By Frank Wessling
Should a group of Muslims in New York City be setting up a community center that includes a mosque a few blocks from the site where Muslim radicals caused the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and the deaths of 3,000 people? The question tests us as Americans in several ways.
Are we able to accept the Islamic religion in the American mix after the horror of 9/11? Can we trust Muslim loyalty to the American common good or are they committed to a foreign source? In New York should we accept an Islamic symbolic place so close to the place desecrated by Islamic fanaticism?
This issue raises tensions because that’s what happens when there is real, honest uncertainty at its center. Few Americans know the Islamic faith, few know any Muslims. Our history gives us little guidance in the assimilation of Muslims, and what history we have raises questions.
As Catholics we know something about this. We were objects of great suspicion by the mostly Protestant and the unreligious settlers of this land. We were “Papists,” subjects of that foreign authority at the Vatican in far off Italy. We couldn’t be trusted.
It is only 50 years since John F. Kennedy, running for the presidency, thought it necessary to appear before the Houston Ministerial Association in Texas and explain that he would not be dictated to by the Vatican or any bishop and could, as a Catholic, be loyal to the presidential oath of office. If he thought there was a contradiction between his duty as President and his duties as a Catholic, he would resign the presidential office.
This kind of forthright declaration of American loyalty is what many people would like to hear from Muslim leaders. They do not do it. They do not have the same tradition of distinguishing between the things of Caesar and the things of God. There is some movement within Islam to change in that direction but the movement is on the margins. So tension persists.