Sunday, August 22, 2010

"The Mosque" near Ground Zero: a battle of the heart, head and gut

Sorting out my feelings about the so-called "Mosque" near Ground Zero has been an odyssey of heart, gut and head.  The journey has not been easy.

Some 9/11 survivors are genuinely aghast at the location of this proposed Islamic community center. There’s precedent for this reaction. When Carmelite nuns sought to establish a convent near Auschwitz, protests led Pope John Paul II to intervene. No matter how well intentioned the nuns were, the juxtaposition was deemed too hurtful. And I’m not sure that the Imam establishing the New York Islamic center, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, who, with his wife, has a strong record of interfaith activities, is necessarily as well-intentioned as those Carmelite nuns. After all, has he not partially blamed the United States for the attack on 9/11? More significantly,  hasn’t he refused to identify Hamas as a terrorist organization?

Tell me again why we’re in Afghanistan? Why are we still taking off our shoes in airports and spending billions on Homeland Security? Haven’t respected intelligence sources made clear that we should expect another 9/11 attack? Hasn’t there been a common theme to most of the plots uncovered in recent years? Sure, anyone can cherry-pick the Koran, the way someone can cherry-pick the Bible, for threatening quotations. But, as the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) regularly makes clear, there is indeed a frequent disconnect between what is said to Arabic versus English speaking audiences on the very same points.

What are we to make of the history [Jerusalem, Istanbul, Cordoba] of Muslims building mosques on special sites of their vanquished enemies as a sign of victory? Even if there are many Muslims in lower Manhattan who deserve a facility and there are already two store-front mosques in the neighborhood, this is the one that has offended so many victims of the 9/11 attack. If a symbolically important constituency is going to feel real pain, and a purpose of the proposed community center building itself is to build bridges to non-Muslim Americans, why not just build it somewhere else nearby, even if the developers have the right to build it there?

New York Governor David Paterson offered to help the group find another site for their community center, a gesture that suggests he is right where the American people are. Two thirds support the Constitutional right to build "the mosque" but don’t think it is right to do so there.

Charles Krauthammer has written persuasively on this. Pieces of one of the planes, he said, landed on the building itself, making it part of ground zero. “Location matters. Especially this location. Ground Zero is the site of the greatest mass murder in American history -- perpetrated by Muslims of a particular Islamist orthodoxy in whose cause they died and in whose name they killed.” He notes that, “Of course that strain represents only a minority of Muslims. Islam is no more intrinsically Islamist than present-day Germany is Nazi -- yet despite contemporary Germany's innocence, no German of goodwill would even think of proposing a German cultural center at, say, Treblinka.”

So this has been my struggle.

When President Obama spoke out on the issue, he botched it totally. Initially, he declared the obvious that "as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country." In remarks at the annual White House iftar, a fast-breaking Ramadan meal, he said, "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are."

Glenn Greenwald, writing in Salon, said “This is one of the most impressive and commendable things Obama has done since being inaugurated.” Other predictably liberal voices, including the Globe, weighed in with similar messages.

I, by contrast, felt annoyed at Obama’s behavior, first because he unnecessarily stepped into a local zoning issue when he knew or should have known it would be used to distract from the larger national agenda and second because, if he were going to make a principled defense of First Amendment freedoms, he should have done it before a broader and more diverse audience.

I was no less irritated the next day when the President backtracked from the logic of his principled position, saying that, while the Muslims had a right to establish the mosque there, that didn’t make it right. His backsliding managed to anger people on both sides of the issue.

Some supporters note that, since 2002, there has actually a mosque inside the Pentagon, where 184 people died when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the building on 9/11. Strictly speaking, this is inaccurate. There is an all-purpose religious chapel inside the Pentagon, used alternately by Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims and Hindus. Perhaps, if the center near Ground Zero were multi-faith, it would be easier to accept.

Still, my head has heeded New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said unequivocally: “Government can’t ban religious use of private property... Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11....They share our grief...We can’t betray our nation’s values of religious freedom and cave to popular sentiments." To do so, he also said, is to hand victory to the terrorists. It does seem that stopping the "mosque" would give credence to those around the world who believe the United States has declared war on Islam.

