By Nicholas K. Mandle Staff Editor October 11, 2010

This past September, an uncomfortably large number of Americans participated in a protracted Two-Minute Hate. If your knowledge of English literature is a little fuzzy, the Hate was the daily ritual in George Orwell’s 1984 in which party members whipped themselves into a frenzy, hurling invectives at a screen depicting the enemies of the state. It was a cathartic window for citizens to unleash their pent-up frustration by venting it at a sanctioned target.

In the weeks surrounding the ninth anniversary of September 11th, many Americans inveighed against Islam under the auspices of civic leaders like Newt Gingrich. A fringe pastor in Florida announced he would burn Korans. Reports of not-in-my-backyard campaigns against mosque-building sprang up around the country. A New York City cab driver was stabbed because of his Muslim faith. The American news media, happy to serve red meat, obliged the Hate and broadcast the controversy worldwide.

Touching off the fervor was the July announcement of an Islamic community center (which will house a mosque) two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City. The center, called Park51, offended some families of 9/11 victims who felt a nearby mosque would be a sacrilege to the dead and, by conflating Al Qaeda with all of Islam, a monument to the murderers. Opponents say the organizers of Park51 have a constitutional right to build, though it would be decent of them to build somewhere else.

Though media coverage has fallen off somewhat, controversy surrounding the Park51 Islamic center has the potential to drive a wedge deep between Americans and the Muslim world. It is one thing for an obscure Florida pastor to condemn Islam with his small congregation. It is quite another for the denizens of the “World’s Capital” to do so. If progressive New York City cannot handle Park51, then how committed can the United States possibly be to the democratic, tolerant society it espouses in Iraq and Afghanistan?

One of the oft-quoted arguments for moving the center to another location is the story of a Roman Catholic convent near the concentration camp at Auschwitz in the 1980s. Jewish groups objected to a Christian institution so close to the infamous death camp. As the story goes, Pope John Paul II ordered it moved after witnessing the discord caused by the convent’s presence. The analogy between Park51 and the Auschwitz convent is tempting, but history reveals it to be a flawed guide for today’s leaders.

A little backstory: The contentious Auschwitz convent was established in 1984 by the Carmelites, a cloistered order of nuns, as a place of prayer for the death camp victims. It existed innocuously until a fundraising campaign two years later brought it to the attention of Jewish groups in Europe. A years-long dispute ensued about the appropriateness of placing a Catholic institution so close to Auschwitz. According to archived newspaper reports, Jewish protesters gathered near the camp’s gate holding signs reading “Leave Alone the Memory of the Millions of Jewish Victims” and “Don’t De-Judaize the Holocaust.”

Polish Catholic leaders were surprised and annoyed. They pointed out that more than a million non-Jews, many of whom where Polish Catholics, were also victims of Auschwitz. As one German priest noted, “The sisters are praying for all who died there and doing penance for the act of genocide.” And besides, a Carmelite convent had existed at Dachau’s concentration camp for forty years without incident.

Like the Carmelite convent, Park51 is intended to serve as a center for multi-faith understanding and peace-building. Like the Church in the 1980s, the Muslim supporters of Park51 are confounded by the opposition and remind the public that many of their faith were also killed in the 9/11 attacks. One of the center’s founders, Daisy Khan, was incredulous that the idea of “a community center for everyone in the neighborhood, to scale up and build up people of all religions has become so skewed. It’s hard for us to imagine we are in the thick of a controversy like this.”

If there is any lesson to be learned from the convent story, it is that the intransigence of the Jews who protested in the 1980s may have emotionally strengthened their community, but it failed to appreciate the long-term goals of promoting peace and reconciliation. Opponents of Park51 are making the same mistake, but at a much higher cost.

The Auschwitz convent tore open old wounds; the Park51 controversy is inflicting dangerous new ones. When the pastor from Florida, Terry Jones, announced he would host “Burn-a-Koran Day” on September 11th, he likely did not expect to be burned in effigy in Kabul as a result. Top military brass including General David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert Gates appealed to him to cancel, citing concerns for Americans abroad if images of his Koran burning reached the Middle East. What we do and say here reverberates globally.

If we are in the midst of a war on terror, it is largely a war of ideas, most of them misunderstood. Moving the Park51 center will certainly give empirical credibility to extremist Muslims who say Americans are imperialist hypocrites, preaching values that they themselves refuse to live by. And while appeals to the “feelings” of 9/11 families are the ostensible arguments for moving the center, the signs held at Ground Zero rallies make it painfully clear that a broad-brush hostility toward Islam and its billions of practitioners undergirds the opposition. Kahn is quite right in asserting that “there is too much at stake. Constitutional rights, the development of the Muslims here, how the world is watching the United States. We tell people America upholds religious freedom. We should not compromise those values.” Those values were compromised in the Auschwitz case.

There is hope. The convent at Auschwitz is no more, but in 1992 a Centre for Dialogue and Prayer was built close to death-camp’s gate. Its aim, says the center’s website, is to “create a place for reflection, education, sharing and prayer for all those who are moved by what happened here. The Centre commemorates the victims and contributes to creating mutual respect, reconciliation, and peace in the world.”

It is exactly the kind of center the world needs at Ground Zero.

This picture is being used under licensing by Wikimedia commons. The original source can be found here.