By Dr. Anis Ansari,
There is a building two blocks from ground zero which has become a matter of controversy in the news media in recent days. This five story building formerly housed a department store which closed after the damage on September 11th 2001. The Muslim –run real estate company Soho Properties purchased the property in July 2009 for $4.85 million dollars and is planning to develop into a 13- story building costing $ 100 million to be named, “Cordoba House.” It will contain tremendous amount of resources that otherwise would not exist in lower Manhattan; a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, art exhibition space, bookstore, restaurant. All these services would form a cultural nexus for a region of New York City that, as it continues to grow, requires the sort of hub that Cordoba House will provide. Due to presence of the mosque on the last floor of this building, it has become a target of attack by Islamophobic individuals which has generated enormous amount of News media coverage.
This project is a brain child of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and Cordoba Initiative. Cordoba Initiative alone is an Islamic organization that aims to achieve a tipping point in Muslim-West relations within the next decade, steering the world back to the course of mutual recognition, respect and away from heightened tension.
This proposed project is about promoting integration, tolerance of difference and community cohesion through arts and culture. Cordoba House will provide a place where individuals, regardless of their background, will find a center of learning, art and culture: and most importantly, a center guided by Islamic value in their truest form-compassion, generosity, and respect for all.
Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, CEO of Cordoba Initiative and Imam of Masjid al-Farah, a New York city Mosque for 25 years, author of three Islamic books commented that “The closest Mosque to this area is a dozen blocks away and very overcrowded but this site was also chosen for exactly what happened here on 9/11 and what America stands for. Definitely, this is a victory of American Tolerance over hatred.” There are about one million Muslims living in the metro New York area of which 1000-2000 work within a few blocks of this building. They have been praying in the make shift unit since purchase of the building.
The preliminary plan for the project was unveiled publicly in front of finance committee of the local community board. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is among many political and religious leaders who support Cordoba House. He was present where members voted 29 to 1 in favor of the project. He also commented, “These are haters. These are people from the Tea Party who attacked me and others individuals and tried to make this about bigotry and hatred.” Stringer referred to the disparaging comments made by a body of the right wing Tea Party movement, Mark Williams, who has called Cordoba House, “A monument to 9/11 attackers to worship the terrorist’s monkey-god”. Because of this and other racially charged comment about African-Americans, he has been stripped of his membership in the Tea Party Movement.
This project has support of many Christians, Jews, and Politicians but has also generated passion and anger by the other side. Islamophobia is rampant on the internet. Page after page is full of negative comment on Islam and Muslims. People, who are opposed to this project, forget that more than 200 Muslims also died at ground zero. While most of republican are against this project, democrats including NY Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Andrew Cuomo and NY Mayor have supported this project.
Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg said the following in recent radio address: If somebody wants to build a religious house of worship, they should do it and we shouldn’t be in the business of picking which religions can and which religion can’t. I think it’s fair to say if somebody was going to try to on that piece of property build a church or a synagogue, nobody would be yelling and screaming. And the fact of the matter is that Muslims have a right to do it too.”
Juan Cole, a blogger wrote “Forbidding the building of a mosque in New York is inconsistent with the ideals of the Founding Generation of the United States of America who explicitly mentioned Islam among the cases when they spoke of religious freedom.
These kinds of hysterical reactions have not been uncommon throughout the US. At many places Muslims have curtailed or abandoned their mosque building efforts because of opposition by the local residents. At other places however, they have fought and succeeded. Much of credit for these victories also goes to moderate mainstream Americans who are generally fair minded and have been supportive and friendly.
A 2006 USA Today/gallop poll found that 44 percent Americans think that Muslims are too extreme in their religious belief, while 22 percent said they would not want a Muslim as a neighbor. There is a lot of misunderstanding about our belief and practices as well as this project and what it represents. Due to misinformation, many people think that Mosque will be built exactly on Ground Zero. While in reality it only occupies one floor of the 13 story building which is devoted to worship to meet the need of the people working in the area. This entire 13- story building is not a Mosque.
We must point out clearly the differences between Muslim extremism and mainstream Islam. It is important to point out that Muslims themselves are the biggest victim of Muslim extremism as can be seen in civilian death toll everyday in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. We also have to do a better job of educating our population about these differences. Promotion of main stream Islam which emphasizes mutual understanding and wants to bridge gap between east and west can be a neutralizing force to extremism.