I have been watching the evolving struggle in Sheboygan between local Muslims wanting to establish a mosque and a vocal opposition to its existence. I am a native of Neenah, and for more than 20 years during the most formative years of my life, I lived in the Fox River Valley and then Milwaukee.
I am a devout Muslim who has recently spent the past eight years dedicated to fighting the radicalization that has permeated my faith, currently serving as the president and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy.
As I read and heard about the struggles of Dr. Mansoor Mirza and the small Muslim congregation in Sheboygan, it brought back strong memories and lessons I learned about religious freedom after a very similar struggle my family experienced growing up in Appleton and Neenah-Menasha.
About 1981, my parents and a few other Muslim families built the first mosque in northeastern Wisconsin. It was in that mosque and as a student at Neenah High School that I learned the values of Americanism and pluralism and their synergy with my faith of Islam. It was there that I learned about the value of the separation of mosque and state.
I do not believe that my love of country and the love of my faith need to be mutually exclusive. In fact, one strengthens the other. Those values led me to serve as a medical officer for 11 years in the U.S. Navy.
Columnist Thomas L. Friedman astutely pointed out recently in The New York Times that one of the obvious reasons the threats from radical Islam have seen an exponential rise in 2009 is due to our inability to effectively counter the narrative. That narrative is the one that tells the story of America to young Muslims as a nation that is against Muslims, and against Islam. That narrative has served as a major rallying cry for jihadists.
The only effective counter to this narrative will come from American Muslims who can testify to a very different reality. American Muslims can testify that this nation in fact went to free Muslims from their oppressors in Iraq and Afghanistan and give them the space for freedom and liberty that had been destroyed by their own despots in the so-called Muslim world.
The reality is that it is not a war between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is one within the House of Islam for religious freedom and liberty. It is a civil war between those who want to separate mosque and state and those who want the legal system in government of sharia (Islamic law).
America is a nation that has protected our families and our freedoms when our motherlands with Muslim majorities would not. We must show and teach Muslim youth what my family taught me in Wisconsin: that America is a beacon of liberty for religious freedom.
When my family sought to build the small mosque in the Town of Menasha, many local residents in the Neenah-Menasha area presented a vocal opposition protesting the zoning request. That was a long time before Sept. 11, but it had a significant amount of media attention and controversy much like what is happening in Sheboygan now. Thankfully, reason prevailed, and our community moved into our new small mosque in the Town of Menasha. The opposition missed the boat on the meaning of religious freedom in the United States.
I was blessed with parents who taught me that religious freedom in the U.S. is unrivaled anywhere in the world. I was taught that I could be more Muslim in Neenah, with just our few families and a mosque, than anywhere else in the world.
My Wisconsin experience certainly helped mold me as an American Muslim who not only served in the Navy but now heads an organization that chooses to take on the radicals globally.
If things had gone differently in my adolescence and our freedom to build houses of worship had been infringed, my experience in America would be something wholly different. As Sheboygan deals with this controversy, know that words, actions and narrative will work to either empower moderate Muslims against political Islam or drive them toward an Islamist collectivism that they think will protect them from victimization.
I am not personally familiar with the individuals or families who will attend the proposed mosque. But their story seems familiar. Certainly, as with any organization in the U.S., their ideas matter and there should be a public dialogue about where they stand with regards to political Islam, sharia, the Muslim Brotherhood and their own sense of responsibility for reform. But that is after they have the right to a mosque, not before.
I have spent my life arguing with many Muslim leaders about the deleterious effects of political Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood and all of its offshoots upon our spiritual path to God. This debate should occur in American mosques. But that debate will be won by modern liberal Muslims only if we have the space to do so.
We will lose the support of liberty-minded Muslims if we block the free Muslim expression of faith through our own houses of worship.