Spirited Debate Ensues Over Mosque Near Ground Zero A proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero in Manhattan is stirring up anger and cries of bias in and around New York City. But this debate is not limited to New York; there's growing opposition to mosques in communities across the country. Host Michel Martin talks to Rich Harwood about how to engage a community in meaningful conversations about these sorts of hot button issues. Harwood is the founder of the Harwood Institute, a non-profit group that encourages people to improve their communities by breaking down barriers.
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Spirited Debate Ensues Over Mosque Near Ground Zero

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Spirited Debate Ensues Over Mosque Near Ground Zero

Spirited Debate Ensues Over Mosque Near Ground Zero

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(Soundbite of music)


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a few minutes, BackTalk, where you talk back to us about this week's programs. We'll hear what you have to say.

But first, its time for our Faith Matters conversation. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today we want to talk about a building, the proposed Islamic center a couple of blocks from Ground Zero.

You may have heard about this, at a meeting last week to discuss the planned building, opponents shouted down supporters of the project.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Woman #1: I hope you - I hope you - I'm not racist. Thank you.

Unidentified Man #1: Right wing racist (unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman #1: No I'm not. Youre saying that so that it makes it sound like I'm racist and I could not be more further from the truth, a racist.

Unidentified Man #2: Please. Please. Let her continue her remarks. Thank you. It's okay.

Unidentified Woman #1: And I apologize. I apologize to Dais(ph) up there.

Unidentified Woman #2: We need to get the police to quiet this person. We need to have freedom of speech. I'm asking for the police to quiet this man.

MARTIN: Now this particular building has gotten a lot of attention because of all the complicated feelings about the Ground Zero site. In fact, similarly angry debates are being heard elsewhere in the country where mosques or Islamic community centers have been proposed and even sometimes where they have not been.

Now the anger part has been well attested to. But what we were most interested in is whether there are models for how a community can get beyond these volatile reactions and move, perhaps, towards more constructive dialogue.

So to have that conversation, we called Rich Harwood. He's the president and founder of the Harwood Institute. That's a nonprofit group that facilitates community discussion. He's with us from member station KNPR in Las Vegas.

Welcome, Rich. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. RICH HARWOOD (President and Founder, Harwood Institute): Hey, Michel. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: So just to make it clear, the center in New York has already been approved and the issue now is whether or not the building should receive special landmark preservation status, which would mean the 13-story building couldnt be torn down. But the center is likely to move forward regardless. But the fact is there are a lot of people who are still very angry with it, maybe they just found out about it. What steps would you take to address these feelings?

Mr. HARWOOD: Well, I think first of all, we have to understand that there are a lot of undercurrents in American society right now. People's frustration about the economy, mortgage foreclosures, immigration laws, so we're hearing some of that frustration. So I think the first step is we have to let people vent their frustrations. But we then have to move beyond that pretty quickly. And I think the question we have to ask ourselves is not whether or not we should approve the building of a mosque, but first, what kind of community do we want to live in and what will it take for us to get that community? And then where does building a Mosque fit into that?

We have to get to a larger conversation about people's aspirations for their communities, not their fears and preconceived notions and maybe their prejudices.

MARTIN: You recently wrote on your blog about a similar debate among gubernatorial candidates in Tennessee, where candidates were pressed to take a position whether they would allow a mosque to go forward in their neighborhoods. And you say quote, "In my old neighborhood there were always concerns about a rapidly growing church down the street. But working out zoning issues is radically different from whether we allow mosques to be built at all in communities."

And why is that?

Mr. HARWOOD: Well, I think, you know, there might be legitimate zoning issues about how tall a building is or what its front looks like or any number of technical issues which is pretty much what zoning is about. Whether or not we're going to allow in this country, a pluralistic country where we have freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom to assemble, whether or not we're going to allow mosques to be built is a much larger issue than some technical aspect of zoning laws.

MARTIN: Well, recently New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke to this point. He said, quote, "if you are religious you do not want the government picking religions because what do you do the day they dont pick yours?"

