“Ground Zero Mosque”: How Far is Far Enough?

May 14, 2011 at 6:17 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

By Alexa Wong, JACL intern

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s plans to build Park51, a combined mosque and community center, became the focus of much debate this past summer as many objected to its location two blocks from “Ground Zero.” Sponsored by the nonprofit organization Cordoba Initiative and modeled after Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, Park51 would encourage “interfaith dialogue” and include a 9/11 memorial and contemplation area. On August 3, New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the proposed site of Park51 as fit for construction. Still, controversy has endured – particularly visible in anti‐mosque protests and politicians aiming for support. Those who support Park51 stress the importance of adherence to constitutional ideals, while critics of the center argue that its location is the largest problem. It is evident that the American public possesses significantly differing interpretations of 9/11, Islam, freedom of religion, Muslim Americans and, ultimately, what it means to live in the United States of America.

A common claim made by critics is that the memory of 9/11 still remains an open wound for the U.S., that Ground Zero is a “sacred” site, and that the Cordoba Initiative’s choice of location is insensitive. Among those against Park51 are Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and the Anti‐Defamation League. In a poll conducted by CNN, 68 percent of adult Americans oppose Park51. Voters who were white, over 50 years old, and from rural areas were most likely to vote against the center’s construction. But at the same time, votes transcended other demographics: men and women alike of varying social strata and education levels across the nation oppose the center more than they favor it. For many Americans, Park51’s construction is too soon for families of 9/11 victims and brings unnecessary hurt. Thus, Cordoba Initiative’s plans become an issue of whether sensitivity takes precedence over legal rights. With construction at the site approved and Obama’s declaration of Imam Rauf’s rights to build, critics resort to questioning the legitimacy of Cordoba Initiative and Rauf’s motives.

Another argument made by those opposed to Park51 is that Islamic extremism is something to be feared even in American communities. Al‐Qaeda terrorist Anwar al‐Awlaki, formerly a prayer leader at the Dar al‐Hijrah Islamic Center and mosque in Virginia, reportedly inspired at least two of the 9/11 hijackers. The King Fahd Mosque in Los Angeles has been associated with 9/11 terrorists, and Masjid Taiba in Hamburg was recently banned by German
authorities for its links to 9/11 (National Review). At a Muslim‐ American convention in Chicago this past December, several speakers expressed “frankly anti‐Semitic” views. Organizers of the event report that they did not plan for such declarations of hate and will not ask the speakers to return; yet, says columnist Cathy Young, Islam – as is the case with other religions – harbors a number of radical followers who cannot be ignored (Real Clear Politics). Add this to the fact that the nation remembers that nearly 3,000 people of all cultural backgrounds perished on 9/11 because of Islamic extremists, and it is not difficult to understand why people might feel uncomfortable with a mosque and community
center two blocks from Ground Zero. While they might concede the right of Muslims to practice Islam, and while they might not intend to be intolerant, some cannot help but see Park51 as a symbol of Muslim supremacy and as an offensive political statement.

But New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, numerous Jewish groups, 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, and others all have several reasons for backing Park51. Imam Rauf has pitched the idea of an Islamic center for more than a decade because Masjid al‐Farah, a mosque at which Rauf was an imam for nearly 30 years, regularly experiences an overflow of people who sought a place for prayer. Similarly, Masjid Manhattan, located four blocks from Ground Zero, often turns congregants away due to a lack of space. What’s more, the Pentagon, also struck by 9/11 attacks, opened an interfaith chapel in 2002 where Muslims gather Monday through Friday, “drawing no complaints” (Newsvine). Why should we treat Park51 any differently? In fact, Imam Rauf hopes that Park51’s location – where a piece of wreckage fell through the roof on 9/11 and where Muslims have already prayed throughout the past year – will serve as a “potent symbol to counter religious extremism” (New York Times). Rauf practices moderate Islam and his Masjid al‐Farah is considered one of the most progressive mosques in the city. This, says journalist Fareed Zakaria, is what we need: “Victory in the war on terror will be won when a moderate, mainstream version of Islam…fully triumphs over the world view of Osama bin Laden” (Newsweek). To reject the construction of Park51 is to sustain anti‐Muslim sentiment around the country and send the message to Islamic extremists that the U.S. neither defends nor practices the freedoms it preaches and believes in – the very  rights terrorists sought to attack in 9/11.

What concerns me to a greater degree is the number of people who forget the Constitution’s emphasis on granting freedoms and rights for all. A Siena College poll reports that among those who oppose the mosque, only half  agree that Cordoba Initiative possesses  the constitutional right to build it (Yahoo! News). Amidst these poll results, protests over Park51, and the case of the taxi driver in New York City who was stabbed recently for being Muslim, I observe a rather disturbing trend. Muslim‐Americans are increasingly viewed as “unwelcome strangers” in their own country. How many more times will people in America alienate ethnicities that are not among the majority? The makeup of our country will never be static – and I believe that a deep discomfort with that fact is what drives a fair number of people to oppose the constitutionality of Park51 and commit hate crimes. The media is at least partly responsible for this fueling of anti‐Muslim sentiment. Besides coining the misleading term “Ground Zero Mosque” – and besides overreporting the controversy for weeks to the point of international coverage – mass media has separated “Ground Zero” from New York City and crafted it into a symbol of terror on American soil. We must realize that it is wrong  and deplorable that when many people think of Park51, an image of 9/11 terrorists comes to mind. Peace between nations and the end of prejudice do not begin with prejudice, and they do not begin with negative coverage of groups by the media. It is up to us to not be swayed by media biases and instead take charge of how we act and perceive others in our own communities.

In April 1944, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia  strongly protested the establishment of New York City’s first hostel for Japanese‐American evacuees approved by the War Relocation Authority (WRA). Located a mile from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the New York Japanese American Hostel was feared to “turn [Japanese‐Americans] loose” on the city (New York Times). Secretary of the Interior Harold  Ickes, the ACLU, and numerous Christian groups advocated for detained Nisei and their families, and the hostel  opened the following month. Work in hotels and other organizations began to open up for Japanese Americans and by the end of the war, the WRA helped roughly 2,000 citizens who were removed from their West Coast homes relocate to New York City. In the face of war, it is too easy to let discrimination take over and place the blame on others who are in no way responsible. The protests over the hostel and Park51 are such instances. Regretfully, regardless of whether Cordoba Initiative proceeds with construction and regardless  of how near or far it is from “Ground Zero,” prejudice against Muslim‐Americans has no definite ending. But
if our nation believes we can do better, we must begin by no longer reinterpreting our emotions over 9/11 and, instead, start defining what we want to see in the future for our country.


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