Saturday, August 7, 2010
The proposed creation of an Islamic centre at Ground Zero has New Yorkers pitting appeals for tolerance against appeals for respect for the bereaved, writes Alex Spillius.
The stated purpose of the project is to bridge the divide between American Muslims and their non-Muslim compatriots and to foster cross-cultural understanding.
It is led by Faisal Abdul Rauf, an imam who has run a mosque nearby in lower Manhattan for 27 years and who is considered the epitome of Muslim moderation.
Called Cordoba House, the $100 million, 13-storey centre would be open to all faiths. It would include a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, book shops, restaurants and a September 11th memorial. One floor will be occupied by a mosque.
Formerly a coat factory, the building has been largely disused since the 2001 attacks, when it was struck by a piece of one of the planes flown by suicidal al-Qaeda terrorists into the World Trade Centre's twin towers.
Last week the city's Landmark Preservation Commission removed the project's only bureaucratic hurdle by unanimously declining to award protected status to the structure, meaning it could be rebuilt from scratch.
The developers have put a down payment on the property on Park Place. Only an outcry, or lack of funding, can stop it now.
To critics, the centre's proximity to the site of the atrocity would be an affront to the dead and to the feelings of families and firefighting colleagues who have survived them.
Some relatives have said that a building representative of the religion in whose name their loved ones were killed is too painful to countenance.
The Anti-Defamation League, a venerable Jewish civil rights group, came out against, arguing that "this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right".
In a Quinnipiac University poll, a narrow majority of New Yorkers disapproved of the plan, though a majority of Manhattans approved.
The arguments in favour have been led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with strong support from the local community board and many Jewish groups and churches.
Standing in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, the mayor argued that in the nation that separated church and state, and which enshrined freedom of worship in its founding documents, nothing could be more un-American than denying private citizens the right to build a house of worship on their private property.
In a city defined by its diversity, opposing this centre would taint every Muslim with terror. We would then be just as intolerant as the terrorists themselves.
Bloomberg's speech was too noble. New Yorkers need do nothing to demonstrate their tolerance and openness. Since 9/11 the city has picked itself up admirably and got on with its boisterous pursuit of the almighty dollar. Muslims have not faced a demonstrable backlash. There have been mosques in the city for decades; there are now halal lunch trucks on every other block.
So just why is the centre needed? The Cordoba Initiative's website suggests its core goal is to present "Islamic values in their truest form – compassion, generosity, and respect for all".
This implies that Islam's problem is mostly a matter of PR, that the greatest obstacle to better cultural understanding is teaching non-Muslims that terrorist ideology is a perversion of Islam.
After a decade of life overshadowed by Islamist terror, that however remains a given to most of the majority population.
To Muslim reformists, Cordoba is a waste of money. They question if there will be any teaching for Muslims on the wrongs of terrorism, or any effort to discourage Muslims from seeking sharia law.
The greater onus lies, in their view, on the Islamic community to confront the causes of terror within.
Imam Faisal is indubitably pluralist and tolerant. He is a strong advocate for Muslim women's advancement. He is however the sort of moderate who also has trouble denouncing Hizbollah or Hamas for acts of terrorism and who once said US foreign policy was "an accomplice" in the 9/11 attacks.
He is of course free to say that, and there are some non-Muslim Americans who agree with that view. He is also free to build his centre, as he should be if America is to remain true to its principles.
But as a long term resident of New York he should know that location is everything, and that locating his project two blocks from Ground Zero is just too close for some people's comfort.
Posted by Cole at 9:19 AM