It is so easy to paint the flag waving U.S. Constitution lovers as the ultimate violators of that very document with their demand that the Muslims living among us be denied first amendment rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion.
It is just as easy to paint the peace-loving Islamic Center supporters as squishy Kumbaya singers, who would rather stomp on the hearts of those most deeply hurt by the 9-11 attack on America, than just say no to those who wish to desecrate such holy ground.
It is equally easy to paint the whole picture as the metaphor for the ages, the quintessential Kodak moment that captures what’s wrong with America — demonizing politicians, mocking pundits, extremist citizenry.
Not so fast, says Bob Seiple. Each of those summaries paints a caricature of those involved, missing the most terribly important nuances that really define the matter.
Seiple knows what he’s talking about. He served as president of World Vision for 11 years, and then was appointed by Bill Clinton to be the first ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom. After leaving that post, he founded the Institute for Global Engagement (which is now directed by his son), and then became president of the Council for America’s First Freedom, from which he retired a year ago.
This episode could have played out differently, he told me, if those wanting to build the center “had included people, if they had gone to the families of those who had lost loved ones on 9-11; there are a number of different things they could have done to get a better P/R result. For whatever reason, they didn’t do that.”
The fault goes in the other direction, too. The inaccurate word circulated at first that this was right at Ground Zero, not two full city blocks away. “What was clear was that this was going to infringe on what is now hallowed ground, sacred ground, the ground of the major part of the 9-11 tragedy.” And frankly, it took on the status of “existential reality,” he said. “It’s not whether it’s right or wrong, it’s how many people believe it to be true.”
We need to keep clear what this controversy is not about. “This was never a question of religious freedom,” Seiple assured. “It was a question of ‘This time?’ ‘This place?’ The emotions are too raw.”
“But what can we do?” I pressed.
“On the one hand, you have to begin a dialogue among all of the religious faiths to talk about this issue as a teachable moment,” Seiple said.
In particular, we American Christians need better to understand Islam. “We have Islam in a category, and once you establish a category, a one-size-fits-all, you can demonize or stereotype that which is in the category. Once you begin to stereotype you can then go on to demonize people who fit those stereotypes. And once you do that kind of demonization, you can learn to hate someone. And after hatred, of course, in many parts of the world, there’s violence.”
Secondly, we need to seek “two elements that have to be inextricably linked, and right now they’re not linked.” What are they? “They are ‘knowledge’ and ‘respect.’”
“Knowledge and respect got lost in this brouhaha, and we have to reconnect those dots as quickly as possible to make sure that this is not the beginning of a terrible time in America’s history.”
Knowledge and respect. Might this be a teachable moment for us Americans, Christian and Muslim, monotheist and polytheist, religious and secular, flag waving and Kumbaya singing? If we can make it that, then maybe something good can come out of this controversy. Maybe the caricatures can give way to genuine understanding, even a nuanced, respectful knowledge, even friendship and collegiality.