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For or Against the Mosque Near Ground Zero? It's More Than a Matter of Faith

Developers of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” also known as Park 51, are seeking federal funds designated for the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan. And like most issues in the ongoing controversy around this project, the loudest voices on both sides are getting it wrong.

Such funding would not necessarily be either a “disgrace” or “an affront to the memory of those murdered on 9/11,” as New York Rep. Peter King is proclaiming. At the same time, it is unimaginably arrogant and dangerously misguided for project head, Sharif El-Gamal, to even imagine that it is appropriate to seek almost one third of the $17 million in federal funds in play. Aside from being grossly disproportionate, it smacks of seeking help for precisely the kinds of community-building projects for which the Muslim community should be assuming responsibility.

Happily, as with most questions around Park 51, these are not the only voices to be listened to. And nowhere is that more true than the surprises to be found in a recent Gallup poll that addresses how the members of various faith communities would resolve tensions around the construction of the Islamic center planned for a site two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks. Among the most interesting things about these statistics is that there is no majority of opinion in any group about what constitutes the best possible response.

Among Muslims respondents, 14 percent favor relocating the project to an alternate site, 43 percent favor construction in the currently proposed location, and 30 percent favor building an interfaith institution in the current location. Among Jews, the numbers are 43 percent, 25 percent and 28 percent, respectively. Among Catholics, the group most opposed to construction on the currently proposed site (followed closely by Mormons), it's 63 percent for relocating the project, 15 percent for the current plan and 15 for an interfaith institution. Protestant respondents broke down 49 percent, 18 percent and 23 percent. For atheists, it was 32 percent, 42 percent and 17 percent. In other words, as communities, there remain real questions about how best to proceed.

The lack of agreement in no way suggests that the center should not be built by those who support it. If it meets the measure of the law, it should be built. This is America, right? But, in light of the wide range of opinion surrounding this project, the way in which it should be built, the conversations which need to be part of that process, the questions which ought to be raised, and the sensitivities which deserve to be addressed, are more important than ever.

The Gallup numbers suggest that there is greater diversity of opinion than is often presumed, and clearly demonstrate that no one view, even with any given faith community, holds sway. Tempting as it may be to suggest otherwise, these numbers tell us that simply dividing people along the lines of Islamophobes who are opposed to the project and lovers of religious freedom who support it, is not right. Nor should they be insisting, as both sides in this debate often do, that to be a good Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist, etc., dictates what one believes is the appropriate decision in this case. These numbers suggest that something far more interesting is going on.

Gallup’s data suggests that instead of the center’s supporters and detractors simply wrapping themselves in competing claims about what their community wants, or what their tradition teaches is “the” right response to this controversy and making sanctimonious claims about what is right and good, each side needs to address the fact that lots of people have lots of questions and uncertainties about how to proceed.

Accomplishing this is not simply a matter of information – we have plenty, if not too much of that, already. In fact, the poll also indicated that with exception of Mormons, between 55 and 70 percent of the members of different faith groups have read or heard “a great deal” about this issue already. The issue is not more facts and data, the issue is having enough wisdom to process it in ways that help us resolve the conflict.

While it may be hard for pollsters, we can accomplish this by asking one question of all people, a question which takes us beyond what they believe about the proposed center, or who should fund it, and asks them why they believe what they believe. Why do respondents say that they are opposed? Why are they in favor? Do they understand that people who share their faith commitments have reached very different conclusions? Why do they think that is? These are the questions which will bring this ongoing controversy to healthier and more productive conclusion.

Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and the President of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.