By now, there are few Americans who haven’t been exposed to the furor surrounding the construction of an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan. Labeled the “Ground Zero Mosque” by its opponents, the project officially known as Park51 has become a centerpiece for those wishing to use anti-Islamic sentiment for their own advantage. From former Speaker Gingrich’s analogy comparing the Islamic Center to a Nazi sign at the Holocaust Museum, to half-term Sarah’s tagging it as the “9/11 mosque,” the crazies are flying into the issue like moths into a bug zapper.
Of course, as is almost always the case, the loons have no real substance in their arguments. Like Palin’s “death panels,” the specter they raise lives entirely in the minds of the self-serving fearmongers. This is SOP for the GOP, but in the case of Park51, they’ve actually taken their hyperbolic distortion to new levels.
There’s sadly so much wrong with the attacks being levied by conservative opportunists that it’s difficult to identify their most egregious warping of the truth. But anyone interested in honesty need look no further than the contrived project title — now a part of the American vernacular — to witness the unscrupulous use of misinformation. The clever creation of an epithet is actually somewhat remarkable, in a sick sort of way, but its power is destructive and its message a lie.
The Park51 project will build an Islamic community center, not a mosque. The facility will include a mosque, but plans are for a 13-story building that includes a swimming pool, basketball court, auditorium and culinary school in addition to the mosque. The center would also have a library, art studios, meditation rooms, and of significance — a memorial dedicated to victims of the 9/11 attacks. But correctly referring to Park51 as a “community center” just wouldn’t have the same impact as “mosque;” it simply fails to conjure up other-worldly images of central domes and minarets; it’s far too benign and without the power to evoke fear.
And “Ground Zero” — now there’s a term of unmistakable emotional force in contemporary America. Nearly lost is the old association with Hiroshima or with nuclear blasts in general. Today, the mere mention of Ground Zero elicits a swell of emotion that accompanies the recollection of the horror of September 11, 2001. The character of anyone who would abuse the memory of that day for selfish gain is without doubt questionable, yet conservatives have done so ever since the dust settled. And this latest rendition of hate-based leveraging is even more despicable than the rest.
Not only are the plans to build Park51 not at Ground Zero — in fact being at least two blocks away on Park Place — but the location is not even along a path to get to Ground Zero. The specious linking of Park51 to the hallowed ground where the former World Trade Towers stood, where nearly 3,000 people lost their lives, is purely an attempt to create controversy and gain political position. But as morally wrong as this distortion is on the surface, it’s even more reprehensible on the inside.
The Park51 story doesn’t end with the illegitimacy of the project’s label; that’s just the beginning. The heart of the controversy is rooted in the attempt by hate-wing activists to conflate Islam and the 9/11 terrorists. While this is obviously prejudicial stigmatization at its very worst, when wrapped in fearmongering alarm, it quickly gains traction within the large population of xenophobic Americans.
Never mind that there are more than a billion Muslims in the world today. Never mind that the vast majority of those Muslims are peaceful. Never mind that all religions have extremists and those who corrupt or ignore the teachings of their faith. Never mind that even George Bush made it clear that terrorism is “not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.” Never mind that there’s already a mosque only 5 blocks from Ground Zero, or that the site for Park51 is already being used as a prayer center. And for Newt and Sarah’s sake, please never mind the fact that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind Park51, is exactly the type of moderate Islamic cleric that right-wing commentators call upon to speak out against terrorism.
Imam Rauf has routinely spoken out against the death cult of al-Qaeda and its adherents. He is a Sufi, a practitioner of an older strain of Islam, one whose ethos is egalitarian, charitable and friendly. The Rand Corporation, in a 2007 report, advised Western governments to “harness” Sufism. They contended that its adherents were “natural allies of the West.” And this is exactly the message carried by Rauf, who “has written extensively on Islam and its place in modern society and often argues that American democracy is the embodiment of Islam’s ideal society.”
Rauf is exactly the type of Islamic leader that Americans should embrace and work with to forge better understanding and interfaith cooperation. The stated aim of his organization, the Cordoba Initiative, is “to achieve a tipping point in Muslim-West relations within the next decade, steering the world back to the course of mutual recognition and respect and away from heightened tensions.” For what more can Americans ask?
The proposed name for the building: Cordoba House, is even given in the spirit of harmony. Named for the city in Spanish Andalucía where Muslims, Jews and Christians once co-existed for centuries. It embraces that extraordinary time when these diverse faiths came together and culture and science flourished.
Indeed, the only people involved in this debate who Americans should fear are the usual fact-free suspects on the conservative right. Just as they did during the healthcare debate, under cover of the American flag, they launch all manner of incendiary rhetoric, with complete and total disregard for the truth. Sadly, they do somehow get enough people to buy into their hyperbole that they move public opinion. Recent polls do show 63% of New Yorkers are opposed to a “mosque” near Ground Zero. But with all the negative press, this can be expected. Fortunately, those who live nearest Ground Zero, where the effort is supported by people of all faiths, have not been so easily swayed.
When I originally heard about this issue, my first reaction was, “Oh my god, why would they want to build a mosque at Ground Zero.” But then, of course, I found out that it’s not actually at Ground Zero, and the plans aren’t really for what you would think of as a mosque, and the people leading the effort are moderate, peaceful Muslims, and this may actually be exactly what’s needed to bring people together . . . well, once you get the facts straight, it becomes obvious that it’s rather un-American to stand in opposition. It’s really a case of “Will America uphold the principles on which she was founded, or will she allow fear and hate to rule the day.”
My support for the Cordoba House Islamic Center is unequivocal. I have but one regret in the matter — that I don’t live close enough to engage with these fine people and help them to realize their vision.