August 22, 2010
Why I support the “Ground Zero mosque”
I want to address a lot of the misrepresentation, careless thinking, and downright asinine argument surrounding the plans for Cordoba House, a Sufi-affiliated Islamic cultural center to be built in lower Manhattan near the World Trade Center site.
To start with, I think there are two big honest misunderstandings driving a lot of the bluster of this debate. First, what this project actually is–and it isn’t a mosque (though it shouldn’t matter even if it were, but I’ll get to that). Its organizers describe the concept as an Islamic cultural/community center modeled on the 92nd St. Y, a huge, multi-use community center of Jewish affiliation (itself modeled on the YMCA–same concept, nominally Christian). It has Jewish cultural and religious events, but also continuing education classes in music and the arts, performance space (where the dance company I work for recently participated in a festival of new work), gym facilities and a pool, child care, summer camp and after school programs, and classroom space–with everything open to everyone in the community. This establishment is pretty well-known in New York, but I don’t know that other cities have similar, equally prominent organizations, so I wonder if a lot of people across the country aren’t really understanding what the analogous plans for Cordoba House are.
The second big misunderstanding is much more massive, and less excusable, though hardly limited to this particular debate. It’s that Americans don’t really understand religious divisions and the difference between religion itself and fundamentalism.
Islam has militant fundamentalist sects, and peaceful progressive sects, and everything in between, much like Christianity does. The 9/11 perpetrators were of the former bunch, the people trying to build this Islamic cultural center are of the latter bunch…. Islam, like Christianity, is not one monolithic, homogeneous group that all believes the same things. For instance, Presbyterians and Mormons both consider themselves Christians, but they do not believe the same things, and their concrete ideas of what Christianity should accomplish in the world are wildly divergent. This is so in just about every major religion; even Buddhism has had violent radicals.
So asking the Sufi sect of Islam not to build near Ground Zero because the bombers were “Muslim” makes about as much sense–zero–as would asking Presbyterians not to build a church near the ruins of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City because Timothy McVeigh was a militant nationalistic “Christian,” out of some kind of misplaced respect for the feelings of victims. It’s not respect, it’s cluelessness.
They’re not the same group. They don’t have squat to do with each other. The progressive Muslims trying to build a cultural center are not responsible for the fact that many Americans don’t understand the differences between their group and the handful of crazed militant radicals who flew planes into buildings, and let themselves be ruled by fear of the unknown. They should not be held emotionally or morally responsible, just like we don’t hold Christianity collectively responsible for what McVeigh did, or that guy who flew his plane into the IRS building, or Fred Phelps’s hateful funeral protests, or the people who bomb women’s clinics and murder abortion doctors.
Then there’s the widespread argument of opponents that they’re not saying the Cordoba Initiative shouldn’t have the right to build at that spot, it’s just that they shouldn’t, out of sensitivity or respect or understanding for the feelings of 9/11 victims. Or that they should just choose a different location, not so close to Ground Zero, which is “hallowed ground.”
But freedom of religion in this country does not have a geographic limitation. We do not indulge freedom of religion only in approved zones. We have freedom of religion–the assurance that our government does not discriminate against its citizens on the basis of religion–period. How far away would be far enough? And hallowed to whom? Only the white Christians who died there, and not the Muslims who also worked there, died there, lost family and friends in the attacks and suffered terribly with everyone else in the aftermath? Where is the respect and sensitivity to their feelings? They not only lost family and friends like everyone else; now they’re tarred with suspicion and guilt by false association with the killers.
The Muslims who live here are just as much New Yorkers, and just as much Americans, as all the rest of us. The protection of their Constitutional rights is just as sacrosanct as those of all the rest of us. They have just as much claim to any piece of ground here that any New Yorker or any American does.
And to say that they should have the “right,” to build there, it’s just that they shouldn’t out of consideration for others’ “feelings” is just about as bad as saying they shouldn’t have the right. It’s saying that they should consider themselves second-class citizens when it comes to freedom of assembly and freedom of worship, that they should curtail the exercise of their own rights out of deference to the irrational and incorrect portrayal of themselves as violent extremists. It’s saying that they should regard themselves as not worthy of equal protection under the law, out of respect for others’ ignorance and fear.
They shouldn’t. They should stand up and proclaim what they stand for, that the hijackers are not representatives of their Islam, and that they will not be ruled by others’ ignorance. And I cannot think of a better repudiation to the ideology of the 9/11 perpetrators than to have this cultural center, a representative of peaceful religion and interfaith respect, an emblem that America will not be scared out of honoring the rights of all of our citizens equally–which is what makes us the great country we claim to be–so close to Ground Zero. I look forward to visiting as soon as they’re open.