While attending a training course for Foreign Service officers in Washington, DC, I met a lovely couple at a reception held at the Turkish Embassy. He was a Turkish businessman, she an American writer. I attended a party at their suburban home a week later and immediately noticed large American and Turkish flags atop an imposing flagpole in the front yard. When I paid them a farewell visit months later prior to beginning my first diplomatic assignment in Mexico, I noticed that the Turkish flag was gone. My friends calmly explained that their new neighbors were an Armenian-American couple, and during their initial over-the-fence conversation with the wife, she had told them that she and her husband had both lost great-grandparents in the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turkish government. The woman made no mention of the Turkish flag, but my friends decided after much discussion that while they certainly had a right to fly the flag on their property, it was more important to them to forgo that right and avoid offending their nice new neighbors. Several days after they took down the flag, a box of Armenian pastries was placed on their doorstep.
I dearly wish that my Turkish friend had gone on to become an imam in New York. As I listen to the heated debate surrounding the proposed building of a mosque and Islamic community center two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks carried out by radical Muslim terrorists, I wish that the mosque’s proponents would stop proclaiming their right to build and focus instead on this question: is it the right thing to do?
Let me be clear: had I been on the zoning board, I would have voted for the mosque because I believe in religious freedom. However, I would also have urged the imam to look for another site. Ordinarily I don’t care a great deal whether people take offense at the construction of religious buildings, whether it be Mormon temples or mosques in Temecula and other cities. However, the site of the greatest mass murder in U.S. history is hallowed ground for our country. If your stated goal as an imam is to promote unity and understanding, it seems to me that you’re undermining that effort by alienating thousands of victims’ survivors (including some Muslim ones) and tens of millions of Americans across the country. Something is wrong when your opponents include both Islamophobes and decent everyday people who do not hate Islam or Muslims but want you to find a different site for your building. I don’t know whether the concept of a Pyrrhic victory exists in Islamic law, but I fear that this will become one for the Muslim community.
I can’t help but reflect on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a 9/11 attack in Mormon history with a similar dynamic of radicals committing atrocities. On September 11, 1857, a renegade militia of local Mormon leaders in southwest Utah brutally murdered 120 men, women and children who were emigrating west from Arkansas. They mistook them for enemies of the Latter-day Saints, and the corpses were left to rot on the ground for two years. Although the church as an institution played no role in the massacre, it continues to be a source of disbelief and shame for thoughtful Mormons. In 2007, a 150th anniversary commemoration ceremony was held at the site, with an LDS apostle in attendance.
Mountain Meadows happens to lie in the Dixie National Forest, which one can assume is not zoned for religious construction. What if the LDS Church decided to ask for a special federal permit to build a chapel next to the site in order to heal wounds and promote understanding? The very idea is inconceivable. Even though more than 150 years have passed, I believe the request would encounter much opposition in the majority-Mormon state. It would simply not be the right or decent thing to do, regardless of whether Utah’s congressional delegation could ultimately obtain a federal permit for the church.
I am heartened to read that moderate voices are now calling for dialogue on the mosque issue. If Imam Rauf’s goal really is to promote tolerance and unity, he should find another site. Not because he has to, but because it will help him to attain his goal and promote goodwill towards his community. While I don’t believe that every objection to the mosque’s location is reasonable or defensible, I’m pretty sure that the 9/11 victims’ memories are not honored by division and animosity in the country they loved.
I’ve finally caught up with the 21st century, and would invite you to follow this blog on Twitter (“jewsandmormons”), where it will be retweeted (I’ve been told that that’s a word). Thank you for your readership.