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About that Mosque…

By Brian | August 12, 2010 | Share on Facebook

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard that an Islamic group has received permission to build a mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. Everyone from Newt Gingrich to Sarah Palin to Glenn Beck has weighed in against the project, claiming that the mosque’s presence would be seen by some as a victory for the 9/11 terrorists. Others have taken a more passive-aggressive tack, claiming that they, personally, don’t mind a mosque, but that putting one so close to Ground Zero would be a cruel reminder of the attacks for the families of those who died there. A smaller contingent is in favor of the mosque, pointing out that one of the things the terrorists attacked on 9/11 is our freedom of religion, with which any American has the right to worship as he/she chooses.

Fortunately, that last group includes New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who, surrounded by religious leaders of many different faiths, gave an impassioned speech about religious freedom while announcing that the petition for the building’s landmark status has been denied, clearing the way for construction to begin.

Today, the New York Times ran an article about the woman in charge of the mosque project. Here are some things I learned from reading the article that I’m sure Newt, Sarah & Glenn don’t want anyone to focus on:

  • It’s not just a mosque, it’s a 15-floor Muslim Community Center, which will include a mosque, along with a swimming pool, art classes, baby sitting, and a complete program of inter-faith joint projects with other religious groups in the area.
  • The first thing the organizer, Ms. Daisy Khan, did when she began planning the project in 2005 was call Joy Levitt, executive director of the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan’s Upper West side. Ms. Levitt, who is a rabbi, advised Ms. Khan about some of the big problems she’d have launching a Muslim community center in New York: the lack of sufficient stroller parking for members with small children, and a place for the Muslim street cart vendors to store their wares while using the facility.
  • At Ms. Khan’s first public presentation about the center (a voluntary presentation at a Lower Manhattan community board meeting), she received support from the United Jewish Federation of New York, Trinity Church, and the September 11 Families for a Peaceful Tomorrow.
  • The mosque’s Imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf (Ms. Khan’s husband), moved to the United States as a teenager, and attended Columbia University. He is currently 62 years old. His sermons are reported to contain “sweet spirituality,” rather than “rules and regulations or politics.”
  • His congregation currently meets at a mosque twelve blocks from Ground Zero (the proposed center is two blocks from Ground Zero – in the former Burlington Coat Factory building). The current mosque was built twenty years ago. In twenty years (including the nine years since the terrorist attacks), no one has complained about the existing mosque’s presence.
  • After marrying in 1997, Ms. Khan and Imam Feisal started an organization advocating the melding of Islamic observance with women’s rights and modernity. After 9/11, their group spoke out against religious violence, Imam Feisal advised the FBI, and Ms. Khan joined the board of the 9/11 memorial and museum.
  • Sharif el-Gamal, the developer that funded the project, sustained an eye injury while handing out water to emergency workers on 9/11.

These folks sound like monsters, huh?

Here’s the thing: I can understand how the pain the victim’s families feel will never truly go away. I can also understand how the mere mention of anything connected to 9/11 or Ground Zero dredges up memories of that awful day, and how that will likely always be unpleasant for those who lost loved ones. These folks will have my empathy for as long as I live, as they will endure the dull ache of loss for as long as they live.

I can understand all of that. What I can’t understand is how so many people, many of them community leaders and elected officials, can state or imply that any Muslim who is in any way connected to a mosque that’s located in Lower Manhattan is in some way connected with, or even remotely similar to, the evil creatures that killed 3,000 innocent civilians by flying planes into office buildings.

The only thing that the average mosque-goer has in common with the 9/11 terrorists is that they both claim to worship the same God. I say “claim” because I’m sure many Muslims would argue that the things the terrorists did and said in the name of Allah were nothing more than a misappropriation of one of the world’s great religions to justify evil behavior. But ignoring that technicality, a shared religion is a pretty weak link between two groups of people, and certainly no reason to deny American citizens one of their basic civil rights. If this mosque does become a reminder of the terrorist attacks, or a symbol of victory for Al Qaeda, I dare say it will be predominantly because of the ignorant and incendiary remarks of these protesters than anything the mosque-goers or community center organizers will have said or done.

All of that said, I think those in charge of the center have missed, and are still missing, a golden opportunity here. I would love to see them on television every single day, talking to people about some of the things I mentioned above, stressing their planned inter-faith community programs, and publicly standing up in defense of American freedom of religion and against the actions of Al Qaeda and terrorists everywhere. If they were to actively pursue such a course of action, I think the media focus they have achieved thus far would go a long way toward removing some of the mystique surrounding Islam for many Americans, and highlight the clear difference between peace-loving Muslims and radical, extremist terrorists.

Mr. Gamal refuses to do this, mainly because he feels he shouldn’t have to. “This is not a debate,” he says. “I’m an American. I’m a New Yorker. I’m exercising my freedoms in this country.” It’s hard not to respect his stance. But eventually, I hope he changes his mind. Not because he has any obligation to do so, but because of the great benefit it will provide American Muslims and American non-Muslims alike to hear about his center’s role in the Lower Manhattan community.

