After almost a decade since 9/11, it is surprising how little we have learned. Still plagued by xenophobia and Islamophobia in the US, it is hard for many Americans to identify who the enemy actually is in this so-called “war on terror.” Nothing has brought this to light more clearly than the current controversy over the supposed mosque to be built at ground zero.
Firstly, the debate itself is riddled with inaccuracies. The proposed building – now called “Park 51 Project” – is to be, not merely a mosque, but a cultural center backed by the Cordoba Initiative(1), a progressive group which promotes peace and crosscultural understanding, and will contain a prayer room among its many facilities. Thereby, even the use of the term mosque for such a space is up for debate. Secondly, the building will not be at ground zero, but two blocks away, and dwarfed by surrounding skyscrapers. Thirdly, there over 100 mosques in New York City – one of which already exists four blocks from ground zero. Following the detractors’ reasoning, these mosques should be eliminated.
But each of these facts misses the point. Were they not the case, we should still be asking what the true objection is here – given that the religious/cultural center in question is being built by legal permit cleared by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in a country founded upon religious freedom. What is wrong with building the center at ground zero? In fact, a facility that promotes moderate Islam, fosters religious tolerance and encourages greater understanding is precisely what is needed at the re-emerging site. This Islamic cultural center offers the perfect antidote to radicalism and the opportunity for coexistence and cooperation. Our sense of humanity, justice and freedom ought to demand it. As writer Pierre Tristam expresses, “it should be an integral part of the rebirth of ground zero because that’s what America stands, or ought to stand, for.”
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We do not have to look back very far to be reminded that we can coexist, as did Jews, Christians and Muslims in the city of Cordoba (the very place after which The Cordoba Initiative was named), a flourishing culture of tenth century Spain that was the envy of the medieval world. The promoters of Park 51 are the kind of Muslim moderates that Americans, particularly conservative critics, should be welcoming with open arms. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is a Sufi, the mystical and pacifist branch of Islam, and his statement following 9/11 was in no way an endorsement of violence, but rather a geo-political explanation. His wife, Daisy Khan, won an Interfaith Center Award for promoting peace and interfaith understanding. According to its stated mission, the Cordoba Initiative they founded has the stated mission of striving for “mutual recognition and respect.” In the Imam’s statement it is to be “a landmark in New York City’s cultural, social and educational life, a community center to promote the American values we all aspire towards and to realize a better city for all.” In Khan’s words, its aim is “to reverse the trend of extremism and the kind of ideology that the extremists are spreading.”
We hear the case for extending sensitivity toward those who lost loved ones in the 2001 attacks, but what are the implications of this argument? Implicit in such rhetoric is a direct connection between those Muslims involved in the cultural center and the terrorists who commit heinous acts of terror, such as those of 9/11, and a false assumption that they are complicit in some way. So, Muslims should forfeit their religious freedoms in order to kowtow to such false sentiments under the guise of sensitivity or consideration for the feelings of others. What about showing sensitivity and respect to the peace-loving and law-abiding Muslims who condemn terror in all its forms, who contribute to this society and who, too, pray at ground zero for the family members they lost that day?
So, what is at the heart of the matter? People are still resorting to the simplistic and reductionist idea that Islam is a monolithic religion. They assume that those Muslims who do not subscribe to the methods of al-Qaeda and the like are still in some way culpable for these acts of terror; that if an individual does not explicitly support international terrorist groups, by virtue of being part of Islam as part of a collective enemy, they must in some implicit form either fund, support or give silent consent to terrorism. This could not be further from the truth. Of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world today the vast majority are moderates who have nothing to do with the extremist ideology of al-Qaeda. Islam itself constitutes a plethora of traditions that have not only changed throughout the centuries, but that vary from country to country. The overtly political Islam of today’s Islamists is a reaction to a number of 21st century political realities that are steeped in a complex history of geopolitical relations and tensions between the Arab/Muslim world and the West. On top of this, the interpretation and application of the Quranic text varies among individuals and groups across the spectrum of Islam. Those who take the “lesser jihad”(2) surahs(3) as a call to arms against both the West and mainstream Islam, subscribe to a specific version of Islam and are anathema to most Muslims. As author Kamran Pasha reminds us, “truth is a treasure that is often buried in a minefield of complex facts that is just too much trouble to explore for most people.”
