dispatches to and from

nathan f. elmore

Dispatches to and from faith, culture, and things in between

On the Islamic Center near Ground Zero

Appreciation 101 & Considerations 301: A Response to J.R. Briggs’s post Though much has already been said and will surely go on being said about the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero in Manhattan, a pastor-friend of mine in the Philadelphia area, J.R. Briggs, invited me to offer a somewhat formal response to his post on August 16. I’m happy to join the conversation. Notwithstanding the reality that doing so – at this point in the public discourse – feels like something akin to speaking into a vortex of tangled screams and ecstatic gesticulations.

As a collegiate minister at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), I travel through and minister on a university landscape that features over 32,000 students representing over 110 nationalities. Because of its English Language Program (ELP) as well as its engineering programs and medical school, VCU is home to thousands of students from an international background and hundreds of students from Muslim-majority countries. On campus this past year, for instance, I personally met and interacted with Muslims who are Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Iranian, Afghan, Saudi, Qatari, Kuwaiti, Lebanese, Palestinian, Uighur Chinese, Malay and, of course, American.

Because of this landscape, our nascent university ministry is making a concerted, long-term effort to engage Muslim students first by being willing to learn – becoming like a guest – then by cultivating sincere, reciprocating friendships. Naturally we hope to grow in our understanding of how to communicate, embody and empower the good news of Jesus Christ among Muslims, but neither the guest posture nor the desire for friendship are, strictly speaking, merely means-to-an-end.

With these hopes in mind, in November 2009, in coordination with the Muslim Student Association (MSA) at VCU, we initiated the Holy Books Conversation, an ongoing dialogue-in-friendship venture between Christian and Muslim students. (If you’re more than casually interested, you can read about the Holy Books Conversation here.)

Appreciation 101

First, J.R., I loved your substantially gracious, Christ-infused spirit that really did resonate in, around and through your post on “the Ground Zero mosque.” Undoubtedly, like other readers, I felt connected theologically, spiritually and culturally to most of the substance within your post.

Your central, emphatic appeal to “Love your Muslim as yourself” is no less obvious than it is redundant: it is one of the Great Ones. It is God’s commandment – through Jesus the Christ – that seemingly transcends the issue at hand even as it transcends mere commandment. Chawkat Moucarry, World Vision International’s director of interfaith relations, has said: “As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are under a double obligation to love our Muslim neighbors as ourselves and to share the Good News with them. Not only do the two commands go hand in hand, the second is best carried out as an expression of the first.”

Second, J.R., I could not contain a roaring surge of “Yes, yes!” as you were (briefly) describing the ideals of Islam as a peaceful and, we should say, mostly peaceable religion. My relationships and interactions with diverse Muslims over the last three years – both in Clemson, South Carolina, and now in Richmond, Virginia – anecdotally bear this out.

I’ve attended Friday prayers at mosques in Clemson, Atlanta and Richmond. I’ve had the privilege of studying the Qur’an at the Clemson mosque under an Egyptian imam (whom I interviewed here) and with two other Muslim men (Algerian, Ghanaian) on a weekly basis over the course of a year. I’ve attended Muslim community potlucks with my family (their potlucks are similar, by the way, except for the gender separation and the sitting on the floor and the grape leaves). My wife and I have hosted Muslim men and women for dinner in our home. I’ve interviewed a Muslim in the context of our Sunday worship gathering at the church I served in Clemson. Now, I maintain a growing friendship with the imam of the Islamic Center of Virginia. And of course there’s the Holy Books Conversation at VCU.

Through these interactions and relationships I’ve certainly learned more about Islamic belief and spirituality, Islamic culture and Muslims, than I can relate here. But, J.R., you get the idea. And I would champion: you get the idea. As a Christian leader within your Lansdale community, how you described Islam and depicted Muslims (in your post) realistically appeared informed and shaped by your actual, ongoing, personal relationships with the imam and other Muslims in your community. This was/is extremely encouraging – given the swell of anti-Muslim sentiment among American Christians. 

Considerations 301

Language Matters

My first consideration centers on the subject of language.

No doubt this talking-point, for most of us, has been beaten into the ground and then some. Nonetheless I will continue the beating of the ground – at the possible risk of less attentiveness due to media saturation or overkill.

As you, J.R., and other missional Christian leaders are keenly aware: language can (does) create culture. Of course, many kinds of leaders have probably observed this axiom and applied it in differing spheres or sectors, depending on their specific culture.

