There has been recent controversy over the proposed construction of a 13 story Islamic Community Centre and Mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero, the site where the former twin towers once stood. The site is an old abandoned building that was damaged during the 9/11 incident when one of the plane’s landing gear went through the building’s roof. The plan is being led by what is called the ‘Cordoba Initiative’ and the future centre and mosque – if the plan goes through – will be called Cordoba House, named after the Cordoba period and region in Spain once ruled by an Islamic Caliphate where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived and prospered in peace together. If one looks closer one can see that the story of the controversy over Cordoba House is the story of America’s relationship with Islam and its followers but the main focus of this issue is: should this plan go ahead and does the construction of an Islamic Centre and Mosque insult the people of New York and family members of the victims.
The Cordoba plan is causing a great rift of tension in the US and New York especially among the family members of 9/11 victims and the Political Elite. Some of the victims of the family members see the plan as a ‘victory terrorist shrine’ for Muslim terrorists and extremists. The 19 hijackers of the four planes were Muslim and were linked and influenced by Al Qaeda which has their own disturbing vision for the future of Islam. Although the vast majority of people know there is a difference between moderate and ordinary peace loving Muslims and Muslim extremists both groups are still seen as part of the Islamic World. The name of Islam has been soiled by Al Qaeda’s actions and ever since 9/11 Muslims have had defend Islam and to remind the world that these were the actions of an evil group who are ignorant of the true teachings of Islam and Islam does not condone such acts. But you can understand why some would feel this sense of anger and disagree with the plan. Family members of the victims have been among some of the groups opposed to the plan and in an article in the Huffington Post by Rabbi Justus N. Baurd, Director for the Center for Multifaith Education Auburn Theological Seminary, are comments made by family members of victims in 9/11.
Patrick Bahnken, head of a paramedics’ union said:
“By no means am I saying the folks trying to build this place are responsible for 9/11, but you still have to take a hard look at it and say, how will it look to have this in your face? It’s like salt in the wound – a constant reminder of what they did to us on 9/11.”
Mike Burke, whose brother was a fireman killed in the attacks said:
“I think the first concern for the families is that the religious beliefs of the terrorists who struck is going to have such a prominent place right around the corner from Ground Zero.”
Rosemary Cain, whose son was a fire-fighter killed in the attacks said:
“I think it’s despicable, and I think it’s atrocious that anyone would even consider allowing them to build a mosque near the World Trade Centre … That’s sacred ground. It’s a slap in the face.”
And from an angry participant in the May 25 Community Board meeting:
“This is an insult, this is demeaning, this is humiliating that you would build a shrine to the very ideology that inspired the attacks of 9/11.”
One can understand why these individual opposed to the plan feel this sense of anger and there are many similar examples of actions causing insult to people; former Prime Minister of Japan Junichiro Koizumi caused major outrage in China and the Korean peninsula when he visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine dedicated to soldiers who fought before and during World War II. Some of these soldiers were responsible for kidnappings of thousands of women used as sex slaves refereed to as ‘comfort women’. They were also responsible for the murder and rape of 300,000 men and women in Nanking, known In China as ‘the forgotten holocaust’. Recently Israel decided it would increase greater control over Islamic holy sites in Israel and this angered Muslims. Equally, one can imagine how some Orthodox Jews feel there is a Dome of Rock on top of the most sacred site in Judaism, the Temple Mount, where the previous 1st and 2nd Temples once stood that existed long before Islam. However the difference between Cordoba House and the other examples given is that it is a simple Islamic Centre and Mosque in a site two blocks away, about a three minute walk away from the World Trade Centre area. This phrase ‘sacred ground’ is being used a lot by the opposition and while most people would consider Ground Zero itself to be sacred, where is this imaginary boundary of the ‘sacred ground’?
I personally feel that for those opposed to the plan their opposition is being mixed with their hatred or misunderstanding of Islam, like those among Arabs and Muslims who hate Jews because of the actions of Israel. It is very obvious Muslims are not well liked in the USA: according to polls 44 percent of Americans favour at least some restrictions on the civil liberties of Muslim Americans and according to CNN polls 46% of Americans have negative views of Muslims, and 45% agree Islam encourages violence. Those opposed think the mosque is a memorial to the 19 hijackers but this is falsehood: it is simply to be a general centre and mosque for not only Muslims but the general public.
Carl Paladino, a wealthy Buffalo businessman and running in a campaign for New York’s 2nd District in the House of Representatives said:
“It’s no different than Japan asking to build a memorial to kamikaze pilots next to the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.”
