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Sacred

23 August 2010

Protest against the Cordoba House at Park51, 22 August 2010 (Photo Credit: James Estrin, New York Times)

Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but in this case, it’s probably equivalent to all the coverage of the protests that have surrounded the Cordoba Initiative’s efforts to build an Islamic Culture Center and Mosque in the Park51 Complex in Southern Manhattan.

I won’t waste words commenting on the legal aspects of this controversy, simply because there’s not much to say. Opponents haven’t one legal leg to stand on. To their limited credit, the folks spearheading opposition to this and other mosques seem to have realized that their options for litigation ended after the disingenuous request for Park51 to be declared a historic landmark was unanimously shot down by the Landmark Preservation Commission.

As a result, the editorial and letters pages have been awash recently with a different sort of critique that concedes there is no constitutional way of impeding the project in the courtroom. Instead, we’re seeing an appeal to courtesy, and to the motives that the Cordoba House represents, in the lobbying to cancel the project. Karen Hughes (an advisor to Former President George W. Bush) takes a stab at exactly this sort of argument in her Washington Post op-ed:

I believe that most Americans who oppose locating a mosque near Ground Zero are neither anti-freedom nor anti-Muslim; they just don’t believe it’s respectful, given what happened there…

That’s why I believe it is so important that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his congregation make what I fully understand would be a very difficult choice: to locate their mosque elsewhere. Putting the mosque at a different site would demonstrate the uncommon courtesy sometimes required for us to get along in our free and diverse society.

I recognize that I am asking the imam and his congregation to show a respect that has not always been accorded to them. But what a powerful example that decision would be. Many people worry that this debate threatens to deepen resentments and divisions in America; by choosing a different course, Rauf could provide a path toward the peaceful relationships that he and his fellow Muslims strive to achieve. And this gesture of goodwill could lead us to a more thoughtful conversation to address some of the ugliness this controversy has engendered.

The crazy thing is, I can almost put some stock in this argument. Hughes’ point that attempting to foster constructive dialogue about Islam in America would be a lot easier under less tense circumstances isn’t entirely without merit, and she gets some points in my book for not conferring a halo of smoke and ash upon those protesting the mosque, and rebuking the idea that it will host an extremist cell–as well as never once referring to it as the “Ground Zero Mosque”. But I’m lost once this ambiguous idea of respect comes into the equation.

First, the sentiment that the Muslim population of New York City have a special obligation to respect families affected by 9/11 displays something frightening. Frankly, it’s a bit like saying that given Timothy McVeigh’s associations with the Christian Identity movement, relatives of the Oklahoma City bombing victims would have a moral right to insist upon a no-church zone in front of the remnants of the Murrah Federal Building. Of course, such a request was never made, for one simple reason: most of the families were Christian. We exclude one terrorist from our assessment of his faith because it is a majority one, while holding an entire minority faith accountable for the actions of 19 hijackers, and impose upon it special restrictions and burdens based solely upon “shared” religious belief.  There’s a very hot place in historical hell for societies that do this.

Even if such a special obligation weren’t deeply prejudiced and wrong, it’s also not at all clear to me what exactly the Cordoba House fails to respect. Protestors often refer to the site of the towers as “Hallowed Ground” in suggesting that a mosque does not comport with the dignity of Ground Zero. As Daryl Lang reminds us, though, apparently “Gentleman’s Clubs”, gambling establishments, souvenir carts that shamelessly attempt to profit from the collapse of the Twin Towers, and McDonalds restaurants are a shining tribute to the nearly 2,000 people murdered in those buildings. That a center with an explicit goal of combating the sort of extremism that led to 9/11 in the first place offends the atmosphere of Ground Zero more than a strip club would be laughable, if it weren’t so revealing.

When we designate a place as sacred, as hallowed ground, a community has every right to place certain restrictions upon that area. Communities need spaces like that, to mourn, to remember, and to tie them together in ways that words alone cannot. The Peace Park in Hiroshima, or Auschwitz, are places reflect this spirit of sanctity.  If the City of New York were to re-zone the area around Ground Zero entirely for parks, memorials, and other public institutions, that’d be both morally and legally defensible, and in keeping with the way we’ve always treated sacred space. If the city were to ban souvenir stalls from those blocks, that might well fly too. But when a place’s hallowed status holds a mosque as its one unacceptable defilement, it’s apparent that ‘sacred’ has only one meaning to these protestors: an Islam-free zone. No American with a value for tolerance and equality should abide a definition of sanctity that requires discrimination against their fellow citizens.  Principles exist not to enable such simultaneously vile and yet all-too-understandable instincts, but to remind us of the people we strive to be, forcing our hands when our hearts have long since given up the ghost. In that spirit, a sacred American place should embody our loftier aspirations, not our inner, fearful demons.