Given the number of sex shops and off-track betting facilities in the area, I am almost amused by those who protest the "mosque’s" contaminating the “hallowed ground” near the World Trade Center. But what's far more  worrisome is the growing opposition to building mosques at such disparate locations as Ootsburg, Wisconsin, Temecula, California and Murfreesboro, Tennessee. This debate has gone beyond concern for hallowed ground to outright bigotry, akin to keeping Jews, blacks or Catholics out of the neighborhood. Has Islamophobia now made American Muslims fair game for unbridled fear-mongering and calumnies?

The debate increasingly has the stench of the anti-immigrant nativist No-Nothing Movement of the mid 19th century. And the repugnant comments by Newt Gingrich (who should know better) and Sarah Palin (who probably couldn't care less) only fan the smoldering flames, accelerated by fears of economic uncertainty.

Clearly the bloggers, cable bloviators and headline writers have made matters worse. But one of the biggest mistakes some commentators are making in today’s overheated dialogue is to conclude that all opponents of the Lower Manhattan "mosque" location are Muslim haters and right-wing political agitators or to assume that all those who support the "mosque" are fuzzy-thinking reflexive liberals. There are plenty of people who have had to work hard to understand their heads,hearts and guts. This is more than  just a media-brewed tempest in the dog days of August. It has tapped into something deeper. It’s a legitimate and uncomfortable deliberation – and an important one – to understand who we are as individuals and what we represent as a nation.

Perhaps the bottom line is this: The decisions should be made at the local level by New Yorkers, as they are seeking to. But to reject the 51 Park community center, including  its space for prayer,  implies that all Muslims are terrorists. This makes no more sense than concluding that all Jews are assassins because an Orthodox fanatic assassinated Yitzhak Rabin. Or that all evangelicals are murderers because some have killed supporters of abortion rights.

One of the great strengths of America has been its ability to foster tolerance and integrate disparate groups into a pluralistic nation. Europe has been hobbled by the inability to foster that integration, especially among younger Muslims. Imam Faisal is a practitioner of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam, which is an anathema to Osama bin Laden and the Wahabi extremists. He says he wants to open the religion to American values and offer an alternative model of Islam to the world. To undermine his efforts, and those of others who seek to do the same elsewhere in the country, is  short-sighted and could be dangerously counterproductive.

-Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below


  1. Some 9/11 survivors are genuinely aghast at the location of this proposed Islamic community center.

    Without looking up media reports, could you name two?

    (This is part of why this is a phony debate: the local NYers are not genuinely upset about this. The purported concern for their offended sensitivities is just bigotry wearing its fancy clothes.)

  2. Alkali- here are two-
    Debra Burlingame
    Tim Sumner
    Co-founders, 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America
    But that's not the point.
    Unfortunately you have made Margie's point - why do you have to be so condescending and dismissive - calling it a "phony" debate and saying those who are not in lock step with your beliefs are "bigots"? By doing that, instead of presenting yourself as erudite, as one with a truly sophisticated perspective,one that accepts difficult,even painful contradictions, you only look small and silly. It is you who wear the fashionable "fancy clothes" of the smug and simplistic.

  3. There’s no question that Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf’s organization has a right to build an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero. But there is reason to question the wisdom of doing so and to examine the Imam’s motivation.

    Rauf has said he was motivated to locate the 13-story center near the scene of the radical Islamic terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the worst such attack ever on American soil, to heal wounds and build bridges, or something to that effect. Quite predictably, the proposal has had exactly the opposite effect, which makes one wonder whether the intent was to be provocative rather than conciliatory. After all, this is the same Imam who has said, “The US and the West must acknowledge the harm they have done to Muslims before terrorism can end," implying the US and Christians were in some part to blame for what happened.

    If Rauf wanted to be conciliatory, and I'm willing to entertain that notion, he should have consulted with religious leaders of other faiths and other community leaders and public officials before announcing the project. If they supported it, much of the criticism would have been avoided.

