Like every Muslim in the world (with internet access) and a bit of extra time, I've been watching the daily drama surrounding Park51. In my case, I watch with more interest. Though I am not a spokesperson, Park51 is in my neighborhood and was an outgrowth from the overcrowded mosque I attend.
What is becoming increasingly obvious, apart from the fact that no one seems to really know the facts about the Park51 project, is that as a community, we are letting outsiders make decisions and pronouncements FOR us. We are reacting rather addressing our needs.
Whether you are for or against men and women worshipping together, for or against gay and lesbian rights, for or against playing and listening to music, for or against hijab; let's talk to each other.
I read an article somewhere about how to react when you see a parent being abusive to a child in a public place. If you start by chastising the parent, you've guaranteed the child an even worse time when you leave. The first step is to tell the parent you understand how difficult it is, that it's hard to be patient. Then you might tell the parent what a wonderful child they have, or something to help them to see the situation differently for a minute. Help them step away from a moment of frustration. The first step to change starts with building bridges, releasing tension. Even with someone you really disagree with.
As Muslims, we need to start listening to each other. We need to engage and explore, gently and respectfully, especially in the beginning; but definitely thoroughly.
Park51 was created based on love and inclusion. It is open to all people. Thus it is also the place to learn and start dialogue about Muslim identity. We are redefining our identities as American Muslims - and whether we agree or not - we need the points of view of all Muslims who are open to dialogue, from Hamza Yusuf and Reza Aslan,Irshad Manji, Parvez Sharma, El-Farouk Khaki and anyone else who wants to make peace with his or her faith.
But we also need all those thinkers (some brilliant) who have thrown up their arms and walked away. We need to take their questions and critiques seriously. While we may need to separate cultural and personal narratives from larger issues, we need to listen, not dismiss. We need Hirsi Ali, we need Wafa Sultan, We need Ibn Warraq and Salman Rushdie. Because for every writer who has walked away, there are hundreds of other people who have found themselves alienated in similar ways and deserve to be heard. We need Muslims who have never before found a place where they feel at home and accepted - no matter how they choose to practice.
We also need everyone else - Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Bahai, Agnostics, Atheists. As the Prophet Muhammed (p.b.u.h.) is reported to have said, "There are as many paths to the divine as there are souls." We need a place where we can listen and discover our similarities and accept our differences. We may find crucial pieces that were missing in our own understanding of faith. The Dalai Lama has spoken beautifully and eloquently on Islam, so has Karen Armstrong and, of course, others.
We need to find a safe space to ask ourselves the hard questions - about female circumcision, about forced marriages, about poverty, literacy and violence, so much more - reach a real place for consensus on issues that harm people and lovingly agree to disagree in places where people can make choices.
Park51 has infused in its roots the interfaith work of Imam Feisal Rauf. But as an Muslim interfaith center, it cannot possibly allow itself to be circumscribed by any one man or woman. Even with people we admire, who seem beyond reproach - let's say, Gandhi or Mother Theresa - we often discover that they were humans after all, and as such subject to human foibles and caprices.
Park51 must be larger, more diverse and more committed to New York City and its values.
Park51's location is already forcing us to take so many sensitivities and viewpoints into account. We are in the unique position of having brought to the forefront so many different viewpoints on Muslims, on Islam, on our constitution and our freedoms, on our ways of worshipping and showing respect.
Ideally, we will become the crucible for Muslim thought in America and New York City's symbol of tolerance and harmony with all expressions of faith.