But there those who say this isn't about religion so much as it is about terrorism. There are those who say well, thing one: they associate mosques with breeding grounds for terrorists, be they foreign-born or native-born, and for other people they say it's just too sensitive, it's just too soon, 9/11 is too recent and they still have raw against about feelings about this, that they just feel its insensitive. What do you say to that?

Mr. HARWOOD: Well, I think people do have raw feelings about 9/11 still. I think they have raw feelings about a lot of things that are happening in American public life right now. What I say is that we have two choices: We can try to tamp down those raw feelings and try to tell people to go home and not say very much and what we know is those raw feelings will only fester.

Or we can try to open up spaces in our communities for people to talk about these issues, to work through them and to figure out how we want to move ahead together as part of the same community or the same state or the same nation in some cases. And my hope is that those folks on the far right or far left who seem to be dominating this debate will be told look, youre point of views are welcome, but there are many other points of view in this country and we need to hear them.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, Sarah Palin, the former vice presidential candidate, has become, you know, quite a player in conservative politics, sent a series of Twitter posts on Sunday asking the Muslim community to move away from this site in the interest of healing.

I mean she's suggesting that people may have a right to build the site there but they should make the gesture to the larger community to, as she put it, in the interest of healing.

What do you make of that argument?

Mr. HARWOOD: Well, you know, this is your segment on faith, right? And forgiveness actually often begins with those who have been perceived to be wronged in something, not those who have necessarily perpetrated it. And so what I would say is that I would hope that former Governor Palin would step forward and say here's my point of view. But instead of me just telling you my point of view, let's talk about what it would mean to create some space for healing. What are the kinds of things we actually need to do to move forward? I have yet to hear those from many of the political leaders who are stepping forward to talk about this issue.

They're demagoging. They're bullying people. They're pushing people into corners and I think that only is a negative in terms of the kind of society we're trying to create and how society can move through this.

MARTIN: What do you say to those who say, I dont want to engage with this? I, you know, I lost loved ones here. This is too raw for me. I do not want to engage in this community. I do not want to be reminded of this. It's still too painful.

Mr. HARWOOD: I can understand that. You know, I unfortunately lost my best friend in one of those towers on 9/11. I actually saw it unfold before my eyes as I was watching TV and I waited for any number of days to hear whether or not he was alive or not. I understand the rawness of this. I understand the deep feelings that people have about this. And I can understand that for some people it's still too hard to talk about. But there are millions more who can talk about this and need to talk about this, and we need to create the spaces in our communities for that conversation to occur.

MARTIN: One thing I think that has been lost in all this is that there are many Muslims who lost their lives on 9/11.

Mr. HARWOOD: Ten percent.

MARTIN: Both at the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon that there are people of the Muslim faith who lost their lives.

But just going back to the original question, so now that people have vented, and you actually say venting does have its place - that people should be allowed a vehicle to express their feelings, now that that's happened, what next? What's the next step you think people should take in communities where they are grappling with this?

Mr. HARWOOD: Well, as I mentioned before, I think the very next step is that we need to start - the next question has to be what kind of community do we want to live in?

This has to be framed in terms of our aspirations, our desire to be part of something larger than ourselves, to help us remember that we are connected to one another in our communities. And my experience has been, whether it's on issues on this or education or health care or any number of issues, is that when we can start with the larger context of our aspirations for our community we can begin to see ourselves in that discussion and we also begin to take more ownership of the discussion and trying to figure out how to move forward from where we hare.

MARTIN: Richard Harwood is the president of the Harwood Foundation. That's a nonprofit that encourages people to engage in their communities. To use their language: Its a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that inspires and guides people to step forward and take action rooted in their community and stay true to themselves. The institute works with individuals, organizations and communities to turn outward and develop their ability to make more intentional choices and judgments that lead to impact.

So there you go. That's what the Harwood Institute tries to do. He was with us from KNPR in Las Vegas.

Thank you so much, Rich.

Mr. HARWOOD: Thank you, Michel.

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