The recent controversy over building a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City has elicited a surprising number of responses from American citizens, many of them quite heated. Leaders at every level have felt compelled to join the debate, and people are paying close attention to hear their opinions and evaluate them. It is interesting, though, that there isn’t anything new about the debate. We know that Muslims live all over the country and that they desire to set up community centers and places of worship. So what’s all the fuss about?
We wouldn’t venture to know the definitive answer to that question, but perhaps we can offer a few suggestions. To begin, we hope the anxiety we hear in response to the mosque proposal does not come from fear. The Muslims seeking to build near Ground Zero are not the same people responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Along with the vast majority of Muslims living around the world and in the US, they weren’t even supporters of the attacks. At the same time, even when we grasp this point, it’s difficult to understand why these particular Muslims persist in plans that suggest any amount of insensitivity to 9/11 victims. The desire to build near Ground Zero, then, is extremely frustrating to many Americans. On this point we agree: We hope that Muslims would respond to these concerns with grace and humility. We don’t know the priorities of those advocating for the project, but it wouldn’t be the first time that a minority group in the US lost sight of the larger picture when asserting their constitutional rights.
Some protestors, though, base their objections on Muslim oppression of Christians in other parts of the world. There are times to address the need for change in an oppressive society, but for the topic at hand this response sounds more like “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.“ Such a philosophy seems to be the motivation for the threat to burn the Qur’an, an action that can accomplish nothing except offending and angering Muslims. If we would call for fair and equal treatment of Christians in Muslim societies, we must first demonstrate grace and justice in the midst of our own pluralistic society.
There is more to say about how Christians should respond to this debate, since Jesus' teachings and examples speak to these concerns and issues. This piece by Christianity Today provides a helpful context for understanding Muslims in America, as well as a challenge for Christians to put themselves in the shoes of Muslims. We are called to reflect the grace we have been blessed to experience. Focusing on this as well as the things we share with Muslims will help us respond with love rather than fear.