Eric Szkarlat: Your choice of spiritual utensil

BY ERIC SZKARLAT

Published September 13, 2010

There is no spoon.

Okay, there is a spoon, but it's in the drawer. I think it would be weird if a person only had spoons, but some people just think that they are the best of the utensils. So whether they keep forks and knives or not is their prerogative. People should be able to use whichever of the three utensils that they like. And what is it to me where you keep your spoons, or when you buy them?

Now replace the word “spoon” with the word “mosque”. Replace “drawer” with “community center.” Replace “forks” and “knives” with “churches” and “synagogues.” Adjust the scenarios accordingly, and you have a situation similar to the one regarding the so-called “ground zero mosque.”

Eating utensils aren’t as odd a choice of a metaphor as you may think. Frankly, whichever of the Abrahamic religions you practice, you share a spiritual history with the other two, particularly the prophets. The figure Abraham is the root of all three. The Quran, the Old Testament and the Bible all share common laws and stories, including what are often known as the “Ten Commandments.” All three consider Jerusalem a holy city.

Yes, there are numerous differences, just like between eating utensils. Usually, if you buy a particular set of silverware, they will share similar handle designs, be made of the same material, have the same shine, and be roughly similar sizes to one another. Their functions can even overlay. Certainly you could either use a fork or a spoon to eat your macaroni and cheese.

In the Western World food is... heavenly, for lack of a better word. So if we consider an arbitrary divine creator and its related paradise to be food and the utensil used to be whichever Abrahamic religion you practice — if any — then what does it matter whether you worship in a mosque, synagogue or church? Abrahamic religions are more similar to each other than you might gather at first glance. Granted, you will get something different from each particular religion, and they are absolutely not the same. But the similarities — if you study these religions extensively — are striking.

So why is a mosque so controversial? Certainly a form of violent radicalism arose from Islam. But al-Qaeda is not demanding to build a monument on ground zero. If the planned structure was a church or a synagogue and someone protested, millions of people would likely stand defiant in support of American values and condemn the protesters. And the First Amendment states explicitly they have the right to protest.

But the First Amendment clearly establishes something else: We are a country of free religion. If you practice reasonably, you may practice Christianity, Judaism, Islam or anything else — or you may practice nothing at all. Some might argue that practicing insensitively, as some believe is the case with the proposed community center, is practicing unreasonably. Others might argue that freedom of location isn't part of freedom of religion. But reasonable practice requires more than the threat of insensitivity.

And while freedom isn't always absolute, it's actually beneficial to our cause to permit peaceful Muslims to practice in such a location. It shows that we were not destroyed on that day. The terrorists who hate Western ways of life didn't win on Sept. 11, 2001, and we must show them that by not compromising those ways even when it's insensitive or inconvenient.

The Muslims of this project have every right to exercise their religion wherever they want. If we deny them this right — whether as a society or as a republic — we're closing one gap between American values and radical values. We are admitting that we think it is wrong to practice one religion freely, but not others. We move one step closer to a theocracy and one step away from freedom.

The reason the United States is a great nation is because it allows citizens to use whichever spiritual tool they like to reach whatever god you like. It’s a utensil store. Like everything else in our society, it is pluralistic and offers multiple choices. Just because you prefer the fork does not mean the spoon cannot function just as well in the same place. We all live in the United States and we all draw from the same drawer of spiritual utensils based upon what we’re exposed to.

If you’re like me, you still haven’t decided where you stand on issues of religion. I don’t know about you, but if there were no spoon I would feel as if the world were just a little emptier.

Eric Szkarlat can be reached at eszkarla@umich.edu