The power of our ideals America's religious toleration is a potent weapon against Al-Qaida
Publication date: 2002-06-08
An American rabbi, Daniel S. Brenner, has put forward a fascinating suggestion for what should be done with the World Trade Center site.
Build a mosque there, he says. And put in a synagogue and a church as well. Or erect an inter-religious center where believers of diverse backgrounds can come together to discuss and honor their different gods in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
The point, he says, is to show the world that America's religious tolerance remains among its most cherished values. We should make clear to friends and detractors alike, he urges, that our dedication to first principles, including respect for individual religious conscience, is unshakable, no matter how terrorists try to undermine our confidence and divide us from one another.
We leave it to New Yorkers to decide what is best for that site. But we find the spirit of the rabbi's sentiment commendable.
As he indicates, America's safeguarding of religious freedom ranks among our proudest achievements. This is a country of Lutherans and Catholics, of Muslims and Mennonites, of Baptists and Bahai's - with each citizen, religious or irreligious, regarded as fully American in the eyes of the Constitution.
Indeed, America is exceptional in being a land where a suggestion such as Brenner's can even be considered in the first place. In many parts of the world, a call for such an inter-religious dialogue would be dismissed out of hand, since it would either violate legal strictures, run afoul of religious dogma or simply offend people's chauvinistic sensibilities.
These considerations bear directly on how Islam should be viewed since 9/11. Muslims deserve tolerance and respect. At the same time, they have an obligation to exercise maturity and responsibility.
The Muslim terrorists who committed the atrocities of Sept. 11 were evil men. But it would be a mistake to conclude that Islam itself is an evil religion. America has serious grievances against Osama bin Laden and other like-minded radicals who have distorted Islamic tenets to promote terror and death. Such men are our enemies. The global Muslim community is not.
These concerns also have resonance within our own borders. Terrorist attacks should not be allowed to push Americans of Muslim or Arab background into second-class status in terms of the respect they receive from their fellow citizens.
At the same time, the gravity of the threat against this country warrants an aggressive response by law enforcement. As agencies work to track down al-Qaida members and ensure public safety, difficult questions involving civil liberties inevitably arise. Law enforcement will need to exercise a sense of proportion. So will leaders in the Muslim-American community, who can help by acknowledging the complexities of this situation.
Muslims overseas have an obligation, too. They bring themselves no credit when they prove receptive to anti-Semitic rhetoric and anti-American conspiracy theories touted by segments of the foreign press and over the Internet. The casual acceptance of such hate- mongering is reminiscent of the way Europeans during the Middle Ages provided an enthusiastic audience for anti-Islamic poetry that depicted the prophet Mohammed in offensive ways and slurred Muslim beliefs.
America's insistence on respect across religious lines can help provide an antidote to the hatred and prejudice on ready display in much of the world. The more that Americans stand up for their ideals at this time of crisis, the more the hollowness of the terrorists' cause will be revealed.
©Copyright 2002, Omaha World - Herald