One of the undercurrents of this summer has been the drone over the proposed “ground zero mosque.” Every word about this has been parsed and argued about: mosque vs. cultural center that has a praying room; what constitutes near—across the street? across two streets?; Muslim vs. Islam; is the developer Sharif el-Gama the driving force, or Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf? It’s called Park51, for its address at Park Place, although it’s called Cordoba House (a name that carries a lot of baggage) by the developer and imam, and their official website makes a distinction “Park51 is an independent project led by Muslim Americans for all New Yorkers. This project is separate from the Cordoba Initiative and ASMA.”
Nick Kristof likens the opinion that the center shouldn’t be built on the proposed spot to “taking Osama bin Laden’s side.” That’s a pretty obnoxious statement.
In fact, anyone who questions the wisdom of this building, at this point in history, is quickly labeled a bigot by those who believe that their love and understanding of our Constitution entitles them to abuse those who see things differently.
Call me whatever you like, but that community center should not be built in lower Manhattan at this time. And it has nothing to do with fear or hate or “tolerance” and “freedom of religion.” The Muslim community is free to worship in this country and our city and has legal rights for real estate development like anyone else.
Buildings, however, are by nature a communal enterprise. In New York, all buildings have to jump through layers of hoops. It’s part of the DNA of this city that it’s a tough place to do anything, for just about anyone . . .
Would You Believe, Congestion Pricing?
Let’s look at another New York endeavor for comparison. Mayor Bloomberg deeply believes that congestion pricing is essential for quality of life in the city in terms of people coping with traffic and for air quality. He first introduced his idea for a plan in 2007! He has fought valiantly to make this happen from every angle.
But the “community” wasn’t buying it. The environmentalists applauded the idea, but a myriad of other constituencies opposed it. Now, you would think that Bloomberg would be powerful enough to wrangle support and make it happen.
But he couldn’t. His desire did not happen because the community of New Yorkers said no. It’s an organic thing sometimes, no one player is powerful enough to make something happen or prevent it, but the aggregate of wills wins the day. That’s how it’s always been.
Let’s turn to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. He has an idea that it would be healing to bring the Muslim community into very close proximity to the site where the Twin Towers stood until Islamic terrorists flew commercial planes into them. Well, New Yorkers simply don’t agree with him.
A majority, though of course not all, of New Yorkers simply disagree with what he thinks will be healing. All of city living is a social contract, let’s see it as the public side of a relationship. And just as in a relationship you can’t make someone love you, you can’t make New Yorkers do anything they don’t want. Just ask Mayor Bloomberg.
Forget the Closed Window, Rejoice in the Open Doors
So let’s say that that window for the Imam’s idea is closed to him. But there are so many doors that are open for him and his idea of healing. Having a high-profile Muslim center in New York is a good idea. Maybe midtown would be a good place, where so many New Yorkers and tourists converge in daily life, away from the rawness of Ground Zero. In the 9 years since the attacks, we have not seen much of a presence of American Muslims decrying the extremists. We have not seen much outreach to the city’s other more visible religions for lectures, joint projects, community sing-ins, picnics in Central Park, whatever.
Let the Imam create those programs, those dialogues now. The only issue anyone has is the location. Why is his generous idea for healing so tied to that particular piece of real estate?
I hope the imam can be a beacon for outreach and dialogue. It could mean that the children of all those parents lost on 9/11 have an easier way to meet and befriend some of their Muslim neighbors. Then maybe, when the grandchildren of all those killed on 9/11 are old enough to run things, they will propose a special center, across the street from the resting place of their grandparents, for their Muslims friends. Now that would show there had been some real healing.
I sincerely hope an Islamic center is built soon, in some part of the city other than lower Manhattan. It would be best for everyone: for those still grappling with the rawness of the immense loss, and for what Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has said he wants to show: that Islam is a religion of compassion and love.
To read more
Wiki page on Park51, Includes interesting quotes from prominent Muslim leaders. The conservative ones do not support the center anywhere near Ground Zero! Above images of the site and architect's rendering are from this page.
Christopher Hitchens, Interesting background on Rauf. Not as moderate as he purports.