America’s Two Muslim Congressmen Cogitate on the New York Mosque and the State of Islam in the U.S.

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For all that the hyperbole surrounding the proposed building of a mosque and Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero would make it seem that religious tolerance – at least of Muslims – in America is dead, voters have, actually, elected to Muslims to Congress since the 9/11 attacks. Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Andre Carson of Indiana, both Democrats, agree on some things and disagree on others. Not surprising since America is, after all, a diverse place. Four questions on the state of Islam for America’s two Muslim congressmen:

1. Should the mosque be moved?

Ellison: No absolutely not. I fact I think that if it were to be moved that religious liberty would suffer. I think much, much more than this situation with American Muslims, what’s at stake here is the right to practice one’s faith. Because this could happen to any minority religion in which hysteria and fear crop up. In fact, they have already: the history of anti-Catholic sentiment in our country, anti-Jewish sentiment, the fear and suspicion of our Mormons. So, the mosque project needs to move right ahead, clearly, where it is. The mayor supports it, several members of Congress support it and I think a plurality of New Yorkers support it. It’s been through every community board. I think that it’s the constitutional right to build this facility of the owners and the organizers and nothing should be moved. They should do it where it’s being done. And for all the talk about insensitivity, how come their people aren’t upset by the strip joints or the off track betting. I mean that doesn’t honor anyone. And there’s been a mosque in the vicinity for years. That mosque itself has been there for a long time. And there’s another mosque within four blocks of the Ground Zero site. Nothing should be moved. The project should move forward and it should be a place where religious tolerance is celebrated.

Carson: That’s certainly a question that my friends in New York will have to hash out. I’m certainly carrying the banner for religious freedoms, be it for Muslims, Christian, Jewish brothers and sisters here, Hindus, atheists and others. You can go into any community across this the country and see several religious houses of the same denomination or differing denominations under the same religion. People certainly have a right to build as they please on private property. But that is kind of like saying that you have a quota for a certain group of people. It deals with tolerance and not necessarily acceptance: critical differences. I think that we’re at a time where we’re at a critical cross roads in this country where we’re really going to have to deal with the issues that are of importance. On the other side of the aisle, the Republicans, as much as they hail the constitution they seem to have a selective memory in terms of what the founding fathers intended. When it comes to gun rights they want to talk about the constitution and how the constitution and how the constitution is impeccable but when it comes to religious freedom they seem to have a selective memory.

2. Has Islamophobia worsened since 9.11?

Ellison: Yes. There was a pipe bombing recently in Florida. There are many mosque fights going on across the country. There’s one in Wisconsin, there’s one in Kentucky, there’s some in the Chicago area. There’s been signs of religious bigotry and intolerance in St. Cloud, Minn., which is not far from me.  There’ve been mosque defacements. Unfortunately it’s growing and unfortunately politicians and leading cultural figures are contributing to this negative sentiment and I think it’s getting worse. There are politicians out there making it worse like, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, my own governor Tim Pawlenty. I think Rick Lazio has been very detrimental to the idea of healing and bringing people together between Muslims and others. These people are out there trying to exploit it for personal gain. And it’s very unfortunate and sad. Peter King has also played a very detrimental and negative role. Steve King has done the same. Michele Bachmann – I mean there’s sort of a chorus of these people doing this. Those are just the politicians. Franklin Graham has said some incredible painful things about Muslims, which are very unfortunate. So has Rev. Hagee – and these are leading cultural figures. Brian Fischer of the American Family Association has said no more mosques should be built because Islam is at war with America, which is absurd, ridiculous and untrue.

Caron: In dealing with extremism, we know that America cannot win in her war against terrorism without the help of the Muslims. But post 9/11 – as tragic as it was, I mean hundreds of Muslims died, hundreds of Jewish brothers and sisters, white, black, Latino and others passed away as a result of such a tragic event – but after that tragedy it opened the doors for different communities of interest, different religious groups, different ethnic groups to come together and talk about their different faiths and really allow people to gain a greater understanding of different religions, particularly Islam. I think we’re living in a time where our economic downturn hasn’t helped our fears and now you have a religion that a lot of Americans don’t know anything about, or don’t know much about.

3. Even as the threats have abated, have the fears increased?

Ellison: I do think that they have increased. I also think that with some of these anti-Islamic comments and actions — it feeds into the narrative of the transnational terrorists who claim Islam because it allows people like bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki to say, ‘See I told you those Westerners, those Americans hate all Muslims.’ Of course, this isn’t true but this is the narrative that they’d like to argue. And I don’t know why an American politician would write the shooting script for Anwar al-Awlaki but that is exactly what they’re doing with this anti-Islamic, anti-Mosque behavior. And I think it’s jeopardizing national security and making life harder for the people whose job it is to protect us, which is people in law enforcement.

Carson: At least during this time period. I mean, we’ve made some progress in different areas. In various professions, you can go into hospitals in major cities and there are Muslim physicians there. We have Muslim attorneys and professors at our colleges and universities. We have Muslim business owners who are not only employing Americans but are helping with our economy by employing Americans and with the imports and exports. So Muslims are certainly part of our fabric, part of our every day lives and I think the question becomes how do we encourage Muslims given that post 9/11 – you know, pre 9/11 a lot of Muslims, particularly immigrant Muslims, enjoyed certain anonymity and there were certain divisions within the Muslim community between African American Muslims and immigrant Muslims in large part — but I think post 9/11 really brought to bear the underbelly of this great country that we call America. I know personally as a Muslim from Indiana, a very conservative state, it’s really given our organization and myself a platform to reach out and say, ‘Hey, Muslims are concerned about the same things that most Americans are concerned about. We’re certainly concerned about the economy. We’re concerned about failing school systems, in major cities. We’re concerned about wars as taxpayers. We’re concerned about excessive government spending and in many cases a lack of transparency in our government.’ The more and more people who get to see that Muslims are deeply concerned about this country — Muslims most of them in America are patriotic and they love the country, have a lot to value, have a lot to say, they take great pride in this country and I think they can make positive contributions as we talk about our growing religious conversation, as we talk about our growing conversation about race and what it means in today’s society.

4. Do stories of Nidal Hassan, Omar Abu Mutallab, Faisal Shahzad and Najibullah Zazi and recent homegrown attacks deepened the problem?

Ellison: Certainly they have deepened the problem; they provide an example for the anti-Islamic types to point to. They try to impose collective guilt on American Muslims because of the behavior of individuals like Nidal Hassan, Omar Abu Mutallab, Faisal Shahzad and individuals like this. But you’ve got to understand, Anwar al-Awlaki is connected to trying to recruit all of these people. And if you listen to Anwar al-Awlaki his principle argument is that America is hostile to Muslims and I believe that to be a false statement. But it is true when people like Peter King and Steve King, Sarah Palin do what they do. Basically they’re writing a recruiting script so that Americans who are disaffected, naïve or criminal are subject to being recruited by terrorist recruiters. I think that it’s incredibly detrimental and we need to dial back our rhetoric and really reassert our fundamental and historic belief in religious tolerance. Because then we undermine these recruiters and we make sure that the disaffected to not get steered in a direction to be violent, dangerous and a threat to the rest of us.

Carson: It’s certainly a concern that we have to look at. I mean I worked in counter terrorism and intelligence and there are extremist elements in all groups from Islamic groups to Christian and so on and so forth. The deeper conversation goes when we talk about racial supremacist groups and other homegrown groups, you know Islam doesn’t have a monopoly on extremism or psychopathic behavior. But we can’t win the war on terrorism without cooperating and coordinating with different groups by they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Atheist and so on and so forth.

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