Respect religious freedom

Remember the "Little Albert" experiment notorious in psychology textbooks? It started in 1920 when John B. Watson, a researcher at Johns Hopkins began a conditioning experiment on an 11-month old baby — he would introduce the child to white, fluffy objects and eventually play a loud, frightening sound while each object (namely, a white rat) was introduced. The child began to associate the fear of the loud noise with the white rat and then, by extension, projected that fear onto all things white or fluffy: rabbits, cotton balls, even a man in a Santa Claus costume. After the conditioning was finished, "Little Albert" was taken out of the hospital experiments, and no de-conditioning took place. Due to the anonymity of the study, it is unknown when or if the child overcame the fear.

On Sept. 11, 2001, a then-unknown enemy brought down the iconic World Trade Center in New York City, claiming the lives of about 3,000 and forever shaking America's impenetrable feeling of security. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the level of patriotism in the United States swelled to a fervent high. Within days, we had the names, faces and backgrounds of the 19 hijackers — all Arab Muslim extremists — who careened two passenger jets into skyscrapers. But certainly Americans wouldn't paint all Arabs or Muslims with the same extremist brush like Little Albert did with all white fluffy things, right?

In short, they would.

In the last decade, what is now being called "Islamophobia" has been a very real part of American culture. Between the ends of 2000 and 2001, the FBI reported a 1,600 percent increase in hate crimes perpetrated against Muslims. Most Americans stood by and watched as Arab-Americans or American Muslims were stereotyped, demonized and even discriminated against in the name of patriotism and national security. In the most recent affront on Muslims in America, there is great controversy surrounding the construction of an Islamic community center in the same area as 9/11's ground zero. Recent polls show that anywhere from 52 to 73 percent of New Yorkers oppose the community center, Park51, being built 200 yards from ground zero. This does not bode well for the future of religious tolerance in these United States.

Park51 is essentially a Muslim version of a YMCA or JCC; it offers a 500-seat theater, a fitness gym, a basketball court, a swimming pool, a culinary school, a bookstore, a Halal-based food court and a non-exclusive mosque for prayer. The building is to be energy-efficient and attractive. This is a far cry from the politicized voices that claim the property will be used as a mosque that breeds radical Islamists and as an effective means to imply Islamic dominance over the area. All the Muslims in question want is a community center — one that is secular except for the prayer area — and ignorant flag-wavers are preventing Muslims from expressing religious freedom.

The implicit racism and ignorance to brand a Muslim community center as Jihadist or extremist is astounding. The assumption many Republican politicians have is that the Park51 center preaches in the same way as radicals in the Middle East shows their lack of knowledge of the religion and their willingness to align evil extremists with moderate Muslims. Opposition to the center's construction represents something far more sinister than traditional orientalism. The conscious and determined effort by politicians and conservative pundits represent a frightening new landscape in public affairs. For re-elections' or ratings' sakes, some are willing to polarize the religion of other Americans — those with rights protected by the First Amendment — into a caricature of terrorism and danger. Instead of furthering the advance of religious tolerance, they would rather shout fire in a crowded auditorium.

Park51 represents what could be an enormous step into bridging the gap between Muslim Americans and those of other religions that have less knowledge of the practice and tenets of Islam. Religious tolerance has never been entirely prevalent in the United States. One need only look back to the anti-Semitism in the '30s and '40s, anti-Catholicism accompanying the Irish immigrations in the 1800s or even the reason the Puritans originally left England from Anglican rule. Even when John F. Kennedy was running for the presidency in 1960, the religious right contended that his Catholic affiliation would make the United States a nation under papal rule. Meanwhile, Muslims in America are undergoing similar religious persecution excused in the name of patriotism. The persecution has come to the point where many are afraid to celebrate the end of Ramadan because it coincides with Sept. 11. In this country, no citizen should fear the celebration of a religious holiday.

While the horrors of the 9/11 attacks are still a haunting reality of American vulnerability, we as a people cannot fall victim to the same conditional training as Little Albert did in that scientific study; by assigning guilt by religious association, we become the persecutors of crime against religious freedom, and thereby challenge the liberties and freedoms on which this country was founded. The construction of this community center represents a fresh start in America, a conscious effort to extend religious tolerance to a community many feel they have reason to hate and promote understanding by emphasizing the wonderful freedoms the country embodies. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, "Life has taught us that love does not consist of gazing at each other, but looking outward in the same direction." Let us hope, for America's sake, that we learn to look outward.

Cody Gorman is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in political science. His column, "The Tuning Fork," runs on alternate Thursdays.

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