Busted Halo

Paulist seminarian Tom Gibbons reflects on his formation experience and his life as a seminarian right now. Along the way, some questions will be will be answered, and a lot more will come up.

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August 27th, 2010

Religious Bias In New York


The big thing in the news right now is the debate on the Islamic center in lower Manhattan.  I have to say that I’ve been struggling for a few days with what to say on this topic, but too much has been going on to not say anything.  After all, if I write a blog for an online magazine for spiritual seekers, it’s kind of hard not to comment on an issue that focuses so much on faith.

I do have to say that my first response to this issue was not as of a spiritual seeker, not as someone who is devoting his life to religious life, but as someone who is an American.  It was hard for me to not see this as a freedom of religion issue.  While I do understand the arguments by some who are against this project—those of course who are not obviously using the issue to stoke fear for their own political gain by calling us down to our lowest common denominator instead of up to our highest values—I would still have to argue that the Bill of Rights does not exist because it assumed that people of different faith traditions would usually see eye-to-eye, it exists because our history reminds us that many people wouldn’t.

Know_NothingIt’s a history I wish some Catholic politicians would remember before they decide to offer a full-throated support against the project.  In the 1840s and 50s, there existed a political movement in the City of New York known as, ironically, the Know Nothings.  While their name may sound more descriptive today of the quality of their arguments, it actually is derived from the response its members would give when questioned about their sometimes violent activities, “I know nothing.”  Their main organizing principle was to organize against a faith tradition that was seen to be outside of the mainstream and therefore a threat to the republic.  Their argument was that members of this faith tradition, in addition to being different from the mainstream, were actually agents of a nefarious foreign power.  Which faith tradition were the Know Nothings against?  Roman Catholicism.  Which foreign power did they see as threatening to America?  The Pope.

Of course, there are some who argue against the appropriateness of the project are not acting from a place of bigotry nor are they suggesting that the community who is building the Islamic center does not have the right to proceed.  There are also many voices who are looking to be legitimate brokers of peace who suggest that the site should be moved in the name of calming fears and diffusing a volatile situation.  But while the desire to see if a “middle” solution can be found is laudable, I cannot help but feel that by suggesting that having an Islamic Center near Ground Zero is inappropriate, we are by default saying that all of Islam was responsible for what happened on 9-11.  I cannot help but feel that we are saying that the actions of an extreme minority are therefore representative of an entire faith tradition.  And as someone who is studying for the priesthood but also had to sit through yet another round of clergy abuse headlines a few months ago, I’m not sure that it’s a standard I would want applied to anybody.

There are well meaning people on all sides of this issue.  It does have to be noted that there are also some people who are less than well meaning, people who have distorted the truth for their own personal aggrandizement, political gain, what have you… and that list includes some Catholic politicians.  But at the end of the day, the same rights of religious freedom that protect different faiths also happen to protect ours.  And if we are going to form a more peaceful world, the kind of world the people behind the Islamic Center have repeatedly said they wish to further with their new center, it is going to have to be grounded in a place where the rights of all are respected.

The Author : Fr. Tom Gibbons
Since 2009, Tom Gibbons, CSP, has shared insights on faith, pop culture, and seminary life in the Kicking and Screaming blog here at Busted Halo. On May 19, 2012, Tom was ordained a Paulist priest at St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York City. He will begin serving St. Peter's Catholic Church in Toronto, Canada beginning in July 2012.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • James Oliver

    This is an interesting point of view:

    John Paul II and the `Ground Zero mosque’
    August 15, 2010, 2:59 pm
    Posted by Paul Moses

    Pope John Paul II’s name is being used by many commentators to support their attacks against the Islamic center proposed for a building two blocks from the World Trade Center site. The pope had agreed to withdraw a convent near Auschwitz, as William McGurn pointed out in an Aug. 3 Wall Street Journal column. Others have followed on this, including some commentators who’ve taken very extreme positions.

    As discussed in a July 31 post by J. Peter Nixon, there may be some similarities. But to focus on this one decision by John Paul in order to make a case against the Islamic center and to ignore his many dramatic attempts to find common ground with Muslims, as some commentators have done in recent days, is a disservice to his memory.

