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At Pentagon, a lesson in tolerance N.Y. mosque debate should heed

By Petula Dvorak
Friday, August 20, 2010; B01

Let me take you back to 2002, a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, with the horror and disbelief of that terrible day still very fresh in our minds.

Now, would you believe that in November of that year, right next to the spot where 184 people lost their lives in the Pentagon, the military opened a sanctuary where Islam could be celebrated?

This is truly on sacred ground, mind you. Not two blocks away, wedged between the Gap and Sephora in Pentagon City mall, out of sight of the original crash site.

This prayer room is a mere 30 steps from the place where terrorists crashed the nose cone of American Airlines Flight 77 through the wall and killed Pentagon secretaries and military officers, soccer moms and Little League dads in a screaming "I-have-control-of-this-plane-and-I'm-going-to-die-in-the-name-of-Allah" instant.

In this Pentagon chapel, Muslims can unroll their prayer mats once a day and give praise to Allah. On Fridays, they bring in an imam to conduct a service.

Cue the outrage:

"How dare they?"/"This is an insult to patriotic Americans everywhere, and especially to the families of those who died that day and the good men and women who are risking their lives for their country in the fight against terrorism!"/"Let's stop this now!"

Oh wait, there was no outrage. No hyperventilating by cable news anchors. No outpouring of hateful rhetoric on blogs and Web sites.

"Nope, never heard a word about it," folks in the Pentagon chaplain's office told me Thursday after we visited the crash site memorial and the chapel next to it. "No one has had a problem with it."

It is a humble space, spartan except for a U.S. flag and a stained-glass window that depicts a Pentagon and a screaming eagle. The only sign that it's not a lecture hall or meeting room is the piano in one corner and the stack of camouflage-covered New Testament books of psalms and proverbs on a shelf.

Since it began use eight years ago, Korans have been opened and closed hundreds of times, Islamic prayers have been whispered by the thousands.

The families, friends and colleagues of those who died or were injured in the 2001 terrorist attack have never complained to the Pentagon about the inclusion of Muslim services, officials said.

The only thing they've heard recently is an inquiry from a couple Buddhists about starting services there, an official told me.

In the heart of the U.S. military machine, in a place where generals stomp around like demigods and the hallways bristle with combat-ready warriors, religious tolerance is part of what it means to be American.

"We are sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution. And freedom of religion is part of that Constitution," said George Wright, who is an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. Until this week, when reporters like me flooded him with calls about the proximity of Muslim worship to the site of a terrorist attack, there has been no interest or controversy surrounding it.

The people I spoke with at the Pentagon said they were surprised at the furor over plans to build a mosque and Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York.

It's true that the chapel in the Pentagon isn't a mosque; it's designed for use by many faiths. Each week, it hosts a Catholic Mass, Protestant, Episcopal and Hindu services, a Church of Latter-day Saints Bible study, and a Jewish service and Torah study in addition to the Muslim prayers and service.

But it's worth looking at because had the establishment of Muslim services on hallowed ground in the Pentagon been framed with the same demagoguing, throat-clutching rhetoric that the debate in New York is being presented, seething fear could easily have run amok.

It didn't. And that says something about Americans at their best.

Too bad our better angels aren't on display in the New York mosque uproar. For years, no one complained about the two mosques that operate several blocks from Ground Zero or the propriety of a strip club and off-track betting parlor so close to the hallowed ground where almost 3,000 people died. Have any of the folks complaining so vociferously been to that part of New York? One block away, in the land of nasty little food stands, there is little that is sacred.

In the Pentagon on Thursday, we walked past a CVS, a florist, a jeweler and a handbag store on our way to the chapel. It's a little city in there, and as Pentagon citizens do their errands, about 300 to 400 of them duck into that chapel each week for whatever worship suits them.

As we were talking about the 3,500 Muslim service members, one of the chaplains told me that there are plenty of U.S. military facilities across the globe that have spaces dedicated to Muslim services, not just interfaith chapels. "On bases in Iraq and so forth, we have mosques," he said. "No one has ever raised any concern about that."

And here's my question: Why should anyone?

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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