In the week following the Sept. 11 attacks, Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette attended religious services at both a Jewish synagogue and an Islamic mosque. Her visit to Temple Emanuel coincided with our Rosh Hashanah services, which are very well attended, and Rabbi Steve Foster, the spiritual leader of the congregation, welcomed her publicly and made a point of telling everyone in attendance that she was attending the mosque that week as well.
Both DeGette and Foster believed it was important to highlight, in our time of national crisis, that while the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon were Muslim, they were extremists. They emphasized that the worst thing we could do was jump to the conclusion that anything but a, extremely small percentage of Muslims advocated the terrorism we’d recently experienced.
I’ve found myself thinking about the leadership and message of conciliation and tolerance Foster and DeGette made during that difficult time now that so much controversy has arisen over plans to build a mosque and Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero. The project is described by supporters as being similar to a Jewish community center or YMCA. Opponents, including the Anti-Defamation League, have argued that placing a mosque too close to the site of the 9/11 attacks is insensitive to the people who lost family members or friends and glorifies the terrorist activity.
Opponents are missing the boat. As a Jew, I am particularly sensitive to religious intolerance and persecution. The examples of prejudice against Jews throughout history across the world are overwhelming. While it is usually subtle, seldom does a month go by that I do not experience an example of religious bigotry, intolerance or persecution. Despite the messages of hate and anti-Semitism often made by Islamic extremists, intolerance of Islam and prejudice against all Muslims are just as wrong and cannot be tolerated.
The existence of a mosque and Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero does not send, in and of itself, any kind of message. Now that regulatory hurdles have been largely overcome and the proponents move on to the fund-raising phase of their project, a unique opportunity presents itself. Just as Christianity, Judaism and Islam come from the same traditions, the developers of the project should look for partners from other religions and build a facility with programming that emphasizes similarities and works for mutual respect and tolerance for people of all religious identities and beliefs.
Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.