Monday, January 10, 2011

Park51 Mosque

When Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his Cordoba Initiative decided to build a new Islamic Cultural Center with a prayer hall at 51 Park Place in lower Manhattan they never imagined that it would engender a nationwide controversy.  The new site was just down the street from where the imam was currently holding prayer services, and, besides better serving the needs of his growing congregation, Park51 would also be used to advance the Cordoba Initiative’s mission of fostering culture exchanges and promoting understanding between the Muslim community and American society at large.  Viewed in this light, it’s ironic that a number of politicians (many of whom have no connection with New York) have chosen to stir up some manufactured indignation around the proposed Islamic cultural center which they have labeled the Ground Zero Mosque.  In order to pander to voters in the conservative base, these politicians and demagogues appeal to Americans’ feelings of sensitivity and reverence surrounding September 11th as well as to much baser instincts involving fear, hatred, ignorance and discrimination toward Muslims.


You may have heard that the proposed site for Park51 would be only two blocks away from “Ground Zero.” This is both true and misleading: the site is only a block or two from 7 World Trade Center (one of the buildings destroyed on September 11th) and from the northern boundary of the large swath of lower Manhattan which was directly impacted by the terrorist attack, however, it is considerably farther away from where the Twin Towers stood (1,032 ft or 4-5 regular city blocks), which is what most people think of when they hear “Ground Zero.” But splitting hairs over the distance between Park51 and the sacred Ground Zero is ultimately beside the point.  The real question is: if you think the proposed site is too close than exactly how far away would the imam and his followers have to retreat before it would be deemed acceptable to build their place of worship there?  

Furthermore, no one should get the false impression that this is a pristine neighborhood whose use for the last 9 years has been limited to quiet reflection and mourning.  As the Awl pointed out (in reaction to a NY Post map showing Park51 in relation to 9-11 carnage) you’ll find a pub, a strip club, that Century 21 discount fashion store, a boxing club, the Goldman Sachs building, a Buddhist temple, a synagogue, and THE SAUDI ARABIAN MISSION TO THE UN (!!!) all roughly the same distance from the Towers as Park51 if not closer.  As NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on the Daily Show “…there’s porno places, there’s fast food places… it’s a vibrant community.”


In order to add weight to their objections and/or obfuscate the issue, some critics have questioned what we know about the man behind Park51, his institution and those financing the center’s construction.  Clearly, the implied question is “how do we know these guys aren’t terrorists?”

So what do we really know about Imam Rauf?  By all accounts, he is a moderate cleric who condemns terrorism and preaches that it runs contrary to Islam.  In fact, both the Bush and Obama administrations have entrusted him to act as a sort of citizen ambassador and flown him to the Middle East to unofficially reach out to religious Muslims on behalf of the United States.  This fact alone might seem like it should be enough to immunize Rauf from any attempts to paint him as an extremist.

Nevertheless, some critics have scoured the imam’s public statements looking for ammunition.  Most of what they have come up with can be explained away pretty easily: for example, the imam has stated that many in the Muslim world don’t draw a huge distinction between the innocent civilians killed in terrorist attacks and the innocent civilians killed as a result of collateral damage in US and Israeli attacks on terrorist targets (i.e. regardless of intention, the death of innocent people is a tragedy).  In the statement most often cited by critics, Rauf once said in regards to the September 11th attacks “I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened, but the United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.”  When asked to explain these words, the imam said that he had just meant that American policies were one of the factors that motivated terrorists.  Also problematic: in the past the imam has declared publicly that Iraqi children have died as a result of the US-led economic sanctions put in place since the first Gulf War.  As a counter point, President Clinton, among others, has vehemently denied these allegations stating that it was Saddam Hussein’s government and not international sanctions which kept food and medical supplies from reaching needy Iraqis.

In conclusion, when you sift through the record of any public figure you can usually find something problematic that he once said.  Rauf may occasionally say things you and I strongly disagree with, but this doesn’t make him a terrorist sympathizer.  The fact remains that he preaches that suicide bombings and terrorist acts of murder run contrary to orthodox Islam and that he has worked to promote peace and understanding between Americans and Muslims at home and abroad.  Perhaps bridging this gap means that sometimes he must present us with views shared by many in the Muslim world which we find unpleasant.


While we’re on the topic of sound bites, let’s review what various assholes have said about Park51.  First up is Rick Lazio who was running for the Republican nomination in the NY gubernatorial race (before this I knew him as the guy who lost out to Hillary Clinton in the 2000 Senate race).  Lazio was actually the mainstream, moderate Republican running against the tea party candidate, Carl Paladino.  Back in July, Lazio said he was concerned that not enough was known about the project’s funders and he called upon Andrew Cuomo, then the NY State Attorney General and his Democratic rival for governor, to investigate.  As I said above, the implication behind this sort of questioning is “how do we know these people aren’t terrorists?”  Some political analysts have suggested that Lazio made so much noise about Park51 in an attempt to gain some conservative street cred in his primary race against Paladino.  It didn’t work: as you probably remember, Paladino won the Republican primary and went on to lose against Cuomo in the general election.

