This was a particularly hot summer with temperatures soaring to 100+ degrees and cloying humidity, a sweltering combination that kept air conditioners humming and city pools crowded. The political atmosphere was also heated as an issue involving a local community board and the Landmarks Preservation Commission boiled over into the world outside New York City. News of the “Ground Zero mosque” spread like a virus, infecting some people with fear and anger, others with opportunism, and leaving many of us shaking our heads in despair.
Let’s start with the facts. (I’ve been quoting Daniel Patrick Moynihan all summer: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion,” he said, “but not his own facts.”) Park51, as it will be called, is neither a mosque nor is it at Ground Zero. Its sponsors envision a cultural center – something like the 92nd Street Y – with classrooms, galleries, an auditorium, a restaurant, a swimming pool and gym, a memorial to the victims of 9/11, and an Islamic “prayer room.” Housed in a former retail store, it is two blocks north of the World Trade Center site.
Feisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan are a married couple who will run the center. He graduated from Columbia University, wrote a book called “What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America,” and has been the imam of a mosque in Tribeca for three decades, as well as vice-chair of the Interfaith Center of New York. She runs the American Society for Muslim Advancement, which promotes “cultural and religious harmony through interfaith collaboration, youth and women’s empowerment, and arts and cultural exchange.”
Members of Community Board No. 1 endorsed the project 29 to one, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously in its favor. So what’s the problem?
It seems that the farther away from the epicenter one is, the louder and more vicious the protests are. Republicans facing midterm elections, egged on by Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Rudy Guiliani, oppose the “mosque” as a symbolic affront to the victims of 9/11, playing to the fears and anger of people unfamiliar with the situation.
Speaking for many New Yorkers, Mayor Mike Bloomberg harked back to the days of New Amsterdam “where the seeds of religious tolerance were first planted.” “We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors,” he said. “But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11.”
A few days after the mayor’s speech, I received an email message asking, “In light of Islam’s open tolerance of stoning of women, hanging of gays, beheadings on YouTube, etc., what is the position of the NYSEC on the building of a mosque at Ground Zero?” I stared at the computer screen a long while feeling angry and sad, judging the writer, and taken aback by the depth of my emotions. Islam is not alone in violating human rights, I wanted to respond; Christianity has held its own over the millennia. Some people need little excuse to be cruel, and religion often provides it.
But Bloomberg said it best when he concluded, “Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values – and play into our enemies’ hands – if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists – and we should not stand for that.”