CNN Documentary Points Out Fear of Muslim Neighbors, Politicians Should Help Breed Unity



It would be extraordinary leadership on President Obama's part to try and dissolve fears some Americans have about their Muslim neighbors by using himself as a vessel. As questions continue about whether he is a Muslim, how refreshing would it be if he were to say: "I'm not, but so what if I am?"

A need for such bold action comes to light during the top-notch documentary, "Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door," that debuted Sunday on CNN. The report chronicles the opposition to the building of a 53,000-square-foot Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Pres. Obama might continue: "I am a Christian. But this is America. Freedom of religion is a fundamental of our society.

"I fully understand that the events of 9/11 perpetrated in the name of Islam continue to break hearts - mine included. I understand how foiled terrorist attacks on American soil continue to provide a sense of fear.

"But none of us as Americans would want to be held guilty by association for the troubling acts of those who may share our religion, not our beliefs."

Similar statements would be welcome by House Speaker John Boehner and budding Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. On "Meet the Press" in February, Speaker Boehner said he believes Obama is a Christian, but that "it's not my job to tell" the American people what to think.

(Does that include issues such as taxation and federal spending?)

Alas, politics appears to prevent Obama and others from taking more courageous positions. On international matters, Obama has argued for better dialogue between the U.S. and Muslim countries and improved treatment of women.

The much-publicized debate over the building of an Islamic center near Ground Zero has sparked a furor. A case can be made that due to the location, the matter carries a different dynamic than what is chronicled in the CNN report.

Nonetheless, the documentary with special correspondent Soledad O'Brien shows how fundamental American values may be threatened by fears that link Muslim neighbors with more radical Islamists.

(The program's excellence could give people seeking cutbacks in federal PBS funding for some grist. "Sesame Street" may be one thing, but the thought-provoking work is as good as many "Frontline" episodes.)

"Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door" details how Muslims in Murfreesboro have outgrown their current community center and plan to build a larger one with a mosque. The local government has approved the project.

But fierce opposition has emerged, with at least one issue being a fear of traffic increases. Yet, that appears to be nothing more than a smoke screen.

As protests have erupted, the sign outside the Islamic center's had "Not Welcome" spray- painted on it. During the CNN filming, gun shots were heard in the background during a visit to the building site, which may or may not have been an act of hostility, but the timing was curious.

Legal opposition to the Islamic center, partly based on the question whether Islam is a religion, is launched. A woman funding the challenge worries that people building the mosque have similar views to the radical Muslims that the U.S. is fighting in Afghanistan.

Soledad O'Brien does an excellent job in her reporting. She asks tough questions of those against the mosque, which point out weaknesses in their arguments. The documentary also labors to show that the Muslims in the mid-size Tennessee town are part of the American fabric. And by extension, so are the 2.6 million U.S. Muslims, who make up less than 1% of the population.  

Some viewers may detect a tone in the documentary -- scheduled to re-air April 2 --reflecting a bias in favor of the residents who favor the Islamic center. That's not unfair.

But not up for debate is the program is thought-provoking, while those against the Murfreesboro mosque are motivated by fear. Yet even as 9/11 still stings, a belief in freedom of religion needs to trump fear.

One of the documentary's most compelling characters is the young Muslim daughter of a Syrian engineer. He speaks with a foreign accent. She speaks with one as Southern as good hush puppies.

Logic would have it that the anti-Muslim hostility in her hometown would make her seethe, but there is very little trace of that. She looks ahead, believing once the mosque is built, much of the craze will dissipate.

That's impressive. Let's hope politicians and way citizens are equally so.







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