American opinions are polarizing in public forums more intensely than at any time in recent history. In an era where the compelling rhetorical motto of “Change we can believe in” excites and affirms many in our country, it is the symbolic statement of all the wrong types of change for others. In the forefront of several of these heated debates are issues that, for better or worse, we associate with the Islamic religion.
One such occurring debate involves a potential Islamic center, proposed to be built two city blocks from the World Trade Center site. As in past years, commemorative ceremonies honoring the victims of the attack marked the anniversary of 9/11. This year though, demonstrations followed the traditionally solemn and respectful occasion and projected a different tone than of which was experienced in years past. New York City police carefully guarded and corralled thousands of demonstrators as a preventative measure against potential violence between the two groups rallying for and against the proposed Islamic center.
How do Muslims, specifically fellow students at SLCC, feel about a topic such as the proposed Islamic center and its proximity to the WTC site? Like many of you, my life experience has been largely in and amongst Christian majority based culture and society. What can one with that experience do if they wanted to know more about this magnetic Muslim minority among us whose very religion casts a spotlight upon them, wanted or not?
Answers to these questions came quickly in the endeavor of writing for this paper. I approached the president of the Muslim Student Association here at SLCC asking for help finding and learning the opinions of Muslim students and teachers and was promptly lined up with 10 Muslim students willing to offer their thoughts about Muslim life on campus, and current events. My curiosity and interest was met with a landslide of sharing and smiles about their faith and culture. Muslim converts and lifelong members alike were open, engaged, and had widely contrasting views about the aforementioned hot topic, the Islamic center near WTC.
“I think that the Muslim people in New York, I don’t like that they build the mosque beside the twin towers. We have to respect you know. I have to respect this thing,” said Mohammad Mushib, who lived in Iraq until last year.
“America doesn’t need that mosque because when they build that mosque over there, there’s many American people who will hate Islam. That’s not the Muslim way, that’s not, so I’ve become against the idea. We have to build something inside the American people before we build the mosque,” Mushib said.
American Muslim George Ellington offered a different opinion.
“To me, it’s shameful that people in this country who supposedly hold freedom and equality in such high regard then throw that sense of freedom and democracy out the window when it comes to their own biased and prejudiced views,” said Ellington, a Muslim convert of nearly two decades.
“First you’re going to blame all Muslims for terrorism and 9/11, and second you’re then going to say that because you’re a Muslim democracy isn’t going to apply to you. Freedom doesn’t apply to you. Anybody else who wants can fill out the proper forms and build a building there that meets the strict city code, but if you’re a Muslim you’re excluded? That doesn’t sound like American democracy to me,” Ellington said.
The previous quotes captured the essence of hours of dialogue amongst the students that met with me, widely divergent opinions shared without discord. There was room and respect for different opinions, and a conscious sensitivity for people who were not a part of their faith.
In general, the students that took time to participate in discussions expressed positive opinions about their relationships with other students on campus. No mention was made of any negative experiences on campus, which in light of the obvious religious majority and minorities in this country, spoke favorably about the attitudes and actions of Christian and Muslims alike on campus.
We as students and faculty at SLCC have the opportunity to nurture a positive climate for learning which favors the diversity of many cultures mixing on our campuses. In my short investigative experience, it appears to be happening in small ways. Our college environment is a perfect place to learn about each other’s cultures since we are all united by a common desire to learn and progress as human beings. The more each of us takes the opportunities to get to know our fellow students and faculty, the more powerful our learning experience becomes.