Imam Rauf and what’s wrong with America today

I could only bear to watch a few minutes of a debate on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 about the proposed construction of Cordoba House in New York City. It was enough to show me what is wrong with America today. The problem is that we talk at each other. We don’t listen.

The debate was between a Muslim CNN correspondent and a Christian religion author who were in favor of the building the community center and the widow of a FDNY firefighter who died on 9/11 and an organizer of construction workers who are opposed to it.

It took place after an interview of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf on Larry King Live. I’ve only seen bits of the actual interview. It seemed to me that the Imam choose his words very carefully, tried to appeal to reason, and showed a willingness to compromise while reminding Americans about the importance of how these actions would be perceived internationally.

But the people opposed to the center didn’t see his interview that way.

The organizer said “every word that came out of his mouth was a gift” as he put his own interpretation on the Imam’s interview. When the CNN correspondent tried to clarify exactly what the Imam said, the organizer against twisted the words around to his point of view. The supporters of the community center were no better. The religious author called the Cordoba House controversy and Imam Rauf’s interview, “the Super Bowl of interfaith relations.” It was a horribly insensitive remark that offended (and rightly so) the firefighter’s widow. The organizer and widow then started insisting that the Imam of calling them “extremists” while the CNN correspondent tried to tell them that the Imam’s comments were not directed to opponents of the community center.

At that point, I had enough. I changed the channel, trying to find a sitcom or an episode of Jersey Shore to get the noxiousness out of my head.

Yes, 9/11 is an emotionally charged issue. Yes, we are in a state of war with Muslim extremists in Afghanistan, and our troops still remain in harm’s way in Iraq. Yes, Al Qaeda still exists. Yes, terrorists still plan or attempt to carry out plots against the United States homeland. Here’s the challenge we face: Can we maintain our civility and our values in times like these? Or do we allow this situation to destroy the unity of a multicultural society, which has been the source of America’s strength? If we allow 9/11 to tear our country apart, Osama bin Laden truly has won.

To avoid that, we need to debate issues like the Cordoba House on the facts. Don’t call it the “Ground Zero Mosque” when it’s not at the Ground Zero site, and it’s a community center, not a dedicated mosque. We need to recognize that Muslims, like all other groups, are not monolithic and have a variety of opinions and beliefs. We can’t judge all of them on Osama bin Laden, just like they shouldn’t judge all of us on Pastor Terry Jones.

The first step is to listen to one another.