Healing Wounds at Ground Zero
It does not surprise me that conflict has escalated in response to plans for building a mosque near Ground Zero. From the perspective of faith-based diplomacy, unhealed historical wounds can be expected to give rise to conflict: this is the norm, not something unexpected.
Imam Abdul Feisal Rauf expressed hopes the cultural center and mosque would be a force for peace, an effort that would bring about interfaith cooperation and reconciliation. His peace mission may be very much alive, though building may be put on hold.
It may turn out that making peace does not require a cultural center, only the announcement that one plans to build—as the announcement has created an opportunity for Imam Rauf to engage in peacemaking by reaching out with compassion to those who fear his religion.
Unfortunately, the reconciliation effort has gotten off to a rocky start as the Imam overlooked a vital step—healing historical wounds that generate opposition.
My mentor in the emerging discipline of faith-based diplomacy, the Rev. Brian Cox, executive vice president of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy and an Episcopal minister, has written about the importance of healing historical wounds. In his ground-breaking work titled Faith-Based Reconciliation, Rev. Cox advises mediators:
Those who would seek to serve as third party intermediaries in some of the world’s most intractable conflicts would be wise to integrate the healing of historical wounds into their strategic thinking.”
Healing wounded nations in the twenty-first century is not an esoteric luxury but rather absolutely essential for peace in the world.”
What does he have in mind?
Facing the truth about history is a complex process of having an honest conversation about the past, where informed and morally courageous people determine the past hurts and injustices that must be healed.”
In the dispute regarding the mosque in Manhattan, the primary historical wound driving opposition is the 911 attack at Ground Zero. In hindsight, it is clear that those opposed to the mosque are responding as should have been anticipated: “Collective trauma in communities can induce panic, depression, exhaustion, guilt, rage, shame, protest, anxiety, denial, numbness, fear, confusion, impaired functioning, and flashbacks in the victims.” It should have been expected that emotions related to the horrific events that took place nearby would cause protest and opposition.
Should the Imam wish to follow the premises of faith-based diplomacy, he will want to consider assembling a small group of conciliators familiar with faith-based mediation, to convene an in-depth process that explores the hurts and injustices fueling opposition. The Rev. Brian Cox has designed reconciliation seminars and reconciliation services for just this purpose.
However, the media, not known for its skill in peace and reconciliation, might argue Imam Rauf should not be considered in the same sentence with the terrorists that launched the attack. This goes without saying. However, as a representative of the Muslim community, he carries the burden of acts committed in the name of Islam—no matter how unfair this burden may seem.
Brian Cox writes, “… as a member of a community or nation, I must share in the collective responsibility for actions taken on my behalf.” When I first read this passage, my sense of fairness was offended: there was no way I was going to accept responsibility for acts committed over which I had no power or authority.
It was only with extensive soul-searching that I realized even though I was not personally responsible for harm suffered, if I wanted peace I would have to accept corporate responsibility. That was the only way to begin the healing. I realized that though my sin might have been minor, a sin of omission—I may not have exercised what little power I possessed to prevent harmful actions—it was enough to begin a discussion.
It is true that an apology is weaker when the one who apologizes is causally distant from the harm delivered, nonetheless, any act of assuming corporate responsibility begins to heal wounds and initiate reconciliation. An apology from Imam Rauf does not possess the power of an apology from the terrorists, but it can spark a healing conversation with those opposed to his plans.
If this approach is taken, opposition to the mosque, rather than being perceived in a negative light, could be transformed into an opportunity for Imam Rauf to draw closer to those who carry the wounds of 911. While we can always view conflict through a negative lens, it is often more productive to see the opportunity it presents, and this dispute offers considerable opportunity. Perhaps Imam Rauf thought his work would begin when the cultural center was built, but Divine Providence has its own time schedule.
Ironically, those opposed to the mosque have culled through the files and found recordings of Imam Rauf speaking in unflattering terms about the role America played in bringing about 911. His words, taken at face value, seem to “blame the victim.” Taken out of context, his statements are being used to support the argument that he is not a spiritual Imam who values freedom but rather someone who traffics in anti-American rhetoric that incites attacks against America.
There is another way to understand the same words—they represent unhealed historical wounds. Like his opposition, he is giving voice to the pain of wounds that have not been addressed and healed.
One could argue that, in those statements, he failed to clearly articulate his message and failed to suggest a healing process to overcome the burden. He did not have had the concepts of faith-based diplomacy at hand. If we now see that his opposition is justified in the upset they express, based on unhealed wounds, we also see historical wounds that should be addressed to relieve the Imam’s concerns. In other words, healing gives rise to reciprocity.
The late Lewis Smedes noted in his classic Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve:
There is redemptive remembering. There is a healing way to remember the wrongs of our irreversible past; a way that can bring hope for the future along with our sorrow for the past.”
It is just such a process that peacemakers can and should design and manage. Archbishop Dolan has offered to mediate. A tested design for a reconciliation service exists. Let us hope this is the direction taken.
The following excerpt from Taming the Wolf sums up the healing work in which we must engage:
The narrative myths we use to position and maintain ‘the other’ as our enemy must be dismantled; the characters in our narrative must be rewritten to fit the future we dream. Ancient heroes who destroy opponents with swift swords must give way to heroes who destroy evil with compassion. The heroic Francis who suited up to go to war is replaced by Francis the peacemaker dressed in a simple habit. Just as Francis rewrote the narrative of his life, we must rewrite the collective narratives of cultures in conflict.”