“The World Trade Center Site will forever hold a special place in our City, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves—and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans—if we said ‘no’ to a mosque in Lower Manhattan. . . . 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. . . . there is no neighborhood in this City that is off limits to God’s love and mercy.Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Aug. 3, 2010

“We desire therefore in this case not to judge least we be judged, neither to condemn least we be condemned, but rather let every man stand and fall to his own Master. Wee are bounde by the Law to doe good unto all men, especially to those of the household of faith.Remonstrance of the Inhabitants of the Towne of Flushing to Governor Peter Stuyvesant, December 27, 1657 (alluded to by Mayor Bloomberg)

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. —First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, 1791


Ordinarily this blog would have no reason to comment on the building of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan—the subject doesn’t naturally pertain to our core mission of infrastructure, environment, and peace (especially for New Orleans and environs). But these are not ordinary times, and this is no longer an ordinary religious-freedom issue.

The uproar over Park51, commonly known as the “Ground Zero Mosque,” has reached national security–threatening levels of madness. What we find most troubling about the furor is that the hate speech against Islam generally—blaming all Muslims, including the 5 to 7 million Muslim Americans, for the crimes of al Qaeda on 9/11—is making it easier to justify war on the Islamic world, to continue fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq and beyond. (Recall the WWII internments of Japanese-Americans and the atomic bombings made politically and morally more palatable by persistent demonization of “the Jap” as subhuman.) Most insane and threatening of all is that the broad-brush insults of Muslims validate Osama bin Laden’s claims that America hates Islam and that therefore all Muslims should fight against “the Crusaders.” Do Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin really want to do bin Laden’s recruiting work for him?

[The manufacture of the controversy cannot be understood without seeing Atlas Shrugs, the blog of author and activist Pamela Geller, executive director of a group called Stop Islamization of America (“a human rights organization dedicated to freedom of speech, religious liberty”) and coauthor of The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America (foreword by John Bolton). Salon’s Justin Elliott explains how Geller pushed Park51 from being unremarkable when announced to being suddenly seen as a dire threat to America.]

The site in question is occupied by a former Burlington Coat factory that was damaged on 9/11. The building dates back to the 1850s. The owners of the property, Feisal Abdul Rauf, a graduate of Columbia University, and his wife Daisy Khan, plan to build a Sufi Islamic cultural center—not a mosque—modeled on the (Jewish) 92nd Street Y, a prominent cultural and fitness center in New York City. (Sufis are well known as the most peaceful and “cosmic” of the varieties of Islam—they are like the opposite of extremist or violent. Think of the Persian poet Rumi.) The Park51 board includes Christians and Jews along with Muslims. The plans call for classrooms, a 500-seat auditorium, a restaurant, a memorial to the victims of September 11 (some of whom were Muslim, as were some of the first responders), a prayer room but not a mosque, and so on. Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam of a mosque in TriBeCa for nearly 30 years, vice-chair of the Interfaith Center of New York and the author of “What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America,” has conducted “sensitivity training” for the FBI. He is famous as a peaceful moderate. His wife, Daisy Khan, runs the American Society for Muslim Advancement, which she co-founded with Rauf. (When she appeared on Fox News in December 2009 to talk about the center, Laura Ingraham said, “I like what you’re doing.”) Rauf and Khan are precisely the kind of Muslims America should welcome and encourage. Harassing them and demonizing their project, telling them and others of their faith that they don’t belong here sends a very bad signal to the Muslim world and reinforces their suspicion that America is at war with Islam.

Where Is George W. Bush When You Need Him?

This is precisely why President Bush was careful to clarify publicly, repeatedly, that the U.S. is fighting al Qaeda, not Islam. “Islam is peace,” he said. Where is he now? Maureen Dowd writes (almost pleadingly), “W. needs to get his bullhorn back out.” At the time Bush said these things, we were not confident his heart was really in it, but he was right to reinforce the message, and it would do a lot of good for America as a United States if he would resurface to try to cool the hostility. (See Joshua Holland’s disturbing report at AlterNet about an epidemic of anti-Islamic hate spreading across the U.S., nearly 10 years after September 11.)