Tea party mama grizzly Sarah Palin also weighed in on the issue.  In her now infamous tweet, she called upon peaceful Muslims to “refudiate” the “Ground Zero mosque,” thus inadvertently creating a portmanteau out of the words “refute” and “repudiate.” Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich expressed his disapproval for the project by uttering the flip phrases “no mosque.”  And  increasingly irrelevant former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani went on the Today Show and said that Abdul Rauf and the Cordoba Institute were just creating “more division, more hatred and more anger” by advancing the building project.  Of course the same could be said of Giuliani and all the other vocal opponents of Park51.

In a surprising development, the Jewish Anti-Defamation League decided to put their two cents in as well.  While recognizing that the imam had a right to build his center there and condemning the bigotry expressed by some critics, the ADL also stated that building an Islamic center “in the shadow of the World Trade Center” would cause unnecessary pain to some victims and that this was “not right.”  I don’t know what the proposed Islamic center has to do with the Anti-Defamation League’s mission of combating racist attacks against the Jewish people or what the ADL’s statement was meant to accomplish other than making the organization (and by extension all Jews) look bad.  Indeed, one would think that, as self-appointed representatives of a religious minority which has been on the receiving end of more than its fair share of discrimination and prejudice, the ADL might have shown more sympathy for the Muslims caught at the center of this shit-storm.

Some Democratic politicians also decided to voice concerns over Park51.  After Obama’s big speech in defense of the Islamic center (see below), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid expressed his dissent through a spokesperson, opining that the imam should build someplace else.  Reid eventually won reelection in a close race against Sharon Angle, a tea party candidate who seemed to say something unfortunate whenever there was a microphone around; as I heard one political analyst describe it, the people of Nevada really wanted to vote the nebbish Majority Leader out of office (remember his remarks about the backroom deals that were cut in order to get the healthcare bill passed?), but Angle didn’t make it easy for them.

Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, who caucuses with the Democratic party although I think it’s debatable whether he should still be called a Democrat, went further, calling for developers to “put the brakes” on the Park51 project and stating “If the people building this large Islamic center are just looking to build a large facility-- a house of worship and center-- in New York, why so close to 9/11, with all the sensitivity associated with that?"  And NY Governor David Patterson offered to find the developers a parcel of State land so that they could build the mosque further away from Ground Zero (which would give rise to a whole new set of problems).  I’m not sure whether to call this a spineless effort to pacify Park51’s critics or just a weak attempt to play peacemaker, but either way I’m glad we’re about to be rid of this loser forever.

Lastly, I’d like to bring up Bill O’Reilly’s comments made on the View in October.  When Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar confronted him and asked why he thought building the Park51 Islamic Center was inappropriate he responded “Muslims killed us on 9-11.”  This perfectly encapsulates my problem with a lot of the criticism.  While he was referring to a factual incident (Muslim terrorists killed innocent Americans in the September 11 attacks), O’Reilly’s words cast it in “us versus them” terms which (a) suggests a clash of civilizations pitting Western secularists and/or Christians against the Islamic world and (b) throws peace-loving Muslims in the same category as terrorists.  This truly represents a degeneration of discourse on the right.  When George W Bush was president, he went to great pains to distinguish between terrorists and ordinary Muslims and to remind Americans that we were not at war with Islam, which he called a religion of peace.


I think we should stop here to recognize two politicians who were brave enough to take an unpopular stand in favor of the Islamic center and religious freedom. The first is NYC Mayor Bloomberg who, since the story first blew up, has always said that Muslims have every right to build their mosque/cultural center, that Park51’s developers followed the rules and regulations necessary to get their project approved and that the city government saw no problem with it.  Moreover, it would be unconstitutional for the City of New York to obstruct the construction of this place of worship.  On the Daily Show, Bloomberg told Jon Stewart that he thought all the fuss about the Ground Zero Mosque was just a circus put on to distract voters from the real issues, and (awesomely) when Gov. Patterson announced his magnanimous compromise proposal at a press conference in August, Bloomberg quickly retorted that the governor could “speak for himself” and that the mayor’s office still maintained that there was nothing wrong with building the Islamic center at the current site.

The other public figure who put himself on the line by expressing his approval for Park51 is President Obama.  Given the negative attention the Ground Zero Mosque was getting in the national media, he saw fit to weigh in on the subject stating that

we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan... and ground zero is indeed hallowed ground. But let me be clear, as a citizen and as president, I believe that Muslims have the [same] right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country and that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan in accordance with local laws and ordinances.  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 that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are.

