The “Reverend” Fred Phelps and his congregation have made quite a name for themselves. They are the small independent Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka who wander the country, gratuitously insulting people and making asses of themselves. They carry signs that say “GOD HATES FAGS” and picket the funerals of servicemen killed in action, claiming that their deaths are punishment for America’s homosexual sins. They are so repulsive that I have found myself wondering if they are not, in fact, Unitarians or secularists, posing as fundamentalist yahoos to serve their own ends. I have often wondered the same about all manner of over-the-top public figures, from the late Jerry Falwell to Al Sharpton to Alan Keyes, who has become the Al Sharpton of the Right. The world is full of figures so ridiculous that they seem to have been made up by their enemies. But alas, they are no doubt sincere.
But interestingly, no one has suggested that because of their hatefulness no Christian churches should be allowed to conduct military funerals. Or even that Baptist churches should be forbidden services for fallen soldiers. Why not? Well, because that would be stupid. The antics of a hateful minority do not reflect on a (mostly) benign majority.
But something very like this is being supported by a majority of Americans. I speak of the uproar over the proposed Islamic cultural center in Manhattan, not far from where the Twin Towers fell. That so many are opposed to what is intended to be a center of moderate Islam and interfaith study is troubling, not least for the glaring incongruity of trying to suppress religious expression in a nation that prides itself on its heritage of religious freedom.
Troubling, too, is the tendency of so many Americans to generalize about Islam: because the young men who piloted airplanes into the World Trade Center did so in the name of Islam, therefore any Muslim presence within the area of the tragedy is an affront, an outrage. But Islam is at least as diverse as Christianity; to blame all Muslims for the acts of extremists is like blaming all Christians for the hatred spewed by the members of the Westboro Baptist Church.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauh, who is behind the Cordoba Initiative, is a Sufi Muslim, an opponent of religious violence who has always condemned the 9/11 attacks, a man who has long been respected by his Jewish and Christian partners in interreligious dialogue. Visit the website of the Initiative to see for yourself: www.cordobainitiative.org.
Moderate, tolerant Sufi Islam has about as much in common with the Wahabbi puritanism espoused by Al Quaida and the Taliban as Fred Phelps has with a Benedictine monk. Opposing this center, which is precisely the sort of Islam we should hope will prevail, not only violates our tradition of religious liberty, it feeds the fire of Islamic extremism. The Wahabbists and other radical Islamists want Muslims to believe America hates their faith. To prove them right defies not only our stated ideals but common sense.