Mosque controversy presents an opportunity

As chair of the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada, I would like to share a few words about the proposed Islamic site in New York City.

The project, called Park 51, is actually not a proposed mosque but a cultural center, open to the community at large. Yes, it will have a place for prayer within the center. Cultural centers are important because they promote understanding and appreciation.

The vision of the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada, similar to interfaith councils throughout North America, is to promote "a world where all faiths, spiritual paths, cultural traditions and communities cooperate for the benefit of all and are honored, respected and celebrated."

What we appear to have in the case of this proposed cultural center is a lot of misunderstanding, rhetoric and fear-promoting language.

Newt Gingrich has called the proposed center a symbol of Muslim "triumphalism" and compared the construction of such a building to "putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum." He has repeated the Nazi rhetoric in an interview on Fox News and referred to the project's organizers as "radical Islamists."

This kind of language from Mr. Gingrich, which has been repeated by many others in editorials and letters to the editor, represents an irresponsible misunderstanding and the kind of fear-promoting language that leads to irrational decisions and irresponsible behavior. Note the recent attack on a New York cab driver.

Recently I had the privilege of listening to Doug Johnston who runs the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy ( in Washington, D.C. He and his team have been doing work in the Sudan, in Kashmir and in Pakistan. The stories of his experiences were truly heartening as he recounted meeting with members of both the Taliban and al-Qaida in an effort to use dialogue rather than weapons to move key diplomatic objectives of peace forward.

The mission of ICRD is to address identity-based conflicts that exceed the reach of traditional diplomacy by incorporating religion as part of the solution, not part of the problem. By linking religious reconciliation with official or unofficial diplomacy, ICRD has created a new synergy for peacemaking in regions torn apart by political and ethnic strife.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has recognized the ICRD for "doing important and worthwhile work." This work is based not upon false information, polarizing rhetoric and fear-mongering, but upon the understanding and appreciation of other faith traditions, in this case, Islam. Johnston was initially met with disdain when he met with the members of the Taliban and Al-Qaida; but, after he showed his appreciative understanding of Islam, real dialogue was able to move forward with measured success.

Johnston, a former undersecretary of the Navy, has written an important book: "Religion, The Missing Dimension in Statecraft." He suggested in his talk that the lack of understanding and appreciation of the variety of religious traditions on the planet has lead to a culture of prejudice, bias and bigotry.

In virtually all of the anti-Mosque articles that I have read, I see little or no appreciation of the tradition of Islam. Have there been acts of violence in the name of Islam? There is no doubt. But, the same can be said of Christianity and Judaism.

So, how do we move forward in a pluralistic society?

I would suggest we do what people like Doug Johnston are doing -- and that is to take the conversation to the next level, an appreciative inquiry into how we live together in mutually-enhancing ways. Fear is an easily spread contagion; the promotion of dialogue and understanding can help to build bridges of understanding and peace-making.

If we are to make any progress as a civilization, we must do everything in our power to reduce the influence of prejudice, bias and bigotry in our conversations. In our small way, the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada has attempted to deal with prejudice, bias and bigotry in our extremely successful and popular, Camp Anytown, wherein teens learn how to transcend their own prejudices.

It is a fact that a number of the deaths in the Twin Towers were Muslims, who were part and parcel of our American culture. It is a fact that there was a makeshift mosque in the Twin Towers that was used by Muslims for their daily prayers. It is a fact that the Founders of our country envisioned a culture of mutually enhancing respect among a variety of traditions. Thomas Jefferson was the first president to encourage the celebration of Ramadan, the month in which devout Muslims engage in a deeper quality of remembrance and appreciation of Islam. In his library, Jefferson had a well-marked copy of the Koran.

It is a fact that Muslims serve side-by-side with fellow Americans in the battle against radical and violent Islamists. It is a fact that numerous leaders of the Islamic faith -- including our own Aslam Abdullah, director of the Islamic Society of Nevada and vice president of the Muslim Council of America -- have decried acts of terrorism as anti-Islam. It is a fact that many of the most respected members of our community of Southern Nevada are Muslims.

Rather than promote the language of prejudice, bias and bigotry, our community would do well to engage in serious efforts of build and sustain bridges of understanding, respect and appreciation in our multifaith and multicultural community. In Southern Nevada, we are a microcosm of the world-at-large. We have numerous churches, many synagogues, eight Buddhist temples, six mosques, two gurdwaras (the Sikh tradition), a Hindu temple, and many other houses of worship.

At the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada we provide opportunities for dialogue, partnership, education, service, hospitality and celebration among people of various faiths and cultures. I invite the readership to take the time, as this world gets smaller, to get to know the traditions of our neighbors, the Samaritans amongst us. Sincere dialogue is the bridge to a sustainable future for our community and the larger world. We invite the members of our community to learn about such respectful dialogue at

In the Koran it is written: "Allah (God) has created us and made us into tribes and nations, that we may know each other, not that we may despise each other." In the Hadith or tradition of Islam it is written: "Shall I not inform you of a better act than fasting, alms and prayers? Making peace between one another; enmity and malice tear up heavenly rewards by the roots." May we all be responsible peacemakers.

Gard Jameson chairs the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada. He writes from Boulder City.