Sunday evening I saw the season premiere of 60 Minutes, the television news magazine that has provided some of the most even-handed reporting in American mainstream media for over forty years. Scott Pelley’s feature piece covered the controversial Islamic community center two and a half blocks from “9/11 ground zero.” Pelley began by interviewing Sharif El-Gamal, the developer who has plans to tear down a dilapidated Burlington Coat Factory to build the center. It was important to see that this man is an American citizen, born of a Roman Catholic mother and an Egyptian Muslim father. He’s a quintessential New Yorker who modeled this project on the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan.
Then they moved on to Pamela Geller. To date, Ms. Geller has been the most outspoken opponent of what she calls the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Her blog frequently mentions the project, and she organized an enormous rally in opposition to it. Geller was unequivocal, and made it clear that her supporters are as adamant as she is that there be no Islamic cultural center anywhere near the 9/11 Memorial in New York.
Here’s the thing: that’s not the only “ground zero” site from that day. The other one is in the Pentagon, where high ranking military commanders defend the rights of employees to use interfaith prayer room no matter what their faith. Muslim faithful already use the prayer space of the Islamic Community Center in New York, too. Given that many people first came to this continent seeking religious freedom, do those who oppose this community center risk the label “UnAmerican?”
Pelley’s interview with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the spiritual leader of the center, was perhaps the most telling of all. Rauf sees himself standing as a buffer between radical Islam and American non-Muslims. He says is dedicated to the kind of mutual understanding that will prevent another 9/11. Still, he seems to be the most controversial figure in this whole debate, particularly after his reactions to political pressure that asked him and others to move or give up the project.
These are not problems that go away simply by moving them around. Americans are not children who push their vegetables around instead of eating them. No, Pastor Jones, burning the Qur’an won’t help, either. Pelley didn’t bother interviewing the Gainesville pastor, and other Gainesvillians are probably just fine with that. However, refusing to deal with their most difficult aspects won’t rid us of these problems either.
Jones’s failed campaign in to stage a veritable hatefest in Gainesville echoes an emotion common among many Americans: xenophobia. We talk about it far too little, but we feel it all too often. In polite circles, we deny ever having felt it. Irrational fear never appears very sophisticated. If Terry Jones’s displacement of xenophobic energies on a holy book reflects his deep-seated fears of Arabic text and Islamic education education (among other things), what other, subtler fears might other Americans harbor daily without really acknowledging them?
Take a step toward understanding how you really feel toward your fellow Americans and how they sometimes sound. If you’ve read this far, take the poll. Maybe you’ll learn something about your own fears. Maybe, as FDR famously said, the only thing you’ll have to fear is fear itself.
Not familiar with the Cordoba Initiative, the project behind this project? Check it out.