"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

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