Muslims are as much a part of our City and our country as the people of any faith and they are as welcome to worship in Lower Manhattan as any other group. —Mayor Michael Bloomberg

What the right-wing demagogues don’t seem to understand—or do they just not care?—is that in exchange for a few votes they’re making things worse for the nation and for the troops they claim to support. For recruiting and hate-stimulation purposes, Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda need the United States to be seen demonizing Muslims, being at war with Islam. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes, “Osama abhors the vision of interfaith harmony that the proposed Islamic center represents. He fears Muslim clerics who can cite the Koran to denounce terrorism.” Similarly, President Obama’s speech at Cairo University in June 2009 was exactly what the al Qaeda recruiters do not want; they recruit more members (often resentful unemployed youth) when Newt Gingrich compares the builders of the Islamic cultural center to Nazis. As Robert Scheer writes in “Ground Zero for Tolerance”:

Just ask Gen. David Petraeus, who is leading the war without end to win the hearts and minds of Muslims in Afghanistan, how helpful it is to the Taliban for American politicians to identify all Muslims with terrorism. Or to the theocratic leaders of Iran who justify their hard line with the insistence that the U.S. is obsessively anti-Muslim.

(About Gen. Petraeus, Frank Rich writes that no one is listening to his sales pitch as he goes from one media outlet to the next, trying to sell a longer stay in Afghanistan. “Poor General Petraeus. . . . No one was listening and no one cared. Everyone was too busy yelling about the mosque.”)

Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent whose duties included interrogating suspected terrorists, writes in Time magazine, “From a national security perspective, our leaders need to understand that no one is likely to be happier with the opposition to building a mosque than Osama bin Laden. His next video script has just written itself.”

A Question of “Sensitivity”

Now, it should be said that Park51’s proximity to Ground Zero is certainly not ideal; even many supporters of the owners’ right to develop the center would be happier if it were a little farther way from the sore spot. But how far? There are already several functioning mosques in the neighborhood. There are also functioning strip clubs (the Pussycat Lounge, New York Dolls Gentlemen’s Club). Park Place is two blocks north of the former World Trade Center site; in Manhattan, two blocks can feel like a long distance, with every inch of real estate filled with shops, bodegas, bars, newsstands, liquor stores, parking garages, etc. Furthermore, the Landmark Preservation Commission voted unanimously to give the center the green light, and Community Board No. 1, the local council that represents the area, voted 29 to 1 to allow the building. The locals don’t seem to mind. As the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg points out, the objections to the Islamic center seem to intensify more the farther you get from the neighborhood. (His “Zero Grounds” is one of the most fair-minded pieces we’ve read about the issue.) Those who assert that Imam Rauf and Daisy Khan should “show sensitivity” to the families of 9/11 victims have a reasonable point, but should remember that Muslims, too, died at Ground Zero.

So, how far away would be far enough to satisfy the opponents? And for how many more years must “they” keep their distance from the hallowed ground? It’s been nearly ten years.

We understand many people have become upset about this matter, upset and even outraged, but has it occurred to thoughtful opponents that the whole “mega-mosque” controversy is a manufactured distraction in an election year? The United States is sinking in intractable economic turmoil. One political party is trying fitfully, sometimes lamely, to pass legislation that will alleviate the suffering, while the other party is actively opposing any and all efforts to repair the damage, much of which that opposition party caused while it was in power. The nation’s crises are many, and they are profound. Is a struggle against a cultural center for Muslims really what Americans need to be pouring our passions into right now? It should be clear that the right wing of the GOP (is there any other part?) encourages this hollering, expecting votes without having to offer any serious, constructive program for generating economic recovery, jobs, or helping people afford to stay in their homes or pay for their health care? They are trying to get people to the polls through fear and hatred.