With regard to the subject at hand, I would strongly propose to all Christian leaders who are reading this post: as we wade into and through this weighty and loaded discussion, we really need to take better care with our language. We should make a concerted habit of using the language of Islamic center or Park 51 or Cordoba House when addressing this controversy. And the primary reason, from my perspective, is that we are creating a kind of culture – in the communities we are shepherding – with our very language. (Even Almighty Google has been taking some criticism for its use of language on this matter.)

As has been noted ad nausea, the proposed center is, factually speaking, neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero. Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker wrote: “It’ll be on Park Place, two blocks north of the World Trade Center site (from which it will not be visible), in a neighborhood ajumble with restaurants, shops (electronics, porn, you name it), churches, office cubes, and the rest of the New York mishmash. Park51, as it is to be called, will have a large Islamic ‘prayer room.’ But the rest of the building will be devoted to classrooms, an auditorium, galleries, a restaurant, a memorial to the victims of September 11, 2001, and a swimming pool and gym. Its sponsors envision something like the 92nd Street Y, a Y.M.I.A, you might say.”

Even if we say that we are only using a phrase that is the primary currency of some media – i.e., “the mosque at Ground Zero” – as Christians I believe we have a moral responsibility to represent the conversation, with our language, more truthfully and more nobly than that. We do not have to cow-tow to either the frame of the conversation or its predominant tone, as set by the mainstream media or any other media.

To be fair, I could not possibly accuse you, J.R., of necessarily cow-towing (because I know you personally, and because of how you generally represented the discussion in your post). But, interestingly enough, the title of your post would be no different from how Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich would title an email blast, or a tweet. I’m saying it should be. I’m saying it matters. I’m saying it’s a matter of culture-creating within our Christian communities.

Also, positively, using the language of Islamic center or Park51 or Cordoba House sends a respectful and intellectually credible message to our Muslim friends or neighbors, and this cannot be minimized. By doing so, in effect we are saying: We will resist and oppose the co-opting of the language of “mosque” for religiously-inspired or politically-calculated motivations or machinations.

Here, I am conscious of Jesus’ teaching found in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount – the specific teaching where Jesus equated angrily insulting someone with murder. Jesus knows, as God only knows, that anger, insults and murder pal around together in the heart more than most people would ever imagine.

But with a concerted use of truer language – which is motivated by moral responsibility, not political correctness – I believe we can, as Christians and Christian leaders, potentially subvert some of the ignorance and fear, anger and hatred directed at Muslims from our own brothers and sisters. Some of these same brothers and sisters are even now fighting with all their huff-and-puff to block proposed mosques/centers in California, Tennessee, Wisconsin and (undoubtedly) elsewhere. Some of these same brothers and sisters are calling for the Qur’an to be publicly burned.

False Dichotomy

At the end of your post, J.R., I very much agreed with your appeal to wisdom as a higher ground above the inevitable right/wrong matrix. But I thought your final question about Jesus-followers not asking “How do we fight for religious rights and freedoms?” but instead asking “How do we love well?” was a bit of a false dichotomy.

Earlier in your post, you drew an interesting distinction between being an American Christian and a Jesus-follower even as you posited the question of a proper “Christianly” response to this controversy. Oh how I know this distinction all too well – as I have used it, too, and it seems a distinction not without some appropriate theological and cultural merit.

But, at the end of the day, as I began to think about your pitting of those two questions against each other, I asked myself: Isn’t the kingdom of God always-ever landing itself in particular cultures, of particular nations and peoples? It is not (it cannot be) divorced from the particularity of cultures and nations, right? It is dynamically caught up in them. What good is it, in fact, if the reign of God, the effective range of his will, is not translated within them?

Yes, I believe that Jesus, and his message and mission, involved transcendent spiritual truth that is timeless – and for all times. Furthermore, I believe that the kingdom of God is the all-encompassing narrative and that it is larger than our often small-minded nationalistic and ethnocentric narratives (a la Glenn Beck, apparently).

J.R., what I think I am laboring to say is: I don’t think it can be done. You in Lansdale, me in Richmond, the person reading this post in Chicago – we cannot not be American Christians. In a very profound way, we can only be. And this is a great and vibrant, if not frustrating, wrestling.

Sure, following Jesus is the prerequisite story, and we must vigorously war against the domestication of Jesus to any number of so-called American dreams. The kingdom of God is bound to be in conflict with life as I know it. But we can’t help but follow Jesus within the kingdom of God within the cultural story we find ourselves (in our case, in the U.S., currently discussing religious freedom and other considerations regarding the Islamic center near Ground Zero).

