Karen Hughes: Move the New York City mosque, as a sign of unity

By Karen Hughes
Sunday, August 22, 2010

The national debate about building a mosque near Ground Zero in New York is less about our freedom of religion than about the common sense and uncommon courtesy sometimes required to come together as Americans. In our society, we are free to do many things that we nonetheless choose not to. During my lifetime, a number of racial and ethnic slurs have been effectively banned from our national vocabulary -- not because our free speech has been limited, but because we recognize that these words are deeply offensive to our fellow citizens and we decide to avoid them.

The proposed site of Park51, an Islamic cultural center that will include a mosque, is especially contentious because it goes to the heart of who is to blame for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. I stood in the Oval Office just two days after those horrific attacks as President George W. Bush spoke by telephone with New York Gov. George Pataki and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He highlighted the importance of distinguishing between those who committed the acts of terror and the broader Muslim community. "Our nation must be mindful that there are thousands of Arab Americans who live in New York City, who love their flag just as much as the three of us do, and we must be mindful that as we seek to win the war that we treat Arab Americans and Muslims with the respect they deserve," the president said.

Days later, I recommended to President Bush that he visit a mosque to set an example of respect for our fellow Americans who are Muslim. With anger still high and emotions raw, some argued against the visit to the Islamic Center of Washington, but the president felt it sent an important signal. "America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country," he said that day. "In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect."

During my years at the State Department, I worked to reassure Muslim Americans and Muslim audiences across the world that Americans understand that al-Qaeda represents an extremist perversion of the faith. We know, I said, that the vast majority of Muslims seek peace. I told audiences from Doha to Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur that Islam is part of America; our country is home to millions of Muslims who live and worship freely here and are equally part of our great nation. Sadly, my message was often greeted with skepticism. "You think we're all terrorists," a woman in Cairo told me.

I had many similar conversations, and as a result, I became convinced that our nation should avoid the language of religion in our discussion of terrorist acts. When Americans say "Islamic" in front of "terrorists" or use religious terms such as "jihadist," many Muslims hear those words as an attack on their faith. Some of my fellow Republicans and conservatives have accused me of political correctness on this point, but that is not my rationale at all. I believe it is in America's strategic interest, and in the interest of defeating terrorism, that we make clear that we view most Muslims as our allies in a common struggle against extremists.

At the same time, we cannot ignore the facts. As a Muslim American friend told me recently, "As much as I hate it, those hijackers called themselves Muslim."

This is what makes the location of the mosque such gritty salt in the still-open wound of Sept. 11, especially for those who lost loved ones that day. That same friend told me she could understand the feelings of those who believe that putting a mosque near the site where murderers calling themselves Muslims killed thousands of people is too much. That's what we need in this debate -- more understanding and respect for other points of view.

Unfortunately, the conversation has become overheated, politicized and counterproductive. I believe that most Americans who oppose locating a mosque near Ground Zero are neither anti-freedom nor anti-Muslim; they just don't believe it's respectful, given what happened there. I say that as someone who strongly believes that the Sept. 11 attackers and other members of al-Qaeda do not represent any faith, but instead taint all faith with their acts of murder. I met many Muslims around the world who feel that, along with airplanes, the terrorists hijacked their religion.

When my fellow Americans ask why more Muslims don't speak out against such violence, I respond that they do -- and I met many who were vocal in their condemnation of al-Qaeda and its acts of terror. Osama bin Laden wants to portray our efforts against terrorism as the West vs. Islam; we must work hard to portray them as civilized people of many faiths vs. a death cult.

That's why I believe it is so important that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his congregation make what I fully understand would be a very difficult choice: to locate their mosque elsewhere. Putting the mosque at a different site would demonstrate the uncommon courtesy sometimes required for us to get along in our free and diverse society.

I recognize that I am asking the imam and his congregation to show a respect that has not always been accorded to them. But what a powerful example that decision would be. Many people worry that this debate threatens to deepen resentments and divisions in America; by choosing a different course, Rauf could provide a path toward the peaceful relationships that he and his fellow Muslims strive to achieve. And this gesture of goodwill could lead us to a more thoughtful conversation to address some of the ugliness this controversy has engendered.

In 2005, when I was at the State Department, a Danish newspaper published cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad. The debate around the world was heated and strikingly similar to this one. It pitted those supporting the right of a free press to publish anything, no matter how offensive, against those who took to the streets and threatened death to the cartoonists. Many of those citing freedom as they advocate locating the mosque near Ground Zero were on the other side of the argument when it came to the cartoons. At that time, I joined with many Muslim friends in saying that while newspapers were free to publish the offensive materials, I hoped they would show respect and restraint and decide against it. That is an instructive model now.

A mosque at the edge of Ground Zero would be much more than a house of worship; it would be a symbol, interpreted differently by different audiences. For some it would be the ultimate expression of the freedom of religion we enjoy in America; for others, a searing reminder of terrible deaths at the hands of murderers calling themselves Muslims. I suspect that the terrorists might celebrate its presence as a twisted victory over our society's freedoms. Rauf and his congregation are certainly free to locate their mosque near Ground Zero. But I hope and pray that they will show uncommon courtesy and decide not to.

Karen Hughes, a global vice chair at Burson-Marsteller, served as counselor to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002 and as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs from 2005 to 2007.

For recent Outlook coverage of the mosque controversy, see Matthew Yglesias's "Welcome to the summer of fear" and Neda Bolourchi's "Keep ideology away from Ground Zero."

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