Topics: New York, New York, Political Rantings | 13 Comments »

13 Responses to “About that Mosque…”

  1. Joe Woods says at August 12th, 2010 at 9:25 am :
    That’s the problem when boneheads commit murders and immediately turn the site into a historic place. There is really no way any group can build or formally gather around that site without upsetting some other group. Everyone grieves in their own way. Significant sites like Ground Zero, the Kansas City Bombing site, Dealey Plaza, and Auschwitz-Birkenau will forever be sacred ground to many people and, no matter how good your intentions are, someone will consider your plans for construction or organized activity presumptuous and intrusive (ex. the Auschwitz Convent). Arguing against someone that is reacting from a position based on grief is fruitless.
    Good luck with it though! It would be nice to wake up to a world where everyone has “thick skin” and is tolerant of everyone with good intentions.

  2. Lisa says at August 12th, 2010 at 10:34 am :
    I had this debate just this past weekend. I, too, believe that this entire protest simply smacks of racism.
    What I will acknowledge, however, is that cities where heavy concentrations of Muslims exist, Malmo, Sweden being a key example, eventually have begun to show the signs of extremism. Anti-Jewish violence, public acting out and other behavior of the sort, has become commonplace. And while I will admit to being terrified at the prospect of that happening in New York, I also balance that against my appreciation of our Consitution, which guarantees us our freedom of religion. It’s a fine line to walk, but ultimately we need to uphold the ideals upon which this country was founded.

  3. Suzanne says at August 12th, 2010 at 11:30 am :
    As Jon Stewart pointed out Tuesday night, people are protesting new mosques and Islamic centers all over the country. They could have picked a site 20 blocks away from the WTC, and it still would have generated opposition. The “hallowed ground” argument is just a smokescreen for this blatant racism.

    What I find most interesting is that the major public figures who’ve come out against this project, like Newt and Sarah, are not from New York, while it’s most vocal supporter is an elected representative of people who actually live in New York City. At some point, the people of New York ought to tell the rest of the country to mind its own business.

    Personally, I think a $100M cultural center would be a good thing for the neighborhood. The area north of the WTC has always been kind of run down. Maybe this would spark a revitalization of the whole area.

  4. Brian says at August 12th, 2010 at 3:00 pm :
    @Joe: Suzanne beat me to it. No one’s building anything on “hallowed ground” here, although I have heard discussion of some kind of cultural center as part of the 9/11 memorial on the WTC site. I can only imagine the flack that will generate, no matter how Islam is portrayed there.

    @Lisa: I had never heard of Malmo, Sweden, so I did some digging, just out of curiosity. Most sources (example) put the Muslim population of Malmo at roughly 25%, or about 75,000 people. By comparison, New York City is roughly 3.5% Muslim, which comes to almost 300,000 Muslims (so four times as many as in Malmo). Paris, France, which has also seen more than its share of extremism (including anti-semitism) recently, is 10-15% Muslim. Worldwide, Muslims amount to roughly 25% of the population, or about the same as Malmo.

    My point? Extremism is caused by many factors, but when a high-Muslim population exists, it is often cited as a causation rather than a correlation, typically with no distinction. Like you, I’d rather let the demographics be what they are and focus on the behaviors in a given city (country?)

    @Suzanne: if only this was just about New York managing its own affairs. It’s all about what’s popular vs. what’s right. Politicians like Newt & Sarah are following what they perceive to be the public opinion on this matter, rather than leading the people through education and myth-busting. I’m not one of those “Newt is an a**hole” guys, but this kind of thing is duly noted for the next time he (or Sarah, or any of them) run for something…

  5. Jeff Porten says at August 12th, 2010 at 8:43 pm :
    Oh, come on. Say it. Newt is an asshole. So is Sarah. Both of them are race-baiting, and the only reason they can is because of prior race-baiting, done in large part by their allies.

    Look, it’s very simple. If anyone said, “The Jews should not be able to build a synagogue in Manhattan, because it’s so close to all those banks,” that would not be rationally debated. The person proposing the debate would be ignored as a backwoods idiot. Likewise with, “The Catholics should not be able to build a church near an elementary school.” As with gay marriage, the simple fact that we debate whether they deserve equal rights under the law is proof that they don’t enjoy them.

    Regarding “it’s dangerous if you let those weird Muslim folks all congregate in one place,” and ignoring for a moment the First Amendment which states that we’re obligated not to interfere: estimates I’ve seen recently of fundamentalism among Muslims puts it in the 3-5% range, about on par with Orthodox Jewry, and far lower than equivalents in Christianity. So roughly 9,000 to 15,000 New Yorkers would presumably be in favor of ruling the city with Shari’a law.

    This doesn’t mean that they’re dangerous, any more that you can presume that an Orthodox Jew has concealed grenades in his phylacteries.

    Regarding Sweden: an anecdote from its neighbor. When I was in Lillehammer, Norway, I asked if they had a synagogue. “Of course we do!”, was the guide’s reply. “Where is it?” “Oslo.”

