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The Ground Zero mosque: Is it really Us or Them?

The Ground Zero mosque: Is it really Us or Them?

As plans to build a mosque and community centre near Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers, advance, the issue is being used and abused by hatemongers of all kinds – not the least of which are Sarah Palin and the Tea Partiers.

Almost 10 years ago, I was waiting for a signature on a doctor’s certificate for the next diplomatic assignment to Johannesburg. Suddenly, a stranger rushed into the office and screamed, “They’ve bombed the Pentagon!” and bolted for the exit. People in the waiting room rushed to radios or televisions to find out more. At that moment, there was a glimmer of who “they” were – and that “they” were not “us”.

Soon enough, the whole world knew what “they” had done. The WTC towers had become a gigantic pile of rubble, a section of the Pentagon had been destroyed and a plane crashed before reaching Washington. Nearly 3,000 people had died and thousands more were injured. The casualties had come from dozens of nations, representing every continent, race and religion. Soon enough, 9/11 led to military action in Afghanistan against al Qaeda and the invasion of Iraq.

Fast forward to the present. For years, what would take the place of the Twin Towers became the subject of bickering and litigation. Overlapping government agencies, including the owners and operators of the WTC, would-be architects and builders for a new development on the site, the families of those killed there and every politician who could clamber aboard all offered their views about what should happen on the site.

Was what became known as Ground Zero to become a national sacred ground like a great battlefield or a crucial part of efforts to re-energise the economy of downtown Manhattan? After much public anguish, a design was agreed upon. Builders were brought in, a memorial to the fallen was incorporated into the overall design, the families’ and survivors’ sensibilities acknowledged, the panoply of municipal, state and federal authorities placated and the first steps towards rebuilding finally commenced.

But, today a serpent has somehow crept into this garden. Something “haraam” is in a holy precinct. If permission from the city’s community building authorities holds up against an inevitable court challenge and once a near-derelict building can be torn down to make way for it, a mosque and Islamic community centre – Cordoba House – will rise on a site two blocks from where the WTC once stood. Sound the alarm; ring that tocsin! Its chief proponent, Sufi Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, has reportedly said the US government is at least partially responsible for what ultimately led to 9/11, even though no one ever points to Sufi Islam in the context of terrorist violence.

Watch: Group Sues to Stop Mosque Near NY’s Ground Zero (AP video)

But there have been mosques in New York for at least a hundred years since the “New York Mohammedan Society” was established. There are enough of them in the city and they have been around long enough to have generated a book-length photographic essay, “New York Masjid: the Mosques of New York,” published eight years ago.

Its author, Jerilynn Dodds, told CNN, “It’s hard to think of a better place for a mosque today than lower Manhattan, near to Ground Zero. To support the siting of a mosque there is not just deeply American – a declaration of the freedoms we stand for…. by any historical measure it is absurd to see Cordoba House, a community centre that will include a mosque, as a kind of hostile and exotic cultural invasion of the Lower East Side….and today hundreds of thousands of Muslims, many whose New York roots go back generations – attend the city’s more than 100 mosques in the five boroughs.”

Imam Rauf has led services in his trendy New York City neighbourhood since 1983, and says the planned centre would be used to “bridge and heal a divide” between Muslims and other religious groups. And lest anyone be confused on the matter, Rauf said, “We have condemned the actions of 9/11”.

The sponsors say the project will be modelled on the renowned 92nd Street Y,  site of lectures, debates, concerts and exhibitions for decades. The only difference is that Cordoba will also feature a prayer space. “Everyone that I’ve spoken to so far says there is a shortage of community space in Lower Manhattan,” Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, says.

But as soon as Imam Rauf proposed the demolition of an old office building to construct the cultural centre, swimming pool, exhibition hall, art gallery and mosque just two blocks from Ground Zero and received city approval, an epidemic of Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations seems to have broken out all over downtown New York City. The Anti-Defamation League (of all groups) weighed in against the Cordoba development even as mayor Michael Bloomberg threw his support behind it. Then the pile-on really began. Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich came out in opposition, demanding that no mosque be built adjacent to the nation’s “most sacred precinct” unless those perfidious Saudis allow churches and synagogues to be built in Riyadh. Forget the fact that the perpetrators of 9/11 would probably have been delighted to put the Saudi royal family in their gun sights, as well, if only they could have managed it.

Dodds adds that permission for the mosque came after “New York City’s landmarks commission voted unanimously to deny historic status to the Park Place site [the current building on the site]…. The name Cordoba House, though, is particularly fitting – an evocation of the rich interactions of Christians, Muslims and Jews in medieval Spain. Medieval Spain was not often a paradise of tolerance and peace. But where peoples lived together, the understanding spawned by that coexistence gave the lie to the notion that Muslims, Jews and Christians must, by nature, be opposed.”