How many of the Republicans who profess undying loyalty to the sacred memory of 9/11 and its heroes voted for funding for medical treatment for Ground Zero rescue workers and residents of New York City who suffered lung ailments and other illnesses from the toxic dust and debris? Twelve. Twelve out of 178 Republicans in the House of Representatives. The New York Times reported on July 29 that “243 Democrats and 12 Republicans supported the measure; 155 Republicans and 4 Democrats opposed it.”

Of course, these right-wing attacks on the mosque are also an attack on President Obama (derided by the despicable out-on-a-Limbaugh as “Imam Obama”). MediaMatters.org shows that the right-wing media are relentlessly pushing the false accusation that Barack Obama is a Muslim: more people believe this now than before he was elected president.

(To their credit, some responsible conservatives such as Congressman Ron Paul, former solicitor general Ted Olson—whose wife was onboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11—and New Jersey governor Chris Christie have urged their fellow Republicans to tone down the anti-Muslim rhetoric.)

In our own little house of worship we’re praying that the angry citizens among us will soon come to their senses. Fellow Americans, you’re being used. Years from now this episode is not going to be one of America’s proudest moments. Those who stand up for tolerance and cohabitation, especially when it’s unpopular, are the heroes, the defenders of liberty. Those who exploit public fears should be ashamed, and many later will be. The dead in military cemeteries may have crosses, crescents, or stars of David over their names, but they all served their country with equal devotion and courage. Let’s not endanger further the soldiers and sailors who are still serving.

(The photo above shows the mother of Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, who was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart in Operation Iraqi Freedom, mourning at his grave in Arlington National Cemetery. Gen. Colin Powell hinted that he wept when he saw this photograph in the New Yorker. The sight of this photograph, amid the anti-Islamic vitriol that was erupting at McCain-Palin rallies in September 2008, was one of the factors that influenced the former Secretary of State to come out and publicly endorse Barack Obama on Meet the Press. Secretary Powell said to Tom Brokaw:

I’m also troubled by . . . what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards—Purple Heart, Bronze Star—showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life. Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way.

When Senator John F. Kennedy was running for president in 1960, he was dogged by questions about his Roman Catholic faith. Would he take orders from the Vatican?  Would he serve Rome first, then America? He tried repeatedly to answer questions and put the matter to rest, but still concerns remained, intensified by direct mail campaigns sympathetic to Republican candidate Richard Nixon. One of the greatest speeches of JFK’s political career was his address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on Sept. 12, 1960, where he addressed head-on what he called “the so-called religious issue.”

“. . . For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s Statute of Religious Freedom. Today I may be the victim—but tomorrow it may be you—until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.”


A rare—indeed, unprecedented—personal note, in the first person singular

I have known a good number of friends who are Muslim or whose parents moved to the U.S. from Arabic-speaking lands—friends from Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and Morocco (the barber Aziz from Casablanca), including some girlfriends in and around college. I used to live in Baton Rouge, where Louisiana State University normally has about a 10% population of international students. A fair number of these are petroleum engineering students from Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East. When I worked at a restaurant in the 1980s the waiters included Shahram who went by “Shawn,” and gave me tapes of beautiful Persian music, and “Tony” who, when asked, told the customers he was from Italy . . . After work we would go to, appropriately, the International House of Pancakes near campus and meet up with some of their friends, and drink from the bottomless urns of IHOP coffee and smoke and talk about everything. They said there was no family in Tehran that had not lost someone to the Shah’s dreaded SAVAK secret police.

The concerns expressed above about freedom of worship and safety and security are concerns not only in the abstract but for individuals I’ve known—kind, intelligent, humorous, often devout but not always noticeably religious. They love America as much as anyone else, and sometimes appreciate its freedoms more than the native-born Americans realize because they’ve seen the difference. “They” is not the right word, for “they” are “we.”