I’ve heard said that some Democratic politicians-- specifically, Senator Harry Reid-- were less than pleased about the speech.  Some questioned the wisdom of the party leader taking this unpopular stand on a polarizing issue so soon before an election-- an election that analysts were already predicting would not go well for Democrats.  The president’s speech in support of the mosque also led to a new outbreak of that most ridiculous of rumors spread prior to the 2008 election, i.e. that Obama is a “secret Muslim.”


But enough of all this nonsense: let’s get down to the real issues at play here.  For Park51 supporters and apologists, the most important thing is upholding the constitutional right of all Americans to freely practice their religion and protecting a minority group against discrimination.

Most critics accept that Muslims have a right to build Park51 (it is an undisputed fact that the constitution would bar any government action attempting to stop them), but-- they argue-- this comes down to a question of sensitivity.  In other words, legally they CAN build the mosque, but morally they SHOULDN’T given that many people would find it offensive.

I question why anyone should find Park51 offensive, and I suppose it comes down to point of view.  Now, a few of the most extreme opponents have gone so far as to suggest Park51 developers mean it to be a monument commemorating the successful attack by Muslims on America.  A reasonable person who looks at the history of the project, and at Imam Rauf’s track record as a moderate cleric and emissary sent by the US government to reach out to Muslims, can recognize this as libelous and racist.

Other critics would claim that building the center is insensitive because seeing a mosque so close to ground zero would be a painful reminder for victims.  Leaving aside the fact that its blocks away and that the planned structure does not include minarets or anything that screams “mosque” (because it’s not a mosque), Park51 would be a painful reminder of… what exactly?  Of the fact that Muslim Americans live in New York City?  Of the existence of Islam? I maintain that this statement is also based on a wrong view which doesn’t see the distinction between loyal, peace-loving Muslim Americans and Al Qaeda terrorists.  The Islamic world is not monolithic, and just as there are Muslim terrorists, there are Muslims who died in the September 11th attack-- some of whom prayed with Imam Abdul Rauf.  Why do critics insist on viewing the Islamic center as a provocation rather than a neutral attempt by believers to build a place of worship or even a symbol of Muslim American’s solidarity with victims of the September 11th attacks?  They are either ignorant of the facts or they’re blinded by fear, hatred and prejudice.

Wonder what the Founding Fathers would say about this controversy?  George Washington wrote something particularly on point in a 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport, RI:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.

Note the part where he rejects the word “toleration” which suggests it’s the majority’s prerogative whether or not to allow minorities to exercise what he defines as “their inherent natural rights.”


For me the media coverage of this controversy also raised a deeper concern about our attitude towards 9-11 and Ground Zero.  On September 8th of last year the New York Post ran an article entitled “Iconic Steel Column Returns to WTC” the first line of which reads “A piece of the heart and soul-- and, literally, the backbone-- of the Twin Towers made an emotional return to Ground Zero yesterday.”  It’s easy to dismiss anything written in the NYPost, but then even President Obama in his speech referred to ground zero as “hallowed ground.” When were we as a people reduced to adoring the wreckage of our fallen temple?

And then there’s the National Day of Remembrance and all those t-shirts and bumper stickers you used to see admonishing us all to NEVER FORGET.  When the September 11th attacks occurred it seemed like our world had irreversibly changed, and just over nine years later no one is in danger of forgetting it.  Even if it were possible to forget, we mustn’t do so because we have to be alert and prepared to reduce the probability of another such disaster.  Many innocent people’s lives were cut short that day, and they left behind grieving families and friends whose pain was intensified and complicated by the traumatic event responsible for their deaths.  And let’s not forget the firemen, policemen and emergency personnel who put their lives and their health on the line after the attack-- they are true life heroes.  Still, I’d ask the question: how much dwelling on a past injury is excessive?  When does holding on to the anger become unhealthy and unhelpful?


Finally, on a lighter and more practical note, when the Park51 controversy was still in full swing, the NYTimes ran an article exploring how people around the world viewed the debate.  As the article pointed out, in many countries (Saudi Arabia, China…) it’s accepted as a matter of course that the State gets to decide when and where religious groups are allowed to build their places of worship.  Meanwhile, in France they were voting to prohibit women from wearing veils that cover their faces-- a law that arguably serves no purpose other than singling out Muslims.  The Park51 controversy may not be our finest hour (and we shouldn’t pretend this is the only planned mosque in the country that’s met with opposition), but we can be proud that at least when it comes to freedom of worship the conversation in the United States is ahead of most.       

Photos of Park51 worshippers found on the blog of journalist Craig Duff