Some people I respect a great deal -- and one whom I love because she is a member of my family -- disagree with me when I argue that the Ground Zero area is exactly the right place for this kind of Islamic presence.
I don't need you to agree with me but perhaps you'd do me the kindness of reading dispassionately some reasons that lead me to this conclusion.
* Let's state the obvious first. There can be no justifiable government opposition to a private group using a private building for the purposes stated for this structure, assuming it meets all local codes. What purposes? The Web site for Park51 (formerly called Cordoba House, as this map indicates) to which I've linked you describes them this way: It will "be dedicated to pluralism, service, arts and culture, education and empowerment, appreciation for our city and a deep respect for our planet." So the question is not whether this structure is legal but, rather, whether locating it there is a good idea.
* Who murdered the nearly 3,000 people -- including my own nephew -- who died on 9/11? Lots of descriptions have been attached to the hijackers, but let's call them what they were: violent extremists who claimed to be Muslims even though they violated Islamic principles in countless ways. At the same time, they revealed to the world what the world already should have known, which is that Islam is in a battle for its own heart and soul. There is no long-term question that the violent idealogues will lose and, in fact, already are losing this battle. But their actions put Islam on the defensive and placed on the majority in Islam the burden of working to convince non-Muslims that the religion does not approve of -- and certainly does not require -- this kind of radicalism. This new center can help with that educational task.
* One of the best places in the world to demonstrate the peaceful nature of Islam and its ability to exist comfortably in a politically democratic framework is the United States. Indeed, the U.S. already has become a crucible in which a modern version of Islam is being formed, one that stands in a tradition of welcoming change and modernity, not viewing either as a threat. This is not to say that Islam will be silent about social problems or about what it sees as degrading aspects of our culture. There is, indeed, much about which to complain. And Islam should offer a critique of the world in which it lives, just as all people of all faiths should. Having a prophetic voice, after all, is part of what it means to be a person of faith. But there is a big difference between coming to a sometimes-critical accommodation with modernity and wishing the world had never changed since the Seventh Century.
* Are there Muslims who want to turn the clock back 1,400 years, who wish to deny 14 centuries years of changes, who want to oppress women and make people of other faiths second-class citizens? Absolutely. And some of those Muslims live in the U.S. I hope they see the light soon. But in this country with its long tradition of cherished religious freedom and its ability to adapt to modernity and, now, post-modernity, most Muslims are finding ways to be true to traditional Islam and its several branches (Sunni, Shia, Sufi) while rejecting the hateful nonsense that continues to come from the Osama bin Ladens. This new Park51 center can encourage this kind of Islam and repudiate bin Ladenism along with the paranoia and fear it engenders in many non-Muslim Americans.
* One reason we can be confident that the new center is not being created to breed terrorism is that the imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf (pictured here), is a Sufi. Sufism is the mystic tradition in Islam. Think of the 13th Century Persian poet known as Rumi -- until a few years ago and maybe even still today the most popular poet in the U.S. From Rumi to terrorism? You just can't get there. Imagining Feisal Abdul Rauf as a promoter of terrorism is like trying to imagine an Old Order Amish computer technician or a Quaker abortion clinic bomber. But confusion about this doesn't surprise me given how widespread ignorance about Islam and its various branches is in the U.S. Indeed, conclusions of a new study released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public LIfe show that a growing number of Americans actually believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim. I find that astonishing. Is there no end to willful ignorance? This new Park 51 center can help educate all of us about Islam, its history, its divisions, its problems, its future. It can demystify the religion for people holding an irrational fear of it.
* Still, one of the complaints about Rauf is that, after 9/11, he was quoted as saying that in some way the U.S., while not responsible for the attacks (an outrageous claim made by some American conspiracy theorists who decided -- against all evidence -- that 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration), was in some way an accessory to the crime because of some of its policies and actions. It's necessary to be extremely careful about how one thinks and talks about this. The last thing you want to do is blame the victim -- and clearly on 9/11 the United States was the victim. That said, American foreign policy decisions in almost every administration starting with George Washington's have created some enemies or at least people who thought those policies were wrong (including some Americans). My reading of Rauf's comments then is that he was simply acknowledging the reality that some American policies and actions stirred up some anger in the world. If that's what he meant -- and I think it is -- he was right. That in no way justified the terrorists' actions, of course, nor did Rauf claim it did. But given Rauf's long record of thoughtful writing and speaking about public matters, it's a bit unfair to focus on one phrase uttered in the white-hot aftermath of 9/11 -- a phrase that was, in any case, well within the bounds of reasonable debate at the time.
* One of the major complaints I hear about Park51 is that it will dishonor the victims who died at Ground Zero, and whose deaths made it sacred ground. I agree that Ground Zero is now in some almost mystical sense sacred ground. Atoms of my own nephew no doubt still are on the site, so I think of it as a burial ground. Leave aside for a minute the reality that Park51 will be two long blocks away from Ground Zero, that there already are two mosques in the area and that there are Christian churches already closer to Ground Zero than Park51 will be. Think instead about what would honor or dishonor those who died on 9/11 -- and remember that the victims came from many countries and included a number of Muslims. What would dishonor them, I think, would be to turn our back on our cherished values of religious liberty (to say nothing of hospitality) that have been a foundation of our nation from the start. Building Park51 near Ground Zero would be a way of honoring my nephew, Karleton Fyfe, and the others who perished there. It would say that America will not give in to those who want us to fear and hate religions other than our own. Instead, locating Park51 there will say that we will keep open the channels of integration into our society that, over time, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Hindus, Buddhists and others have traveled to live within the framework of a Constitution that protects all of us and that protects our right to join any religion or to decide against joining one.
* Placing Park51 near Ground Zero will create both the opportunity and the obligation for not just those who might pray in that space but for all Muslims in the U.S. to demonstrate that they can overcome prejudice and hatred and uphold shared American values that respect the dignity of all people. The public pressure on the people who operate Park51 will be enormous, perhaps not unlike the pressure that Jackie Robinson experienced when he broke baseball's color line. But if Americans worried about Islam want a demonstration project that the religion is compatible with American society (you'd think that with 1,000 or so mosques already in America this wouldn't be an issue any more), this new center can provide that. Rauf, after all, is the kind of Muslim leader that many Americans dream about, one who is a polar opposite of bin Laden.
As I said in the beginning here, I know reasonable and good people who disagree with me about all of this. Such disagreement need not move us to demonize one another or to use the ridiculous explosions of name-calling we've heard from so many famous people who have felt compelled to weigh in on this matter, providing heat but no light.
The truth is that this is a test for America. The question is whether in the long run we can find a way to live in religious harmony at a time when the religious landscape is changing and becoming much more varied. I am confident that we can and in the process become a model for other nations that have, instead, experienced sectarian violence. But for us to do this right, we must stop the irrational fear and hatred of Islam that is being stoked by so many irresponsible people and that is not being relieved by well-thought-out opposition to locating Park51 near Ground Zero.
If, in the end, the U.S. is not a safe and secure place for Muslims, it will not be -- and cannot be -- safe and secure for any of us. That is what's at stake with the decision on Park51.
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THE WORLD DEBATES THE GROUND ZERO ISSUE
The debate about this Islamic center is taking place not just in the U.S. but also around the world, as this Christian Science Monitor report indicates. The interesting thing to me about this story is that there is even disagreement about this within Islam. But notice that even the Monitor succumbs to the misleading term "Ground Zero mosque." Oh, and if you want to experience a walk from Ground Zero to the site of the proposed Islamic center, someone from JTA, the Jewish news agency, did just that the other day with a camera. Click here.