21 July 2010


At a site two blocks from the former World Trade Center in New York City, a local Muslim Imam would like to establish an Islamic cultural center and mosque. The prospect has aroused violent controversy. Among those who support the center (whose stated purpose is to educate and inform, as well as provide a place of worship) are religious leaders of many faiths and most local politicians. Among those who oppose the center are some September 11 family members, conservative bloggers and Tea Party activists.

Our society's founding ideals include freedom of religion and tolerance for divergent viewpoints. The US, more than any other nation I can think of, includes an amazing diversity of cultural and ethnic traditions -- nowhere more so than in New York City. The manner in which opponents of the center have expressed their views has ranged from understandable confusion to vicious and irrational racial hatred. I''m deeply saddened.

Coincidentally, I'm reading a novel with similar overtones of racial and cultural conflict. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford. The story is set in the Asian communities of Seattle during World War II. A young Chinese boy, transcending the prejudices of his own family and of the surrounding white majority, becomes best friends with a young Japanese girl. Japanese armies had been invading and terrorizing China for ten years before Pearl Harbor, so relations between Chinese-Americans and Japanese-Americans were sometimes strained, sometimes supportive. The two children, their families and their communities endure the special bullying bigotry which is aimed at a perceived enemy by white residents of Seattle, and by the US military. When the Japanese girl and her family are summarily rounded up and shipped to one of America's infamous internment camps. the reader's heart breaks. Yet that is only part of the story in Ford's nuanced and eye-opening tale. With learning comes understanding, and with understanding comes compassion.

Our nation has gone through repeated cycles of singling out racial or national "enemies", reflecting our black-and-white thinking on most issues. How ironic that American's melting pot can be so xenophobic. Native Americans, blacks, Irish, Scandinavians, Slavs, Jews, Germans, Japanese, Russians, Mexicans, and now Muslims (to name a few) have felt the stinging lash of our hatred, within our own borders. When we generalize and stereotype ANY group, (e.g. "all Muslims are terrorists"), we indulge in shallow, lazy thinking. In fact most Muslims are peaceful. The teachings of the Qu'ran do not include the barbarism practiced by fundamentalist extremists. Extremism of any flavor, from Taliban to Tea Party, is no substitute for rational thinking and intelligent behavior.

How long before we mature, as a nation and as a species, to live in this rich and diverse world without war or hatred, guided by the sonnet which is engraved inside the Statue of Liberty -- "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be free."

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