Along these lines, the other day Cornel West tweeted: “Democracy goes hand in hand with Christian faith. A Christian has an ethical obligation to fight for equal rights for all.” Not everyone may agree with Dr. West on this one, but here I am inclined to agree wholeheartedly with him, and I love how he connected the theological and cultural dots so brazenly.

To your two questions, then, J.R., at the end of your post: Yes, naturally, we who are “little Christ ones” should be about our Lord’s business of loving well – in the many different, expressive and tangible ways we should love our Muslim neighbors as ourselves. And with specific regard to Park51, I do think we can love well by advocating for our Muslim neighbors’ freedoms. These questions, actually, need not be mutually exclusive. It is not that the one (“How do we fight for religious rights and freedoms?”) is a purely political question while the other (“How do we love well?”) is a purely religious question submitting to the category of faith. They are both moral and spiritual questions.

So, no, I don’t always think that when we mix politics and religion, we get politics (in the negative sense you inferred in your post). Sometimes, I believe, we get the re-making of the political order – of how we ultimately desire to live with each other in messy community. And sometimes that re-making (resurrection) of the order of things – yes, even through the mind-numbing mire of American politics – is in harmony with the establishment and society of the kingdom of God. (On this point, I would grant you, there is an assortment of pitfalls. God help us all!) 

If they have the right, should they?

Here’s a final consideration, J.R., according to your talking-points.

Many newspaper pundits, cable news yellers, basement bloggers and persons-on-the-street have asked, “If they have the right to build a center there, should they build a center there?” J.R., you took the “it’s too soon” and “it’s too close” tack, coming down on the side that says, “They have the right, but they should not.” Meanwhile, still others have taken the road of asking, “How is this center being financed, by whom, and in connection with which ideologies?” I, like others, think these are both worthy lines of questioning.

However, even if a person decides to come down emphatically on an answer to the “Should they?” question, the question still lingers – almost precariously, and in spite of our strained attempts to put it to death. My guess is: this lingering question is due to its extremely delicate nature. It’s a question to be seen from many angles, depending on from where you are looking (or not looking).

For example, the Muslim cabby, who was recently verbally accosted and then violently stabbed only for being a Muslim, when asked by cab-riders about the proposed Islamic center, said that he was against it and there was no need to put it there. Perhaps he legitimately fears a spike in hate crimes, of which he was a victim. On the other hand, a Muslim U.S. soldier has called the opposition to the center a “big slap in the face” for Muslims serving in the U.S. armed forces – a compelling perspective from a very interesting vantage point.

On the other hand, on August 16 the TV director-general of Al-Arabiya asserted that not only do most Muslims not want a center there or feel it necessary but that a center there risks being a misinterpreted symbol or monument. Good point. Furthermore, maybe it’s a case of misplaced priorities. The other day one Muslim friend of mine quoted a Muslim friend of his on Facebook: “The whole purpose of this project was to build bridges. [Before building an Islamic center] I believe more community outreach is necessary to 9/11 victims’ families. We may be winning legally, but we’re not winning their hearts.”

On the other hand, there’s Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Imam Rauf has lived in the U.S. for 45 years. He has served as the imam of a mosque in Tribeca for nearly 30 years. According to what I’ve read, he often denounces terrorism in general and the 9/11 attacks in particular.

In an interview with Al-Jazeera where he articulated his hopes for the center, Imam Rauf stated: “I felt that there is a need for a cultural center, with an agenda that differs from what goes on in the mosques. Here in the U.S., we need to establish an Islamic-American community. Of course, we knew that [the choice of a site] near Ground Zero would make the place well known.”

I’ve interpreted his comments as inferring the following to his fellow Muslims: right there (near Ground Zero) is exactly where we Muslims most need our kind of Islamic project to project itself. His is an understandable, albeit understandably provocative, vision.

Unlike you, J.R., I personally don’t come down so resoundingly on an answer to the “Should they?” question. Mostly this is because I sense strongly that we should not implicate all Muslims in what happened on 9/11 and have found theologian John Stackhouse’s perspective extremely good guidance. But even as the controversy continues its trajectory, and even as "Do they have the right?" yields to the more mutlifaceted "Should they?", we must bear in mind that “Should they?” is truly a matter of from where you are asking the question in the first place.