While it is completely understandable that people react viscerally to issues surrounding 9/11, and are often coming from a place of genuine emotion, reactions from the political right, such as the current opposition to the proposed building, are not only insulting to Muslims, but given that they are based on ignorance, hatred and fear, they are downright dangerous. The mainstream, moderate, progressive Muslim community is our most effective ally against extremist, radical, militant Islamists, who have no more to do with mainstream Islam than the Crusaders have to do with the message of Christianity. By discriminating against Muslims and Islam at large, we discredit ourselves and give credence to the very extremists we wish to undermine and, thereby, only encourage others to join their ranks. Such bigotry only reinforces their claim that the West hates Islam and will stop at nothing to destroy it. Make no mistake, this type of collaboration advanced by the planned initiative is not what the radicals want. It undermines their agenda and sends an alternative message to those who might be enticed by their own death-cult ideology, both at home and abroad.
Reactions to the innovative Cordoba Initiative are very telling. Clearly, we are at a loss when the dominant Manichean-type(4), fundamentalist narrative of “black and white,” “us and them” in a “clash of civilizations” does not add up. Such a worldview undermines the presumption of both radical Muslims and xenophobic non-Muslims that the West and Islam are inevitable enemies, which, in turn, threatens to invalidate much of our foreign policy. Fighting extremism will take a far more nuanced approach than that offered in this type of reductionism. You do not win hearts and minds with oppression and discrimination, neither of which reflect our values as Americans.
From a historical perspective, Islam in New York began near ground zero, where one of the first Arab-American communities settled. Christians and Muslims from Ottoman Syria migrated in the 1880s as some of the earliest Arabic immigrants to America. As writer Edward Curtis also points out, shrouds at the African burial ground (discovered in 1991), six blocks away from the proposed community center, suggest that Muslims were also among those enslaved people who helped build Manhattan. Over half a million Muslims now reside in New York City, and the anti-Muslim rhetoric flooding the media over this issue is a slap in the face to the many Muslim immigrants, past and present, who, like other immigrant communities living and working in the city, came here for freedom and opportunity. The best testimony for the area would be churches, synagogues and mosques coexisting in peace.
Any Christian, rightly so, would denounce the brutality of the medieval Crusaders and point out that they have nothing to do with Christianity, despite what the Crusaders themselves believed. And rightly so; most Muslims today do not blame the entire Christian community for the actions of but a segment. The Crusaders’ atrocities provoked the Sultan Saladin to defeat Jerusalem in the 12th century, but instead of retaliation, what they received instead was amnesty, protection and access to Christian holy sites. Many who pride themselves as being part of a “Christian nation,” yet advocate the bigoted fear mongering that we are currently hearing from the likes of Pat Robinson, seem unaware of the following irony. As Saladin would no doubt recognize, such thinking has nothing to do with the true teachings of Christ, who taught us to love our enemies, welcome the stranger and have mercy on those who are marginalized.
Saladin’s legendary magnanimity confounded those who were convinced that Muslims were entirely barbaric, and they were forced to rethink their perceptions. He was able to overcome the emotional impulse to scapegoat and implicate the entire group for the actions of but a few. He was able to discern truth from error, and our reaction to this issue and our treatment of our neighbors as a whole, will determine whether or not we are able to do the same.
1. The Cordoba Initiative seeks to improve Muslim-West relations
2. A Surah is a chapter of the Quran .
3. Jihad (which means struggle) has been distinguished into two forms of jihad: “greater” and “lesser.” The greater describes harmony among submission, faith and righteous living. The lesser, according to Islamic jurisprudence, includes the expansion and defense of the Islamic State as well as the defense of religious freedom and may include armed struggle against persecution and oppression. Rules include not killing women, children and noncombatants, as well as not damaging buildings and cultivated or residential areas.
4. Ancient Gnostic philosophy that sees the cosmos in a struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness.