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Do we want a future where our religious faith makes us a target?

The tragic events of September 11, 2001 also proved to be an unfortunate turning point in America’s socio-cultural dynamics. For a nation that’s built upon the principles of separating church and state, America’s multi-religious identity came to the forefront as specific groups, especially Muslims or Hindus and Sikhs (who were presumed to be Muslims), became the targets of mistrust and prejudice, both institutional and social. While Americans enjoy considerable religious freedom regardless of affiliation or faith, the increased polarization of the religious communities post-9/11 is a major cause for concern. This issue is addressed in Breakthrough’s multi-platform Facebook game America 2049 which, this week, takes players to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

The future that America 2049 presents, and asks players to save, shows a country torn apart by hate and mistrust. Yet the scenario of the future isn’t too far from us today. The Gainesville Times recently published a letter to the editor that exemplified the extremities of religious and ethnic hate that exists in certain parts of the country. A reader, responding to the May 6 story of a Delta Airlines pilot refusing to fly with two Islamic imams onboard, said-

“It is impossible to distinguish between Muslims who are anti-American and just waiting for a chance to do us harm, and those who are merely pursuing their religious beliefs in this country. The only way to be sure and safe is to exclude them all. Such action would not constitute bias or racism against a particular nationality just because they may be different from us, or the condemnation of a specific religion because it differs from our beliefs but the action is necessary to create conditions in which it is safe to live without a constant fear of terrorism.”

Such blatant justification of Islamophobia is alarming and begs us to work towards much more comprehensive multicultural education. Such views are further bolstered with several states, such as Tennessee, looking to pass a state bill which would essentially ban the practice of Sharia law in the state. The letter received much criticism and supports the statistic put forth by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) that since 2000, the number of organized hate groups has increased by 50 percent.

America 2049 provides players with an interactive scenario where this situation — which is already all too real — gets worse in the near future. Players also learn about the strong Anti-Catholic sentiments that pervaded America in the mid-1800s. Such sentiments gave rise to a political party called The Know-Nothings – so called because members swore to deny any knowledge of the party when questioned by outsiders. The Know-Nothings exhibited an extreme disapproval of the wave of Irish and German Catholic immigrants to the U.S in the mid-1800s, often engaging in violence and pushing for stricter immigration and naturalization laws to restrict Catholic presence in the country.

In a classic case of history repeating itself — a point America 2049 aims to make – we are now witness to similar sentiments against Muslim or Arabian/South Asian immigration to the U.S. The recent uproar around the proposed construction of an Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero in New York City serves as an apt example of this prejudice. America 2049 aims to address such issues of mistrust and blind discrimination by challenging players to make their own choices on how to confront religious profiling by contextualizing the entire issue across history. The crucial question, therefore, is – in a country that prides itself on freedoms of many kinds, do we want a future where our faith makes us a target?

Photo courtesy of Crux Photography

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Ground zero and the mosque — does the court of law have it right?

Welcoming a new mosque near the site of 9/11 attacks is seen by those opposed to it as a symbol of terrorist victory and a weak U.S. On the other hand, supporters see the openness and tolerance of this act as a powerful bridge to interfaith interaction and peace. But, plain and simply, to the court of law religious tolerance isn’t up for debate.

This week  New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission faced a lawsuit after they refused to give the building that will be the future home of the new mosque historical landmark status, on the basis that status should be given because the the building stood strong during the 9/11 attacks. Approved plans to tear down this building and build an Islamic mosque in its place led Republicans and the nation’s most prominent Jewish civil rights group Anti-Defamation League to join the American Center for Law and Justice in a heated battle against the decision to let Cordoba Initiative undergo its $100 million project to build the mosque. While the controversy over the measures of historical significance for this landmark made its way to courts, the bigger controversy underlying this court case did not. Before the court hearing Wednesday, Elisabeth de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, said,

What we’re looking at is whether the building has the architectural and historic significance to the city of New York to merit landmark designation.

In other words, its members were not asked to consider the planned use of the structure or site.

Despite the institutional refusal to debate over patriotic legacy v. religious tolerance, citizens continue to argue about whether or not the decision was un-American. For example, the Wall Street Journal published a letter to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (city panelist who appeased to the building of the mosque). He wrote:

While we continue to stand with you and your right to proceed with this project, we see no reason why it must necessarily be located so close to the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Those attacks, as you well know, were committed in the name of Islam… We applaud and thank every Muslim throughout the world who has rejected and denounced this association. But the fact remains that in the minds of many who are swayed by the most radical interpretations of Islam, the Cordoba House will not be seen as a center for peace and reconciliation. It will rather be celebrated as a Muslim monument erected on the site of a great Muslim ‘military’ victory — a milestone on the path of the further spread of Islam throughout the world.

While the legacy of the September 11 attacks remains in the heart of America, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick points out that

The sooner we separate the peaceful teaching of Islam from the behavior of terrorists, the better for all of us.

Patrick is the state’s first sitting Governor to visit a mosque.

If the U.S. were to single out one faith from New York’s greater cultural melting pot, it would be promoting intolerance and hatred.

Republicans say the mosque does a dishonor to the 3,000 lives lost by the Islamic terrorists in 2001’s Sept 11 attacks. However, the citizenry debate bottles down to a clash of religions, as evident when C. Lee Hanson, whose son, daughter-in-law, and grandchild died on the United Airlines flight 175, said,

I think it’s a tragedy for the United States. It’s another sign of weakness that we’d allow a victory mosque to be built next to what most of us is holy ground.

NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-Independent, said Tuesday,

The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves, and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans, if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan.

Developers say the mosque will serve as a hub for interfaith interaction, as well as a place for Muslims to bridge some of their faith’s own schisms.

Oz Sultan, spokesman for the planned Islamic center, said,

We want to create a model that shows the world that you can develop moderate Muslim communities. We would admonish people to, at least, give us a fair shake.

The court hearing did not include a debate on the legacy of 9/11 v. religious tolerance because any debate of the sort would, without a doubt, lose to the constitutional right of the freedom to practice one’s religion as well as the division between Church and State. Republicans who filed technical legal suit for landmark measures did so because they knew they needed a legitimate reason to reach court.

After the board’s unanimous vote, its chairman, Robert B. Tierney, said the structure, which previously home to a Burlington Coat Factory, “does not rise to the level of an individual landmark.”

This is just one opinion. What are your thoughts?

Photo courtesy of Jason Benjamin Paz on www.blogspot.com