    So I will offer an anecdote about how John Paul handled a potential dispute with Muslims over “sacred ground.” In this case, the sacred ground was Manger Square in Bethlehem, where Pope John Paul celebrated Mass on March 22, 2000.

    The pope had just finished his homily, ending with “Assalamu alaikum,” when the Muslim call to prayer broke forth from the loudspeakers at a mosque that bordered on Manger Square. It seemed, at first, like a rude intrusion on the historic Mass the pope was celebrating in the Jubilee year. But John Paul sat quietly and listened as the muezzin sang God’s praise; he seemed to be savoring the moment. It was as if the Muslim prayer mingled with the Mass.

    Just before the Mass ended, it was announced that church and mosque officials had coordinated the call to prayer, which had been delayed to accommodate the pope’s homily. It was a small matter, really, but this cooperation stirred the crowd, mostly Arab Christians, to cheers, applause and even to tears. A sacred space had been shared, and everyone was the better for it.

  • Jenny

    Kevin, you make a very good point about the Orange Order. However, I think that Muslims are more stereotyped, marginalized and misunderstood in our society than most other groups. What Tom wrote is very beautifully open minded, and his non-skeptical trust of the Islamic Center’s motives is exactly what we need to counteract the slew of anti-Muslim material we see too often in the media. I also like how this post compared anti-Muslim propaganda to all the sensationalized press we see concerning alleged sex scandals in the Catholic Church. Both are one-sided media hype that doesn’t help or educate anyone, and contributes to more fear-mongering and negative stereotypes.

  • Kevin

    Thank you, Janet! A comment on a comment…Wow, this blogosphere thing is really something. I think my somewhat twisted mind has come up with a very simple solution for rebuilding St Nicholas. All that has to happen is that Greek Orthodox Church declare war on the USA. Then The GOC can surrender (or the US can declare Victory!). Immediately, as we have all over the world, the US will appropriate sufficient funds to rebuild St. Nicholas, to 2X what it was in the name of better foreign relations, world peace or some other politically correct virtue. KBR (Halliburton) would have it completed in six months.

  • Janet

    Thank you, Kevin!! Amen!
    BTW, why is it that this mosque got such a quick ‘go ahead’ from NYC, when the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church has been waiting & wading through red tape for the same?

