The proposal for a Muslim community centre called the Cordoba House, two blocks from where the World Trade Centre stood, has unleashed a torrent of emotions. The New York Times described some of the speech emerging from debates in the media and during protests against the centre as “vitriolic commentary, pitting Muslims against Christians, Tea Partiers against staunch liberals, and Sept. 11 families against one another.”
The proposed project is organised by the Cordoba Initiative, a New York City organisation focused on improving Muslim-Western relations. Organisers describe the Cordoba House as a “community centre with Islamic, interfaith and secular programming.” Though frequently described as a mosque because it will have an Islamic prayer room, the Cordoba House will be more of a public space that will celebrate our common humanity and further community harmony.
Such a message seems to be the perfect antidote to the hate and anger that fuels fear and violence.
Several other mosque-construction projects across the country, including in Brooklyn, Staten Island and Dayton, Ohio, have encountered similar acerbic opposition in recent months. This suggests that something more is going on than just outrage over the proposed centre’s proximity to Ground Zero.
Fears of terrorism and its erroneously perceived links to Islam are cited by detractors as their most common concerns. However, the detractors either ignore or are ignorant of the fact that those who perpetrate terrorism betray the teachings of Islam, which is why 9/11 has been unequivocally condemned by all major Islamic scholars, organisations and countries. One only needs to Google the phrases “Islamic statements against terrorism” or “Muslims condemn terrorism” to read a sampling of the many condemnations issued by Muslims worldwide.
Linking Islam, a faith practiced by over a billion people worldwide, to the terrorism being committed by a handful of fanatical and misguided Muslims is absurd. This absurdity is perhaps best exemplified in the signage on display at one of the protests near the Cordoba House site that read, “Building a mosque at Ground Zero is like building a memorial to Hitler at Auschwitz.”
Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has only added fuel to the growing fire by asking “peace-seeking” Muslims to protest the building of this centre. Yet she fails to repudiate the hate of Mark Williams, former leader of the Tea Party Express, an umbrella organisation of several Tea Party groups, who angered Muslims nationwide when he claimed on his website that the centre would serve as a monument to the 9/11 terrorists, and be used for “the worship of the terrorists’ monkey-god”.
Certainly, we should preserve the memory of the Sept. 11 tragedy and be respectful of those who lost their loved ones. But this does not mean that as a nation we can succumb to fear mongering about Muslims. A commentary in the New York Post further stoked such fears by stating, “Where there are mosques, there are Muslims, and where there are Muslims, there are problems.”
On NBC News, Pamela Geller, one of the Cordoba House’s lead protesters, objected to the building of the 13-story community centre because they will then be able to look down at Ground Zero from the upper floors of the building. By Geller’s logic then, building churches near the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City should not be allowed. After all Timothy McVeigh, a United States Army veteran who was convicted of detonating a truck bomb in front of the Murrah Building in 1995, was influenced by the Christian Identity movement.
The opposition to Cordoba House near Ground Zero is being led by some of the most intolerant elements in our society. Thankfully, well-reasoned voices, such as Rabbi Darren Levine of the Jewish Community Project Downtown, Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, are consistently decrying such fears. But New York Mayor Michel Bloomberg summed it up best when he stated, “What is great about America, and particularly New York, is that we welcome everybody…. The ability to practice your religion was one of the real reasons America was founded.”
Such voices of reason are triumphing over the voices of discord. Despite orchestrated opposition, mosque projects are gaining regulatory approval. But overcoming misguided fears about Islam and Muslims requires gaining the trust of neighbors. Mosques and Muslim-run community centres ought to go beyond their usual religious functionality and undertake a leadership role by becoming sanctuaries for dialogue and understanding, which the Cordoba House aims to do. Only then will the voices of paranoia be relegated to the footnotes of history.
* Professor Parvez Ahmed is a Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida. He is also a frequent commentator on Islam and the Muslim American experience. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).