Up to now, I’d watched the proceedings unfold with an eye toward attention to toward the question of rights. Mayor Bloomberg’s awe-inspiring speech from Governor’s Island made me hope he throws his hat in the ring for President in the future, and Obama’s remarks, while considerably less rousing, provided a reminder of why it is that I voted for him. But I suppose that in retrospect, I’d looked upon the issue similarly to how the President himself had done so: with a fierce defense of the right to build the Cordoba House, and a calculated detachment from the issue of whether it was wise to do so.

But opening the NYT Homepage this morning to see this photo has changed things. These vocal opponents are not seeking respect for anything, save their own prejudices, nor do they give a Coney Island Hot Dog about the sanctity of Ground Zero. You don’t get the sense that these people grieving, or pleading for space to heal. You do, however, get the sense that they’re threatening and intimidating because they can get away with it. One doesn’t plead for respect and sensitivity by accusing Muslims as a whole of being a murderous lot of terrorists, unworthy of calling themselves Americans–and if anyone thinks that’s an unfair characterization, then I urge them to look at that picture, and ask themselves what other message could be conveyed by writing “Sharia” in blood-dripping letters, and waving American flags to protest a mosque.  Yes, people get crazy and do stupid, hurtful things when their passions are inflamed.  But to heed a call for “courtesy” in this case would not quell anger and heal wounds.  Far from it, it would legitimize bigotry and hate as righteous and patriotic. And it would embolden those who are trying to stop mosques in Tennessee, Staten Island, and Sheboygan*, far from the sacred ground these folks claim to defend.

Understanding and sensitivity must prevail if this cycle of violence is ever to end.  Karen Hughes thinks that moving the project would be a step in that direction, but if this protest clarifies anything, it’s that before a dialogue about sensitivity can begin, the parties must be on an approximately equal footing.  To wit, the folks in this photo need to understand one thing: the Muslim community in general, and in Southern Manhattan especially, will not, and cannot, be chased out of their homes by intimidation, fear, or violence. Only when that is made clear will these opponents of the mosque have anything to learn from its presence, because they will be forced to deal with the Muslim Community as neighbors, rather than unwanted interlopers. I can think of no clearer demonstration of this reality than building the Cordoba House, come hell or high water.

I’ve spent the last hour at work looking for a way to donate directly to the construction of Cordoba House.  Haven’t found one yet, perhaps because the project is very much in its early stages, perhaps because punching in “donations to Cordoba Initiative” into Google yields more references to Hamas than anything else. But when I find a link, or one becomes available, I’m pledging right now to donate $50 to it. I’ll post the link here once I track it down, and I’d ask any readers to consider doing the same. To those who might feel conflicted about donating to a religious organization whose theology is not in accord with their own, consider the words of Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, in front of a Jewish congregation after the murder of Daniel Pearl:

We are here to assert the Islamic conviction of the moral equivalency of our Abrahamic faiths. If to be a Jew means to say with all one’s heart, mind and soul Shma` Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ahad; hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one, Mr. Pearl.

If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one Mr. Pearl.

And I am here to inform you, with the full authority of the Quranic texts and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, that to say La ilaha illallah Muhammadun rasulullah is no different.

It expresses the same theological and ethical principles and values.

I can see how one would have quibbles with this reasoning.  I have a few myself. But when I contrast this spirit of tolerance and community with the anger, lies, and prejudice directed toward the Cordoba Initiative, one thing seems quite clear to me: This country will be more Christian, more Jewish, more Buddhist, and more Pastafarian on the day this center opens than it will be if it never does because of this brand of anger. Surely that’s worth a couple bucks, or at least a prayer or two.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 23 August 2010 9:06 pm

    Very well written and yes am in agreement with your sentiments. Good job! x

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