it is now.

By STEVE WESSLER

PORTLAND — In Billings, Mont., in December 1993, someone threw a rock through a window of the home of a Jewish family that had placed a Hanukkah menorah in a window facing the street. The rock almost hit the head of a boy asleep in his bead.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Wessler
is executive director of the Center for Preventing Hate in Portland (www.preventinghate.org), a nonprofit organization that develops and implements training and educational programs to prevent bias, harassment and violence.

The Billings newspaper responded by printing a full-page picture of a menorah. Thousands of residents placed those paper menorahs in their windows.

When someone painted anti-Jewish graffiti on the front door of Presque Isle's small synagogue in 1998, members of the community responded by walking together, Christians and Jews, on a cold winter night from the university campus to the synagogue. Together they repainted the door.

The message behind these acts is clear. We are all on this earth together and, unless we stand side by side in the face of prejudice, we lose a part of our common commitment to decency.

Faced with prejudice, each of us makes a choice whether to join or be complicit in bias and anger or to act with courage to stand with our brothers and sisters who are the targets of bias.

The Ku Klux Klan has deep Christian roots. Would Americans rise up in anger if a Christian group proposed to build a church near the site of a Klan killing?

In 1856, a period of intense anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States, a mob of angry Protestants burned to the ground a Catholic church in Bath. Would Maine Catholics have erupted in anger and hysteria if a Protestant church had been built near the site of the burned and desecrated Catholic church?

That there are hateful Christians who commit acts of violence partly in the name of their religion does not mean that Christianity as a whole is hateful and violent. That there are hateful Muslims who commit acts of violence partly in the name of their religion does not mean that Islam as a whole is violent.

The proposed Muslim center and mosque in lower Manhattan near the site of the destroyed twin towers will be a place for community and prayer. In the words of the organization seeking to build the mosque, "(I)t will serve as a platform for multi-faith dialogue. It will strive to promote inter-community peace, tolerance and understanding between the Muslim world and the United States."

Several score Muslims died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. One was Salman Hamdani, an EMT and police cadet, who died trying to save people trapped in the building. Another was Mohammad Chowdhury, who left that morning to go to his job at the World Trade Center. He never made it home. His wife gave birth to their son 48 hours later.

When commentators say that the mosque would offend the families of victims of the awful tragedy at the World Trade Center, they are not talking about all families who lost a loved one: not the Muslim, Christian and Jewish families that still grieve for their deceased relatives and that also believe that an Islamic center devoted to dialogue, contemplation and prayer is a good thing.

Sept. 11 was a tragedy for all Americans: Christians, Muslims, Jews, Budhists, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists, agnostics and others. No one group of Americans has the right to claim this tragedy as their own. No one group has the right to use the memory of Sept. 11 to sow division, strife and anger.

Yet some are trying to do exactly that.

The opposition to the mosque is based on negative stereotypes about Islam, confusion between the despicable act of terrorists and the tenants of a worldwide and complex religion, and, for some, raw bias against both Muslims and their faith.

The people of Billings, Mont., and Presque Isle, Maine, in the face of anti-Semitism stood together with the Jews. They said if you attack Jews, you attack us.

In the same way, if you attack a synagogue, it is my synagogue, too.

In the face of the ugly verbal and print attacks on the proposed mosque, I stand with my Muslim brothers and sisters.

Today I am a Muslim, and that is my mosque, too.

 

- Special to The Press Herald

 

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