    Population of Sweden is 9.3 million, which puts the Muslim population at just over 5% according to Wikipedia. Of these, only a subset practice their faith — and most of them will be recent immigrants, thanks to Sweden’s rather open asylum policy. It’s not greatly surprising to see assimilation issues when the two populations are so dissimilar — Sweden is extremely tolerant, but it is not multicultural.

  6. Joe Woods says at August 14th, 2010 at 12:24 pm :
    @Brian: Which part of the comment beat you to your reply? Was it the accusation of racism or the sentiment that, since I don’t live in NYC, I should mind my own business?

  7. Brian says at August 14th, 2010 at 2:32 pm :
    @Joe #6: I meant the part about “building on sacred ground.”. Suzanne pointed out, correctly, that the mosque isn’t at ground zero, but rather two blocks away, in the old Burlington Coat Factory building…

  8. Joe Woods says at August 14th, 2010 at 2:55 pm :
    @Brian #7: Personally, I have no position on this planned facility. I am fascinated by it because apparently nobody performed any risk analysis or, if they did, they certainly failed to place a proper impact assessment on the #1 item on the list.

    Thank you for clarifying your position, though. To clarify mine, my only point was that discussion about such a facility in ANY considerable proximity to such a place has always stirred up ongoing controversy between the side that is arguing from a position of shock & grief and the side that sees a few blocks as making all the difference in the world. For starters, it is a Lose-Lose situation and the best we can hope for is a Win-Lose situation. By silencing one of the sides we have not changed anything, though.

  9. Brian says at August 15th, 2010 at 2:00 am :
    No disagreement there, Joe. The entire conversation is about how we wish people would act, not how we can reasonably expect them to act.

    Our President has now weighed in, trumpeting the rights of the people to build a mosque, but suggesting maybe it’s not a “wise” thing to do.

    Is that leadership? Weak sauce at best, I’m afraid…

  10. Joe Woods says at August 15th, 2010 at 10:43 am :
    “Is that leadership?”
    I think it is leadership but that it is misdirected.

    This is right up there with his comments on the Cambridge, MA police action a while ago. President Obama stepped into something and opined when he should have let the appropriate local executives conduct all the business. That was mistake #1.

    Mistake #2 was thinking that he was still a legislator in Illinois, could vote “PRESENT”, and get away smelling like a rose. This pantywaist performance is not what we want and need from the person we placed in the office of world’s most powerful executive. I wish that he would either grow a pair or let Hillary do all his talking for him.

  11. Lisa says at August 16th, 2010 at 5:56 pm :

    This article was written by a Muslim woman and offers an interesting alternate view of the controversy. Since the author is a practicing Muslim, it comes from a unique point of view. Good read.

  12. Brian says at August 16th, 2010 at 8:35 pm :
    @Lisa #11: Raza and Fatah are certainly entitled to their opinions, but I would point out that their article smacks of a shocking lack of research and/or a willful ignorance of the facts. First of all, they dramatically announce that:

    There are many questions that we would like to ask. Questions about where the funding is coming from? If this mosque is being funded by Saudi sources, then it is an even bigger slap in the face of Americans, as nine of the jihadis in the Twin Tower calamity were Saudis.

    The NY Times article I quoted tells us that the funding came from SoHo Properties, a real estate developer in lower Manhattan. Specifically, it came from the head of SoHo properties, Sharif El-Gamal, the Egyptian son of a former Chemical Bank executive, who was married by Imam Feisal a few years after the Imam’s own wedding in 1997. The article shows his picture and quotes him extensively.

    Of course, had the money come from Saudi sources, it would have made their point much stronger, but since it didn’t, they just implied that it did. Ironically, even if it had come from Saudi sources, it still wouldn’t have mattered all that much, as their story that “nine of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis” is an oft-quoted, highly misleading rumor. Only three of the hijackers were born in Saudi Arabia, and two of those men left Saudi Arabia as children and grew up in Afghanistan. The rest were born in Kuwait, Indonesia, Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. The reason this myth is repeated so often is that Osama bin Laden realized early on in the planning of 9/11 that Saudis had an easier time getting into the United States than Yemenites, Lebanese, etc., and so he got most of the hijackers fake Saudi passports and other documentation, in order to secure travel to the U.S. (source: 9/11 Commission Report, pp. 155-165). Nine of the hijackers represented themselves as Saudi citizens, but most were not, in fact, Saudis.

    But that’s not the most egregious error in the piece. This is:

    Let’s not forget that a mosque is an exclusive place of worship for Muslims and not an inviting community centre.

    Except that it IS a community center. It’s fifteen floors. And the people who are building it reached out to Jewish and Christian organizations in the neighborhood for support and advice at the start of the project.

    Apparently, Raza and Fatah don’t read The New York Times. I think it’s because they’re Canadian. You know how those Canadians can be… ;-)

  13. Zack says at August 16th, 2010 at 10:59 pm :
    I am extremely offended by the implication that the former site of such a wonderful discount department store is not sacred ground. I know that I always kiss the ground when I step into a Burlington Coat Factory. And one in Manhattan, to boot. Since New York City is the Center of the Universe, isn’t all Manhattan’s ground sacred?

    And what could possibly be a more egregious misuse of sacred ground than putting a religious building on it.


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