The Common Good
July 2012

What Makes for Sacred Ground?

by Eboo Patel | July 2012

If the forces of pluralism don’t write the next chapter in the American story, the forces of prejudice will.

Summer is here, and I am looking forward to ice-cream cones with my kids in the park and long walks in the warm evenings. But I am also remembering the less-than-happy events of two summers back, when Cordoba House (also known as the “Ground Zero mosque”) became the subject of deep controversy in American discourse.

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The strangest part of the Cordoba House debate for me was around “sacred ground.” People opposed to Cordoba House insisted that the blocks around Ground Zero constituted a holy area. Those who believed that Cordoba House ought to stay in Lower Manhattan liked to point to the nearby strip joint and off-track betting parlor and say that this patch of land was just like any other.

“Why can’t you just move it 10 or 20 blocks away?” a CNN anchor asked me on air at the height of the controversy. But that would still be sacred ground, I thought to myself. A hundred miles north, 1,000 miles south, 2,000 miles west—it’s all holy.

I believe every inch of America is sacred, from sea to shining sea. I believe we make it holy by who we welcome and how we relate to each other. Call it my Muslim eyes on the American project. “We ... made you nations and tribes that you may come to know one another,” says the Quran. While that vision is for all countries, there is no better place to enact it than here. The promise of America is the promise of pluralism, of welcoming the contributions of all communities and fostering right relationship among them.

This ethic is part of the definition of our nation. “I say democracy is only of use [for elections] that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruits in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men [and women], and their beliefs—in religion, literature, colleges, and schools …” sang Walt Whitman.

In What It Means To Be An American, Michael Walzer observes that political theorists since the Greeks believed that participatory politics could only exist in ethnically or religiously homogenous nations. “One religious communion, it was argued, made one political community … One people made one state.” Pluralism—one state with many peoples—existed only under empires. The next section begins with this line: “Except in the United States.”

Human history is littered with examples of different identity groups at war with each other. More frequently than the faithful would like to admit, religious belief has often fueled the fighting. Against this backdrop, the American achievement, while far from perfect, is still remarkable. As Barack Obama said in his inaugural address: “Our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth.”

But, as the Cordoba House discourse showed all too clearly, the forces of prejudice are alive and well in America. Those of us who believe that all of America constitutes the sacred ground of welcoming cannot be content with past progress or favorable comparisons to other nations. If the forces of pluralism don’t write the next chapter in the American story, we forfeit the terrain to the forces of prejudice.

Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, writes about social justice from his perspective as a Muslim American. His new book, Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America, will be published this fall.

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