  • Kevin

    An old and dear friend of mine recently turned me on to your blog and I find it most interesting. I’m an old guy and blogging is a new experience for me, but I felt compelled to comment on this important issue. From both a catholic and a Catholic perspective, I must agree with your sentiments regarding religious freedom. Intellectually, however, your thesis on the “Islamic Center at Ground Zero” is only correct if, as you say “the people behind the Islamic Center”, do indeed have the pure motives that you attribute to them.
    Historically, one doesn‚Äôt have to go back to the very appropriately named ‚ÄúKnow-Nothings‚Äù to find examples of religious bigotry or politically nonsensicality. These are actions are not uniquely American…the global examples are legion. Both Yasser Arafat (1994) and David Trimble (1998) have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Arafat and Trimble are two of the most flagrant bigots of the last half of the twentieth century; but somehow geopolitical interests were presumably best served by ‚Äúhonoring‚Äù them. Most people are familiar with Arafat and his abject hatred of the Jews is manifest, but Trimble is under most Americans‚Äô radar. He was the First Minister of the statelet that the British call Northern Ireland. and was awarded the Prize for ‚Äúhis work in promoting the Irish Peace Process‚Äù. David Trimble, however, was also the ‚ÄúGrand Poobah‚Äù of the Orange Order…an organization whose members swear an oath to: never hire a Catholic, never associate with a Catholic, etc., etc. The Orange Order celebrates the 1690 Battle of the Boyne defeat of Catholicism and the Protestant ascendancy in the North of Ireland. Every 12th of July (even to this day) the Orange Order bangs drums while marching through Catholic neighborhoods. Since the closest thing to the Orange Order in America is the Ku Klux Klan whose members take a similar oath (just substitute ‚ÄúBlack‚Äù for Catholic‚Äù), I have to ask rhetorically what your thinking would be if the KKK marched down 125th Street in Harlem every year on March 4th to celebrate the founding of the Confederate States of America? Does religious/political freedom trump common sense or even common decency? If so, why? If not, why not?
    My questions are relevant to the the proposed ‚ÄúIslamic Center‚Äù because the answer to any question related to such issues can only be found in MOTIVE. The Islamic Center project was originally called the Cordova (Qurtuba) Project. Why? At the apogee of the Muslim Empire (circa 1000AD) Qurtuba was the Empire‚Äôs brightest jewel and furthest conquest. So then just what really is the MOTIVE for the Mosque at Ground Zero? Why there? Why now? And where is the money coming from? Why is the questioning of MOTIVE or the of asking ‚ÄúCould it be bIt is triumphalism?‚Äù regarded as such a concept as to be relegated to some ‚Äúlunatic fringe‚Äù thinking? Admittedly, I‚Äôm a cynic. I also am puzzled when people use the 1st amendment to the US Constitution as a sword rather than a shield. Where has common sense and decency gone in this post 9-11 overly politically correct time in our history? I believe that there is absolutely no reason to believe that ‚Äúthe people behind the Islamic Center‚Äù (by the way, just who are those people?) have MOTIVES so pure as you would believe…and with the information at hand, or for that matter not at hand, it is terribly naive to support this project in the absence of such information. Furthermore, it is, in my humble opinion, it is intellectually dishonest to make such a statement as you have made without full and complete knowledge of the facts.
    I must confess that I have some personal prejudices regarding Ground Zero that color my thinking. You see, I knew some of the almost 3000 victims of this atrocity. Two examples: I had the great honor of knowing (by reputation and a few tangental meetings) Father Mychal Judge, the legendary Franciscan Friar and NYFD chaplain, officially Victim #0001 of the attack…a living saint to all those who knew him. And also Lt. Billy H. – a strapping fine bright lad, a couple of years younger than you, who was forceably retired – disabled with Pulmonary problems about 5 yrs. after the attack. Imagine, a leader of the NYFD at age thirty… a promising career cut down in its prime. Where does respect for these and all the other victims of this atrocity enter the equation…where is the thought process of what is the right thing to do and not just the politically correct or utopian thing to do?
    I admire your empathy for the Moslem community as a whole – it is a wonderful trait for a priest. But, a really great priest in addition to a large sense of empathy toward his fellow man is also grounded in unvarnished practical reality and intellectual discipline as well. Mychal Judge was such a priest. Ironically, the Paulist Press published a book about him in 2002. I would think it would be required reading for Paulist Seminarians.
    As I said in the beginning of this, I‚Äôm just an old guy who has reached the stage in life where I no longer worry about ‚Äúwoulda‚Äôs, coulda‚Äôs and shouda‚Äôs‚Äù…I just say my piece. I hope that you evaluate my two cents in the spirit in which it is presented – a bit of intellectual jousting, if you will.
    Uh, oh…this ‚Äúresponse‚Äù is turning out to be more of a ‚Äúrant‚Äò and I don‚Äôt know anything about the etiquette of the blogosphere…I‚Äôm out of here…

  • Laura Wieland

    Thanks, Tom

  • Laura

    Thanks, Tom.

  • Tricia

    Great Tom,i agree… very eloquent…I’ll be praying for you as you journey to become a priest..God Bless.

  • Frank Babic

    Put it great Tom. I attacked about my stance on the Mosque when I clearly stated that I support the right for them to build I just have questions about the motive and funding. also the brought up the question about the Greek Orthodox Church that is having a hard time getting rebuilt after being next to the Towers and in that location sense the 1900’s . But I never question the right of those who want to build the Mosque / center. I was called a bigot a raciest and a Islamophobic. I do have a distrust of Islam but I would defend them in the ring of religious freedom so I am no bigot. I wish I had this blog to post at the time so I could have saved my my self 10 or more replies. Thanks again .

  • Eric the Lutheran

    I believe that even as late as the 1960’s people were worried because JFK was Catholic. He had to give a statement at a press conference that September because there was an active “whisper” campaign lead by Norman Vincent Peale that if he became president the Pope would truly be running the country. It turned out the Catholics voted in record numbers that year, and most for Kennedy. He did not govern based on the Catholic church. In fact if you look to his brothers views we can assume he wouldn’t have if he survived.

    After that anti-Catholicism began to fade. Before Islam became the current religious scapegoat it was rising again.

  • Julie

    Thank you Tom, Thank you

  • Katherine

    I couldn’t have put it better myself, Tom.

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