Looking at this fault-line, columnists such as Tom Friedman in The New York Times and then Richard Cohen in The Washington Post joined the fray as well, in favour of Cordoba as a tangible sign of racial, ethnic and religious tolerance. No, that’s not quite right, not tolerance, but rather an assertive embrace of diversity. Friedman wrote: “We live in an age when the most valuable asset any economy can have is the ability to be creative ? to spark and imagine new ideas, be they Broadway tunes, great books, iPads or new cancer drugs. And where does creativity come from? I like the way Newsweek described it in a recent essay on creativity: ‘To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result).’ And where does divergent thinking come from? It comes from being exposed to divergent ideas and cultures and people and intellectual disciplines.”

Friedman adds that in building such a mosque, Americans would be telling the world, “ ‘Yes, we are a country that will even tolerate a mosque near the site of 9/11’ [and] we send such a powerful message of inclusion and openness. It is shocking to other nations. But you never know who out there is hearing that message and saying: ‘What a remarkable country! I want to live in that melting pot’.”

The centre has opened deep divisions marked by bitter commentary, pitting Muslims against Christians, Tea Partiers against liberals, and families of those killed on 11 September 2001 against one another. As the battle rages on newspapers’ leader pages, op-ed sections and in letters to the editor across the country, Washington Post veteran columnist Richard Cohen has chastised mosque opponents such as Newt Gingrich.

“Newt Gingrich, his doctorate notwithstanding, has offered us an illogical and ahistorical context to the ugly dispute about building an Islamic cultural centre and mosque near Manhattan’s Ground Zero. For a while, I thought that Sarah Palin and others would be the only ones to reap the political benefit of exploiting anti-Muslim sentiment, but Gingrich was not to be denied…. The irony is that the proposed Cordoba House Islamic centre … was intended to encourage interfaith dialogue. Unfortunately, the site is a mere two blocks from Ground Zero and, as some people insist, this could cause discomfort to those who lost loved ones there. This is the argument made by the Anti-Defamation League, which has surprisingly taken the wrong side in this debate,” wrote Cohen.

Photo: Demonstrator Gary Phaneuf holds a sign in support of Muslims during a Landmarks Commission’s hearing on the proposed Cordoba Mosque to be built near the site of the former World Trade Center in New York, July 13, 2010. REUTERS/Keith Bedford

And in the blogosphere, a former American diplomat, Pat Kushlik, wrote, “Moderate Muslims looking to blunt the siren song of Islamic radical jihad are among its [Cordoba House’s] primary founders and supporters. But they are not alone. A Presbyterian minister from Virginia is also a major backer as is the Inter-faith Alliance, an advocacy group based in Washington, DC. American and international groups whose goal it is to promote religious tolerance number among its supporters. Liberal Jewish groups – like J Street – approve of the initiative. It’s unfortunate that the Anti-Defamation League, which has stood for religious tolerance since its inception, has taken another stance….[But] the anti-Islamization rhetoric being spewed and pasted all over buses in cities like Detroit, Miami and in San Mateo County in California’s Bay Area by America’s political right wing, is most likely resurrected for partisan political purposes in an election year….”

The argument can be seen as the latest eruption along a long-time fault line in American society that draws a distinction between “us” and “them”. This time, however, the fissure overlaps with the confrontation between the West and militant, extreme jihadist ideologues. And politicians on the right, such as Republican candidate for New York governor Rick Lazio, are using this quarrel to whip up both anger and support in the upcoming mid-term election.

Two-hundred-and-sixty years ago, Benjamin Franklin, a man who would go on to help create the US, had been so worried about German immigration into colonial America that he could write: “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them?”

It may be useful to read Franklin’s youthful foreboding in conjunction with Emma Lazarus’ sonnet to be found at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, /Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, /The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. /Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, /I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” There is a choice.

Whichever way this saga finally plays out – and our guess is that most likely it will be built despite the pressure to do something, anything, to prevent that – it is almost guaranteed to fuel right-wing anger with their pet hatred of politics as usual. That, in turn, will translate into votes for some of Sarah Palin’s momma-grizzly, right-wing candidates this November. Of course, proponents of the cultural centre/mosque may well decide that they want to take into account the criticism – just as Pope John Paul II did when a Catholic religious facility was proposed for the grounds of Auschwitz, and then eventually was moved to another site in the face of growing, ecumenical, international outcries ( “The Pope’s Cross” still stands near the former Nazi extermination camp but not the originally proposed buildings). For New York City, the solution may well be for the creation of a much broader coalition to build community support for Cordoba – perhaps even an embrace by the city’s cadre of sometimes fractious rabbis. Now that would be something to see – and Islamic Cordoba’s most famous Jewish figure, Maimonides, would almost certainly have blessed that development, were he still around today.

By J Brooks Spector

For more, read CNN, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Whirledview and the WSJ.

Main photo: Linda Rivera of New York City carries a sign and an American flag as she attends a meeting of the New York City Landmarks Commission in lower Manhattan, August 3, 2010. The City agency denied “landmark” status for an old building near the site of the September 11 attacks, clearing the way for the building to be torn down to make room for a Muslim cultural center which has spurred heated debate. REUTERS/Mike Segar


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