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While the national debate over Park51 may have begun over the proposed Islamic center’s proximity to the World Trade Center, it has evolved into a definitive strategic and cultural moment, say religious leaders and international relations experts who spoke September 1 during a teleconference hosted by Faith in Public Life. “We’re in a fight to determine the meaning of 9/11,” said David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University and co-founder of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. “9/11 cannot be taken to mean a permanent state of fear, anger” and growing intolerance for Muslims.”

Religious freedom “is enshrined in our Constitution, deeply woven into our culture, and intended for situations just as these, where minorities need to be protected from fear, anger, political pandering and the whims of the majority.”

The security experts had a more nuts-and-bolts concern related to the ongoing dispute: its impact in the Islamic world. Preventing the center’s construction or bullying its organizers into moving Park51 somewhere else is no longer just a local matter for New Yorkers to hash out, they said, but a profound national interest.

“Our national security cannot be based on stopping [individual] terrorists acts,” said Matthew Alexander, former military interrogator in Iraq, author of How to Break a Terrorist. “That will mean an endless whack-a-mole strategy. It must be based on stopping al Qaeda’s ability to recruit new fighters.” And Al Qaeda’s recruitment drives are best served by symbols that speak to Islamic resentment and confirm Muslims worst fears about the West. Abu Ghraib was a huge recruitment tool, Alexander said. Public opinion and political rhetoric preventing the construction of Park51 will be another. Americans will look like hypocrites “who don’t stand up for [their] values,” said Alexander. “Those who think al Qaeda will not be able to spin this controversy to their advantage are disastrously mistaken,” he said.

Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich, said that President George Bush did a lot of things wrong in the months after 9/11; one thing he got right was emphasizing that the United States was launching a fight against al Qaeda, not a war against Islam. “Being at war with Islam means we in a war we cannot win,” he said. “The people who are contriving this controversy seem to will that such a war come into existence. It is absolutely imperative that we act together to deny them that ambition.”

The assembled faith leaders took U.S. politicians to task for fear-mongering and partisan maneuvering. B ut U.S. Christian leaders did not escape criticism either. “I think that we are not in a moment of great religious leadership in the United States,” said Gushee. “Certain evangelicals are among those leading the charge, not just against Park51 but a broader attack against Islam as a religion.”

“It does seem to me we have in our past two competing traditions,” said Bacevich, “one, a rich tradition of religious tolerance and diversity, and a another of religious bigotry that has fairly deep roots and persists to this day.

“Speaking as a Catholic—a religion subject to considerable discrimination—I cherish the fact that I can be a full citizen and also be committed to my faith tradition,” Bacevich said. “I find it unacceptable and deeply un-American to deny adherents of other faith traditions the freedoms I have enjoyed.”