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St. Louisans ponder why Muslim center debate is a hot issue here

When the cabinet of the Interfaith Partnership of St. Louis held a retreat last week, the main item on the agenda was to discuss faith as a bridge over the area's racial divide.

But Batya Abramson-Goldstein, chair of the cabinet, said she realized another topic cried out for the group to discuss and take a stand -- the controversy over a Muslim center planned for a few blocks from Ground Zero in New York.

The stridency of the debate over the center, and the increased polarization that it represents, were issues that the cabinet could not ignore, said Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

"There are people who are very public who aren't hesitating to make incendiary statements about Islam," she said in an interview.

"We're not saying that anybody does not have the right to say what they wish. What I am saying is that those of us who disagree with what is being said not only have the right to respond, but we have the responsibility to respond, to respond publicly and vehemently."

The cabinet ended up issuing a statement denouncing religious profiling and calling on area residents "to reject this tearing of the fabric of our communal life and to join us in condemning this outrage." But while Abramson-Goldstein and others who have witnessed the increasingly hardened positions on both sides know what is missing from the debate, they're not sure what can be done to restore civility and reason.

"The basic issue is sensitivity," said former Sen. John C. Danforth, an Episcopal priest whose name is on a center on the study of religion and politics being formed at Washington University. "It's not zoning, it's not a constitutional issue. It doesn't have anything to do with freedom of religion because all of us recognize that people have the right to practice their religion. 

"The question is one of sensitivity to people's feelings. I think it's very important for all of us to have that sensitivity and want to be a country where we want to live together, not just because we have legal rights but because we are concerned about the feelings of one another."

The wounds of 9/11

Such concern hasn't been very evident ever since the issue of the Muslim center worked its way into the forefront of the American consciousness. After moving along quietly through the New York city bureaucracy, and receiving fairly routine approval and acceptance, it suddenly and forcefully became one of those divisive issues that generate far more heat than light, as both sides hardened their positions.

It quickly became a political litmus test, an issue in races far from lower Manhattan, including those in Missouri. (Click here to read the Beacon's coverage of how the issue has become part of the Blunt-Carnahan race for U.S. Senate.) Robert Cropf, who chairs the department of public policy studies at Saint Louis University, says the topic's viral spread into the nation's public discourse is sadly typical of the way things work today.

"The issue should be closed because it's a local issue," he said. "It has nothing to do with the state and certainly nothing to do with the federal government. That's one way to look at it.

"But obviously, given the nature of what we are talking about, being close to the site of the World Trade Center, it has dimensions that other local issues lack. It now has become an issue that involves national policymakers, national newsmakers, talk radio people, all of whom have their own agenda that has nothing to do with what's happening in New York city."

To Danforth, the vehemence of the debate shows how, nearly nine years after terrorists flew planes into the twin towers, anger and pain still remain deep.

"9/11 is a wound that hasn't yet healed, and this is a picking at that wound," he said. "And it's not helpful. I think 9/11 was not that long ago. It was just a great shock and a great hurt inflicted on our country, not only on the people whose lives were taken but on all of us.

"It wasn't just New York. We all felt we were under attack on 9/11, and we all felt threatened by it. We don't understand where all this is coming from. How can people hate us this much that they want to fly planes into buildings?"

To Wayne Fields, a Washington University professor who has been chosen to head the Danforth Center, the debate is an act of "flailing out, thinking that somebody must be responsible."

"Remember, one of the great frustrations of 9/11 is in one sense, nobody has been brought to justice. If you think of it as kind of mass murder, Osama bin Laden is still at large. So we're still in some ways, even after all that has gone on in Iraq and Afghanistan, feeling uncertainty about how to gain justice for the victims."

But to Ghazala Hayat, a professor of neurology at Saint Louis University, lingering anger and mistrust over 9/11 helps feed misperceptions and wrongheaded arguments over the Muslim center. For example, she cites what some people have said, that it would be insensitive for the United States to try to build any sort of monument near Hiroshima.

"A country did not attack on 9/11," she said. "And this is not a monument. It's a community center. People are praying there now. What will happen if somebody against Muslims would tell me I could not pray in the corner of the library because they think Muslims are responsible for 9/11? How could 1.5 billion people become responsible for that? It defies any logic."

Hayat, who earlier this year was honored by the Jewish Community Relations Council for her contributions to interfaith understanding, made another comparison -- the uproar of a few years ago over cartoon representations of the prophet Muhammad.

"People here are doing exactly the same thing," said Hayat. "They're losing a moral perspective. On one side they say you're too sensitive because of the prophet cartoons, then they turn around and say the same thing."

Those kinds of double standards and frustrations have in many cases overwhelmed people's tendency to talk about issues such as the Muslim center in a rational way, said Maryl Walters, who is vice chair of the cabinet of the Interfaith Partnership.

"We've lost the ability to discuss and to agree to differ without getting into taking these partisan positions," she said, "and just feeling that the other side is completely wrong."

She holds up the slogan of the Interfaith Partnership as the ideal of how such discourse should proceed: "We agree to differ, promise to love and unite to serve."

In 1993, a different atmosphere

Walters recalls the far more gentle, community-oriented spirit that prevailed during another time of crisis -- the floods of 1993, when people from around the nation flocked to the St. Louis area to work together, filling sandbags and fighting the encroaching rivers.

"It didn't matter what color, what race, what religion you were," she said. "We were all out there doing good. I still think that's a strong image."

Combatting the rising tide of religious bigotry has proved to be far more difficult, in a time when extreme positions and misinformation are nourished by a 24-hour news cycle and a blogosphere that often move too fast for fact-checking -- or keeping emotions in check as well

Add an underlying anxiety about the role of minorities and immigrants in this country -- as well as tensions over tough economic times -- and the present climate isn't so surprising, even if it is distressing, said Cropf.

"That's the nature of the political debate now, one side shouting at the other," he said. "When I was growing up, things weren't like that."

Adds Fields:

"It's a combination of a sort of political culture that has been emerging for the last several years, in which understanding is less important than a dogmatic position taking. It's especially true in a campaign year, when both parties in recent history have had better luck with a negative approach than a positive approach. This is one of those issues where the further away you are from it, the easier it is to use and exploit.

"People are doing it out of a poverty of other things to campaign on. It also raises crucial issues not just about a mosque but about the way in which we try to understand one another, try to speak with one another in a civil dialogue that can be conducted respectfully, where all participants can learn something."

To Danforth, the strident debate over the Muslim center was mirrored by the recent controversy over Laura Schlessinger's use of the n-word on her radio show -- a flap that led her to retire.

"Did she have the legal right to say that?" he said. "Yes. Should she have said that? No. That's not the way we treat each other in this country. It's really important in the matters of religion, race and difference in America to try to hold the country together and be very, very aware that what we say and what we do can be taken in ways that we don't intend them.

"It's not just a matter of what is the law, what are the zoning regulations, what is the 1st Amendment. It's the responsibility of all of us, not just the court system, to hold the country together and respect one another. It's the responsibility of the people who want to build the mosque and those who are most strident in opposition to it to have as well."

What happens now?

Is there a reasonable, civil, respectful way out of the controversy? New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the former St. Louisan, has offered his services as a mediator. Danforth said if asked, he would be willing to get involved as well.

"I think all of us, religious leaders in particular -- Muslims, Christians, Jews, everybody - have a special role to rebuild a sense of respect and sensitivity to how other people feel," he said.

"The best thing going forward would be a very widespread expression of sensitivity on the part of people who want to build the mosque, sensitivity toward the feelings of a lot of Americans who feel our country has been very badly hurt, and this isn't right. I would attempt to meet with religious leaders, starting in New York but beyond there as well, and encourage them to be more outspoken about understanding, tolerance, concern for the feelings of different kinds of people.

"Try to be a healer -- that's the best thing a politician can do."

Abramson-Goldstein said religious leaders must not only get involved -- they need to take their messages to their congregations, to make sure the lesson is spread as widely as possible.

"I don't know you can reach those who are irrational about it," she said. "But many people just haven't thought through the issue, haven't thought through what this drumbeat and assault on a faith group means. If they did, they would respond differently."

For Hayat, though, the terms of any compromise over the center are hard to imagine.

"What is not sensitive?" she asked. "Six blocks? Ten blocks? It cannot be in our city, we want it 10 miles out?"

She hopes the debate, harsh as it has become, does not leave lasting wounds. "I think maybe some groups out there will start talking to each other," she said.

And maybe, added Walters, the bitter denunciations of the Muslim center issue might even signal the storm before the calm, heralding a return of reasoned discourse relying more on respect and less on reviling others.

"Out there, in the public airwaves, there is a minority of people who are louder, like the scream before death," she said. "It's this hatred raising its voice and trying to be heard louder because it knows it doesn't have long to survive.

"I think on interpersonal relationships and in many other ways, progress is being made, so it's almost like they need to scream louder before we trust they will be lost in oblivion."

Fields would welcome such a development, because he fears what the effect of the current climate is on the American ideal.

"We're all going to lose," said Fields, "because the opportunity for a more reasoned discourse was ignored and let slip away. On the other hand, maybe next time we'll talk more about it, because people will say we didn't get anything out of that.

"The end of it all in this particular case won't be a happy one, but in a democratic society, it's not the end of it, it's just another chapter in the discussion, so we learn what we can from it."

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.