Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ground Zero Mosque: A 13-Story Symbol of Tolerance

Just about everyone who’s anyone in the American political scene has spoken out on the proposed Islamic cultural center called the Córdoba House (or “Park51”), to be constructed about two blocks from the former World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan. Former Wasilla, AK Mayor Sarah Palin, former Speaker of the House Newt Gringrich, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh are just some of the big names offering their two-cents on the issue.

As some have smartly pointed out, however, this is an issue that reveals much about America’s moral, political, and religious response to 9/11, nearly a decade later.

I was in sixth grade when America was attacked nearly nine years ago; it took me quite a while to wrap my head around what had happened and how the world had changed. But one thing I distinctly remember hearing for days, weeks, and months after the tragedy was that America is rarely as united and patriotic as it was in the immediate aftermath. Every citizen of this country seemed to stand united -- united at first in utter disbelief, then united in their sadness and anger, and finally united in a resolute commitment to mourn, rebuild, and move on as strong as ever.

At the time, it was only natural to sing the praises of the country we had grown to love even more in its time of need. Talk of America’s greatness flowed from the mouths of politicians, celebrities, and citizens alike. When President George W. Bush addressed the nation on the night of September 11, he said that “a great people has been moved to defend a great nation.” Now, more than 3,500 days later, this “great nation” has in front of it an issue which will allow it to prove that these praises were warranted.

The name of the proposed Islamic community center and mosque, Córdoba House, is an allusion to the atmosphere in Córdoba, Spain during the tenth century when the city was the center of the Islamic caliphate, where the world’s greatest Christian, Muslim, and Jewish minds collaborated and coexisted in a peaceful Eden. That is the vision for this community center as well. It has been misreported in the media that the center will be exclusively for Muslim use – this is false, all will be welcome to enjoy its benefits. The vision behind this proposed center belongs to Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf, a spiritual leader of great repute in New York who is often praised for his outreach to those of different faiths and cooperation with non-Muslims. Those who brand the proposed Córdoba House as a symbol of Muslim intervention or invasion onto American soil apparently did not bother to do their research on the aims and goals of the center or its visionary.

Sarah Palin’s now-infamous tweet, “Peace-seeking Muslims, pls [sic] understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts,” brings up a new issue: that the proposed mosque is simply in a bad location – it is simply too near to the symbol of an attack on America, the scale of which this country had never seen before. My opinion, however, is exactly the opposite: that this debate is a perfect opportunity for Americans to embrace a spirit of dialogue and understanding and promote an image of this great nation as the cooperative and tolerant place its founders had in mind centuries ago. What better way to show that we are resilient and value all creeds than to erect a Muslim cultural center in lower Manhattan – proving to all that Americans understand that it was not a religion that attacked the United States that September day, but rather nineteen extremely violent men who did not subscribe to the brand of Islam that this mosque will celebrate.

The National Republic Trust Political Action Committee, a well-organized and well-funded lobbyist group, recently attempted to air a commercial (warning: graphic images) speaking out against the proposal for the center on CBS and NBC networks. Interspersed with extremely graphic images of the September 11 attacks are calls to prayer from minarets around the world. The ad attempts to link the faith of Islam with vicious terrorism through its symbolic imagery. Both TV networks refused to air it, citing its ambiguous usage of the term “they,” which viewers could take to mean Islamic extremists or all Muslims collectively. Attempts to slander the Muslim faith like this are a grievous attack on traditional American values, most importantly the First Amendment rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech. This is not what a united America stands for: uninformed, politically-motivated assaults on faith.

Others, including former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich have stated that “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.” Mr. Gingrich's rhetoric here is quite dangerous. He is implying that the staunchly secular nation of the United States should be held to the same standards of religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue as the fervently Islamic state of Saudi Arabia. The former Speaker is promoting that either Saudi Arabia – an independent, foreign nation (and a critically-important US ally) – become more secular and forsake its inherent right to religious uniformity, or that the United States should overturn the Supreme Court’s long-held precedent of separation of church and state and convert this nation into a Judeo-Christian theocracy.

Both of these ideas are highly offensive to those who have spent their lives defending the rights of all to practice their faiths freely in Cleveland, Seattle, Riyadh, and Tel Aviv. While it is understandable that there is a healthy debate about the subject of a “Ground Zero Mosque,” as the media has branded Córdoba House, I believe that if we let our minds direct the discussion, the rational conclusion is that the construction of the Córdoba House in New York City is the perfect symbol of American tolerance, resilience, and freedom.

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