Land of the free

Land of the free

Arifa Aziz


Is our community as tolerant as it claims to be?


A month ago, in preparation for this issue, I started working on a story about the local Muslim community's plans to build a mosque in the area. I know most of this community, since I'm a part of it, so I had the impression that I could have a quick dialogue with some community leaders, get in, get out, get done. 


I was wrong. 


Once I contacted a member on the board of directors for a local Muslim organization, conversation got uncomfortable. They seemed hesitant to disclose information. Why? Because they were reconsidering talking to me for the story.  


Senior Saba Ali stands in prayer in the face of religious intolerance. Photo illustration by Roxana Wiswell and Elvin Wong.

Maybe they did not want to make an official announcement until all of the procedures, getting the building and use permits passed by the city, were completed. Maybe they were worried about receiving a similar, angry response to the one given to the organization that wants to build Cordoba House, the Muslim community center near Ground Zero in New York City. Maybe they had been influenced by the constant fear of being criticized for openly practicing their beliefs. All I can say for sure is they strongly opposed our plan to report on their hope, their desire, for a mosque in the Bay Area. 


I was screwed. I needed to have a news story, cold hard facts, about a Muslim community that wanted to build a mosque, what sort of issues were they dealing with, why they needed one.


My dilemma: do I disregard their requests and cause conflict, or do I scrap the story altogether? Do I give in to the intolerance and hatred that has been targeted at the Muslim community, which seemed to manifest in a real fear of having people misunderstand their beliefs and intentions? Or do I rise above that and tell the story of what is happening all over the United States, the fact that today, fear of intolerance and hate prevents the construction of places of worship, and the fact that we as Americans are shooting down the same principles we so often boast, our freedom of expression and our freedom of religion. 


Muslims in one of the most liberal societies in the United States are concerned about publicly announcing their hopes and their plans to build a mosque; it is possible that the only reason things have come to this state is because the media is blowing it out of proportion. The fact that Muslims announced plans to build a community center near the "hallowed ground" that is Ground Zero so close to the anniversary of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center is something worth covering, and the irony that one of the two main religious holidays for Muslims fell on the same day makes things uncomfortable for Muslims and causes confusion for everyone else. 


Maybe the reason why the Muslim community decided they wanted to hold off on their announcement is their concern that people will come out to protest, which could prevent them from getting the necessary permits from the city. It is difficult and intimidating to face the uncertainties of how the community at large will react to the news of a community mosque and if that could cause an adverse effect on their chances of getting their permits. 


The fear of having people criticize you for their misinterpretation of your beliefs is frustrating – even infuriating and that misinterpretation is difficult to undo. For that reason, perhaps it is best that I didn't write the story the way I had originally planned.