The irrational controversy over the proposed Islamic cultural center near ground zero in New York City shows how little Americans know about Islam and its many divisions and complexities, and how quick some are to lump all Muslims together as a monolithic enemy bloc.
Many, if not most, people are unaware, for example, that the imam behind the proposed center, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is a leading American thinker of Sufism, the deeply tolerant mystical branch of Islam best known in the West, perhaps, as the religion of the great 13th-century poet Rumi. Sufism preaches love and devotion, is open to all, and is the historical antithesis of jihadist Islam.
Indeed, as William Dalrymple points out in a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban no doubt would consider Imam Rauf, who has lived in the United States for more than 30 years, an apostate and a target for assassination.
Sufis are natural allies of the West, but by lumping them in with the jihadists, we are pushing them away, not bringing them closer. There are more than 700,000 Muslims in greater New York City, including 10,000 in Manhattan. Supporting their cultural center sends a message that Islam and the West can live together in peace and that Americans are committed to freedom of religion.
Republicans are cynically trying to make this a wedge issue in the November election by appealing to voters’ ignorance and generalized fear of Muslims. Democrats, from the president on down, need to push back strongly, knowing they are on the side of the angels here. The world needs to see that the American people stand up for their core values.