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Mosque Debate Has Deep Historical Roots

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The recent debate surrounding the location of a mosque at Ground Zero should, but regrettably has yet to, encourage a broader discussion of the historical legacy of religion's impact on hallowed cultural ground. To be sure, the discussion over the motivations and goals of all parties to the discussion should be analyzed and debated, but without an historical context the debate becomes short-sighted and unproductive.

I understand suspicion over the desire to place a religious structure for the use of what some argue is a religion designed to attack this country. While that argument is flawed, it is facially intelligible. Religion has often come into conflict with culture over the years and quite often it has been Christian interests locating churches in areas of cultural and/or religious significance. Unfortunately, this historical reality has not made its way into the current debate.

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A thought about blame and fear. Blame and fear are not the issue. We need not deem something right or wrong or analyze the appropriate locus of fear if we truly desire to more broadly understand the current debate. Such is often the inclination of a passionate citizenry or congregation. Those discussions have their place too, but blame is seldom a step towards thoughtful consideration and fear is very often an end to consideration. While it may be easy to suggest that any religion is the cause of rampant death and destruction, and many have, those sorts of arguments are more appropriately played out in the academic literature at another time.

For years during the Age of Colonization, roughly from the 15th century through the 19th century, colonization of non-European lands and peoples was undertaken in part because of religious motives. The Catholic world powers Spain and Portugal undertook a complex, sustained, and often violent campaign to bring Catholicism to all corners of the world. The conquering powers established churches, decimated indigenous populations that were both culturally and religiously distinct from the colonizing powers, and sought to sustain power empires of hegemony over other cultures. Historical evidence and current historical scholarship has described European colonization alternatively as a policy of extermination, genocide, and in the case of colonization on what are now the Americas, the American Holocaust.

The later rush to colonize Africa displayed similar motivates. European powers decimated indigenous populations, remapped traditional borders by imposing fixed boundaries, and engaged in complex commercial activities designed to disenfranchise Africa's indigenous population. The slave trade is perhaps the most salient example of African colonization, but even that discussion usually misses the religious motives of Europeans.

The debate about a placement of a mosque at Ground Zero ignores this historical discussion at the peril of U.S. and world citizens. Historical context can provide the foundation for a broader consideration of clashes between religion and culture. It can help take away the stigma of the current debate so that we may fully consider both sides of the argument in the context in which they belong. Without context, we risk a one-sided argument that unfairly gives the advantage to those opposed to building the mosque. On the other hand, failing to consider the current controversy in light of the September 11, 2001 tragedy denies the powerful power of the present and its lasting effect on the psyche of the United States.

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Today there is a similar controversy in the City of David and Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Muslims, Christians, and Jews vie for control of various areas and construct religious buildings and homes in an attempt to solidify one religion, one culture's rights to supremacy in the region. Jerusalem has been the site of religious violence for over 2,000 years and seems to suggest parallels to the current debate in New York City.

Through history, we can more appropriately understand the role of religion and culture in our world. When we understand history, we better understand the present. The debate over the location of Imam Feisal's mosque must include a discussion of the complex history of the motivations for placement of religious structures. Without such a discussion, we are doing a disservice to both religion and culture to Christians and Muslims alike.

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Nick J. Sciullo is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University studying rhetoric. His writing has appeared in the Harvard Journal of Law & Gender, Drexel Law Review, Willamette Law Review, Whittier Law Review, (more...)

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