Lost in the furor over the proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero is a simple fact: The opposition to the center is the strongest argument in favor of it going right where it is planned. By most accounts, much of the opposition is based on an inaccurate conflation of Islam with terrorism, stemming from ignorance about the Muslim religion, culture and people. While troubling, this is hardly surprising in a nation in which a significant minority of Americans believe that our Christian president is Muslim (and so what if he were?).
Exiling the center to another part of Manhattan will expand and deepen the gulf between the Islamic community and its neighbors. The best way to bridge this gap is to help people understand that their trepidation is based not in reality but born of a myth that has been cruelly exploited. The Islamic cultural center can help span this chasm.
Of course, it’s not fair to expect a minority community to educate the majority, especially when the majority is so hostile to it. Sadly, minorities have long shouldered the burden of proving to the majority that they pose no threat, that they are not inferior and that they, too, deserve everything the majority takes for granted as its due — while patiently enduring misunderstanding and even abuse. They do all this in the face of demands that they are going too fast, pushing too hard and making life too uncomfortable for others.
That was the case in 1963 when white ministers in Birmingham, Ala., accused Martin Luther King Jr. of exacerbating racial tensions by leading protests against the city’s segregation laws. They called his actions “unwise and untimely.” Dr. King responded with his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he wrote: “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ ”
Nearly 50 years later, it is Muslims who are being told to wait, to go away and remain out of sight until their presence can be tolerated by others. While much has changed in the past five decades, the drumbeat against the Islamic center echoes the calls of the well-meaning but misguided Birmingham ministers. Following in the footsteps of those who called for King and his “outsiders” to retreat, opponents of the cultural center urge that it be banished to another neighborhood because its presence near Ground Zero is unsettling and potentially dangerous.
But forcing the Islamic center out of sight will only allow ignorance and fear to fester and grow. It will keep more Americans from learning a lesson that King shared with the ministers: “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
If the center is established in Lower Manhattan, the people most opposed to it now will eventually have a chance to learn that Muslims aren’t the enemy. That they aren’t dangerous or terrorists or even, in fact, outsiders. They are the lady who smiles at them in the grocery store; the teenager who roots for the Yankees; the little girl who plays with their daughter. Muslims are their neighbors. They are Americans. They are their friends.
The Islamic center needs to be right where it is planned because that’s where human change will come about — one parent, one child, one friend at a time. Instead of demanding that the Muslims get out, the residents of Lower Manhattan should be grateful that their fellow Americans are willing to stay put and make the effort, under difficult circumstances, to build bridges so that, as King said, “the deep fog of misunderstanding can be lifted from our fear-drenched communities.”
Stephanie J. Jones, a public affairs and government relations strategist and executive director of the National Urban League Policy Institute from 2005 to 2010.