    Finally, while I agree that the views of New Yorkers on this issue are particularly relevant, I reject the notion that everyone else should butt out. The bombing occurred in New York, but it was, in every respect, an attack on America.

  4. Apparently there was some consultation with other religious leaders. Daisy Khan, the imam's wife,appeared yesterday on This Week with Rabbi Joy Levitt,whose organization had built a comparable facility in the neighborhood, a Jewish Community Center. They said they had been meeting about the project from the time of its conception.

  5. Thanks, Margie. First I've heard of this. These consultations couldn't have been too widespread or widely known. I remain skeptical of the motivations and question the wisdom of the location.

  6. Very moving blog, Margie.
    I have another perspective.
    The silent moderate Muslim community have partly themselves to blame for today's unfortunate "anti-mosque" sentiment. Their public silence has allowed fear to fester take hold of people's imaginations. Do you think that if Muslim Americans had come out,beginning after the first world trade center bombing and certainly since 9/11 , in mass marches and demonstrations against Extremist Islam and its violent fanatic adherents, as much as they came out against Israel, American foreign policy , and perceived " Islamophobia", maybe these Muslim moderates would have more support among the wider american public. Maybe if the moderate Muslims had shouted out in public marches and demonstrations for the last 9 years, "not in our name", instead of letting their spokespeople like CAIR, blame US policy and Israel for all the Islamic extremism in the world- they moderates would have more sympathetic ears listening to their call for a Muslim Mosque and outreach Center near ground zero. Where were they after 9/11, or the beheading of Daniel Pearl, or the massacres in Sudan or Mumbai, or the Ramallah lynchings and eviscerations, or the Ft. Hood shootings? I remember muslims saying they had to go "into hiding" after 9/11- but I don't recall they ever came out in public, in huge numbers, on their own, protesting against the evil of the extremists. Too bad there was never a Million Muslim March against Islamic extremism. It would have gone along way to change many, many minds and hearts.

  7. Tom, You raise very legitimate questions. I wish someone from the Muslim community would weigh in with responses.

  8. Margie, why would someone weighing in from the Muslim community make a difference? I'm a Jew, do I speak for all Jews? Am I an enlightened Jew? Maybe it would be nice in some Disneyesque, "It's a Small World After All" fantasy dialogue, but there's plenty of evidence to form rational conclusions.

    American Muslims are distinct from their Middle Eastern counterparts in that they enjoy freedoms in America that their Middle Eastern counterparts will never know. Their M.E. Muslims are so scarred from dictatorial oppression and thousands of years of war (against each other), that, fed a steady diet of propaganda from the moment they are born, they actually hate our freedoms and consider us the root of evil... the Great Satan... the infidels.

    Why is that so hard to digest? You are alive how many years now? You have a brain? How long does it take you to do the necessary research to come to a rational conclusion? You are in America. You are free. You have Google, coffee shops, the Library of Congress, and umpteen other ways to eventually come to a rational understanding of what is happening.

    Let's take Sufism, for example. You referred to Rauf as a Sufi and then said it was a mystical form of Islam. Do you even know how that sounds? Like you are his press agent. Does Sufism being a mystical form of Islam, explain what that mysticism means? Does that mean he is a mystic? Then what... we should all be bowing? Or more reverent? Is he more mystical than the Pope? Or the late Alter Rebbe of the Chabad movement? What does his allegedly being a "sufi mystic" *really* mean?


    Because what matters is what a person actually understands. And what a person understands is evident in what they produce... "by their fruit, ye shall know them." A plum tree doesn't produce pears. So, why complicate these matters? Anyone with a conscience should know not to build a tribute to a religion in an area where several thousand murdered bodies were scattered over that area by that religion's radical elements.

    If you want to talk about mysticism, let's talk... when the conscience is truly awakened, it will tell you everything you need to know. But barring that, let's hope for second best, that a random Muslim comes by to answer Tom's questions.