There is a big difference between a memorial dedicated to Kamikaze bombers and a place of worship for a religion that a handful of murders also happened to follow, combined with an Islamic centre for the purposes of community gatherings, prayer, eating, socialising and swimming.
The five storey former Burlington Coat Factory building remained damaged and abandoned after 11th September 2001 until it was purchased in July 2009 by a Muslim real estate company by the name of Soho Properties for $4.85 million. The Cordoba Initiative and the American Society for Muslim advancement proposed the plan for a $100 million centre and mosque. Since the purchase the building has been used as a temporary prayer area, led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.
The purpose of the construction of Cordoba house is, as Imam Feisal says, to’bridge the great divide between Muslims and Americans’. It is also to symbolise peace, cooperation and to represent New York’s diversity and respect for all religious faiths. The plan has been supported by the majority of people in New York even by Republican Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg:
“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 religions 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.
On the night of May 25th there was a public debate with members of Community Board 1 and they voted 29 to 1 for the construction, with 10 abstentions. Committee Chairman Ro Sheffe said:
“It will be a wonderful asset to the community.”
Catholic priest Kevin Madigan of St. Peter’s Church (located a block away) agreed with the plan stating:
“I think they need to establish a place such as this for people of goodwill from mainline Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths so we can come together to talk,”.
Notable politicians against the plan include Sarah Palin and former House Majority leader and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Sarah Palin posted the following Tweet:
“Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate”
Sarah Palin’s Tweet caused a slight media and blog storm over her misspelling of repudiate, but I don’t think any of us should be listening to a women who thought Africa was a country and apparently knows virtually nothing on foreign policy. There’s also her use of the phrase ‘Peaceful Muslims’, as if there are 1.5 billion Muslims out there in the world who are choosing between being a Doctor or an Engineer, or being a suicide bomber.
Former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich stated on his website that the plan should be banned, “‘so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia,” and he actually has a good point. The Wahabi Royal Family of Saudi Arabia sees itself as the Vatican of the Islamic World and thinks it is justified in not allowing churches and synagogues in Saudi Arabia simply because the two holiest cities in Islam (Mecca & Medina) are within its borders. There are some 1 million Catholics and many other religious groups in Saudi Arabia who don’t have the right to practise their faith. Not only is this against human rights but is even against Islam which allows non-Muslims the right to worship in Muslim lands. But that’s Saudi Arabia not America and Saudi Arabia, with a population of 22 million, does not represent the Islamic World. Also why only look at Saudi Arabia when there are churches in almost every other Arab or Muslim nation; recently a Coptic and an Evangelical church were completed in Abu Dhabi.
Newt Gingrich gives a small history lesson about Cordoba House saying:
“Cordoba House [is a] deliberately insulting term: It refers to Cordoba, Spain – the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex.”
Maybe Mr. Gingrich should check the other part of the Cordoba during the Al-Andulus period, the one about it being a cultured period where Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars prospered together (although not always as equals). The Jews referred to it as a Golden age of Jewish culture in Spain where notable Jewish Scholars such as Judah Halevi and Dunash ha-Levi ben Labrat contributed great works to Jewish historical and religious knowledge.
Despite the groups for and against it, this plan is supported by the constitution of the United States in the form of the 2nd Amendment of Constitution guaranteeing ‘freedom of religion’. Former President John Tyler made a reference to Muslims in a letter:
”No religious establishment by law exists among us. The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgement … The Mahommedan, if he will to come among us would have the privilege guaranteed to him by the constitution to worship according to the Koran”’
The aim of this Cordoba House is not to anger or insult the family members of the victims of 9/11 or to desecrate the sacred ground of World Trade Centre. September 11th was a tragic act and was one of the most terrible things to have happened in the history of the US. The aim is to build a bridge of understanding, peace and community between Muslims and Americans, a bridge which was once there but lost as a result of the actions of a group of misguided extremist thugs thinking they were true Muslims when they were not, thinking what they were doing was what Allah wills when it was not. I and the majority of Muslims are against such groups but we need to understand there are of course extremists and terrible people in every faith and society and we can’t forget that hate, racism, greed, poverty, disease and war have always occurred in human history and always will unless we band together. If this mosque and centre don’t go as planned what does this show about America’s views of Islam and its followers? The US is trying to win the hearts and minds of Afghans in the Afghanistan war but how can it achieve that if it won’t allow the construction of this Cordoba House in New York? We must not allow hatred and close-mindedness to judge the daily affairs in our communities wherever in the world. Ignorance by far is our greatest enemy in this world.
You can read more about the Cordoba initative for yourself: Cordoba Initiative Website
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This post was written by Omar Zaki