Pagans and Park51

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Whether the controversy was manufactured or not, the United States has been drawn into what seems an increasingly bitter and divisive public debate over the proposed Park51 Islamic community center and mosque in New York, dubbed the “ground zero mosque” by the media and various activists due to its proximity (2 blocks) to where the World Trade Center once stood. Modern Pagans, both in New York and outside it, have taken a keen interest in this situation as it has progressed. There seems to be a sense that, despite the theological and social differences that may exist, religious minorities are looking to see how this resolves itself, and what the ultimate message of the conflict and eventual resolution may be. To some, like Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum, speaking to the Associated Press, the fact that we are having this public debate and uproar is in itself a positive sign.

“I think that the intolerance that we’re experiencing right now is that for the first time in a long period of time, since almost the founding of our country, we’ve actually begun to ALLOW pluralism to surface in our country. So we’ve started to uphold the ideals that our country was founded on … and the people who’ve been in the dominant position begin to feel like they’re under attack.”

For noted Pagan and activist Peter Dybing, this controversy, if ultimately successful in blocking or moving the proposed center, could have long-lasting repercussions for all religious minorities in America. That our own experiences with intolerance and misinformation should make us see that we risk much by not supporting their right to worship when and where they want to. That just as some Christians, Jews, and Muslims supported our inclusion in the interfaith movement, and in efforts like the Veteran Pentacle Quest, even if it wasn’t popular or politic to do so, so too should we make common cause here and defend them from the ongoing hostility and distortions being peddled around this issue.

“So why should the Neo Pagan community become involved in defending the rights of a belief system that holds views so foreign to our earth based community? Islam, an incredibly diverse group of faiths, is faced with being branded as intolerant and violent due to the actions of radical fringe groups. We in the Pagan community have experienced attempts to paint us all with the same brush when individuals who claim to be Pagan commit violent acts. Recent events in New Mexico and Australia make this clear. To stand by and allow these forms of attack encourages those who believe that our country should not be tolerant of a diversity of beliefs. If we do not stand in support of inclusion and respect we risk our own fight for Pagan rights through our lack of action.”

However, not all Pagans feel as Dybing does, openly Pagan New York City Councilman Dan Halloran, speaking at a recent Coalition to Honor Ground Zero rally, noted that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is behind the plans to build Park51, should have a greater sensitivity to those affected by the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Speaker after speaker testified to the importance of the Ground Zero site to Americans. “If we want a nation of peace,” said city councilman Dan Halloran, whose cousin died on 9/11, “then peace comes with understanding. And they need to understand that this is sacred ground to New Yorkers.”

Sacred and hallowed are words that are being used quite a bit in this debate, implying that any new Islamic-oriented construction would be a desecration, even though there were several Muslim victims of the 9/11 attack. Indeed, there are splits between the 9/11 families over this question, leading to the unfortunate omission of narratives that don’t fit within the frame of different advocacy groups. Further, some New Yorkers, including New York Pagan K.W., who personally witnessed the destruction of the WTC towers, reject the idea that the ground around the site is “hallowed” altogether.

“Just to put the “hallowed ground” arguments into some perspective here are some of the things I have to walk by every Wednesday in order to get to the WTC site. All are either within a 3 block radius or right across: Numerous falafel stands, Sephora, Century 21, Men’s Warehouse, numerous phone stores, Starbucks, a Church, a strip club and a really good French restaurant. If the site is such hallowed ground why are these establishments allowed to co-exist yet an Islamic Center is not?”

As things have gotten more tense, with protests and counter-protests being organized, some willfully provocative, it has gotten hard to separate the light from the heat on the proposed community center and mosque. Anti-mosque groups have gained unlikely allies, and even one of the most famous families within the Tea Party movement is divided. According to Peg Aloi, Witchvox contributor and Media Coordinator, this battle isn’t really about religious rights, or even politics, but about fear.

“I don’t think this issue is about religion. I don’t even think it’s about politics. I think it’s about ignorance and fear. People are woefully uninformed or misinformed about so many things that they then feel entitled to denigrate or condemn. And they are fearful, and perhaps rightfully so. We live in a violent, selfish society in which everyone lives mostly for themselves, and people feel they need to act to preserve their own little piece of the world. We need to learn to co-exist. We need to try and understand how to think with clarity and logic, so we can understand simple concepts such as the following: Some terrorists are Muslims; this does not mean all Muslims are terrorists, any more than the actions of Timothy McVeigh make all Christians terrorists. We need to open our eyes and ears and learn to distinguish between facts and assumptions. If we don’t start behaving like intelligent, rational, compassionate human beings, we’re doomed.”

As Diane Vera of New Yorkers Against Religion-Based Bigotry puts it, “if even Muslims can be singled out for this kind of harassment, then surely the rights of other, smaller religious minorities are in even greater danger.” No matter where we as individuals stand concerning this community center and mosque in New York, we need to guard against healthy debate leading to violence, harassment, or attempts at misguided lawmaking. As we approach the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, feelings and rhetoric may become even more intense, and we may run the risk of collectively empowering the very demagogues who have little care for the rights of any religious minority. We should stand guard against the campaign against this community center and mosque becoming a larger campaign against any mosque, anywhere. Not only for the sake of American Muslims, but for the sake of the rights of all religious groups in our country.

Modern Paganism is an incredibly diverse religious movement that numbers individuals on both sides of this debate, but I hope we can all acknowledge that secular law, at the end of the day, should trump whatever our personal feelings are. I also hope our community can listen to the concerns from both sides of this issue and find the space to grow from the experience. I encourage comment and debate on this issue here, but wish to remind you of our comment policy, and urge everyone to remain civil. Let’s bring more light, rather than heat, to this discussion.