Park51: Choosing freedom over fear

The mayor agrees

Terrorism is brutal and devastating, and its ultimate goal is fear. Terrorists hope to set allies against each other, and build tension between compatriots. The atrocities carried out by terrorists on September 11, 2001 were particularly devastating and, in many ways, the fear generated by the attacks is still being felt today.

Since this spring, critics have condemned a proposed Muslim community centre in Lower Manhattan, formerly known as the Cordoba House. The community centre’s leaders recently changed its name to Park51, referring to its address at 51 Park Place, in part to emphasise that it will be located several blocks from Ground Zero and that it is hardly the “Ground Zero Mosque” it had been branded.

When built, Park51 will feature “a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, art exhibition spaces, bookstores, [and] restaurants” and will be a “cultural nexus” for New York City, according to one of its sponsoring organisations, the Cordoba Initiative, which promotes positive Muslim-Western relations and interfaith dialogue.

Though hosted by a Muslim group, and indeed equipped with a Muslim prayer room, it will be open to all New Yorkers and full of all the facilities of a top-notch community centre.

In spite of Park51’s clear value to the city and its citizens, its location several blocks from Ground Zero has prompted protests that aim to keep some Muslim Americans from practicing their faith in freedom and peace, and from opening their doors in a truly American way to welcome guests from all faith traditions.

The terrible irony is that under the guise of fighting extremism, some critics of Park51 are unwittingly furthering the agenda of the terrorists who attacked us so viciously on 9/11. The terrorists wanted us to be afraid. They wanted us to put our rights in jeopardy. They wanted us to believe that not all religions are welcome in America. They wanted us to undo ourselves by debasing our own principles.

Although the First Amendment of the US Constitution makes clear that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, it is ultimately up to American citizens to ensure that the principles enshrined in the Constitution are applied in full. When a religious group, in writ or practice, is kept from establishing a gathering place for the community, those ideals are undermined.

The protests against Park51 are all the more severe, as they undermine the freedom of a religious community seeking not only to build a gathering place for itself, but to provide a space that is open to Americans of all faiths.

As Americans, we must stand with Park51 as part of a free society. A new movement is afoot to do just that. Known as Religious Freedom USA, the group seeks to protect all Americans’ right to religious freedom, and is focusing its efforts specifically on Park51.

With a strong and diverse base of support in its Board of Advisors, Religious Freedom USA plans to unroll an online video campaign to amplify the voices of current and emerging leaders who are empowered by their faith and patriotism to support religious freedom and Park51. The video campaign will then be used to galvanise support across New York City and beyond for rallies and public demonstrations in support of Park51, and advocacy efforts spanning college campuses and congregations, seminaries and civic organisations.

As one of Religious Freedom USA’s co-founders, I have found my work both profoundly patriotic and deeply religious. As a Jew and future rabbi, I cannot pray with a full heart when others in the very same city are kept from gathering to do the same, especially when they seek to open their doors to others.

The great 1st century BCE Rabbi Hillel is famous for his saying, “If I am not for myself who will be for me, but if I am not for another what am I?” I respond with his last line: “And if not now, when?”

Protecting religious freedom for all begins now. It begins at Park51.

(Photo: Edward Reed)

Joshua M. Z. Stanton is Co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue and a Schusterman Rabbinical Fellow at Hebrew Union College in New York City. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).


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