Park51: It’s about the community, stupid

We’re already here

Despite the countless media hours dedicated to the controversy surrounding Park51, the Muslim community center to be built two blocks from Ground Zero, there has been little to no substantive discussion. Across the country and on our televisions and radios, there is far too much vitriol spewed towards Muslims for any serious conversation to be had. Though racism and anti-Semitism, among other societal ills, are widely considered unacceptable, a steady diet of Islamophobia has found an unfortunate place in the narrative of 21st century America. The coordinated attack on Islam and Muslims, even in a place as tolerant and diverse as New York City, leaves little to the imagination of just how much some Americans hate other Americans.

To the detriment of New Yorkers and all Americans, not being heard in the “either you’re with us or against us” polemic are the thoughts of your friendly neighborhood Muslim.

For all their noble intentions, the individuals behind the proposed community center near Ground Zero failed to do one major thing before they presented their plans for their Muslim center, which would include a mosque, to city officials: they did not consult with other American Muslims.

In doing so, they effectively cornered American Muslims into taking a position, especially once opposition to Park51 mounted. This was unfair to millions of American Muslims who are bystanders in what has become an attack on our religious freedoms.

We want to want to support this project, but we don’t want to have to support it. There has been concern that this controversy, one that leaves all Americans weary, is not a fight that ever really needed fighting.

Anne Barnard recently reported in The New York Times that the organizers of the Park51 project, namely, the husband-and-wife team of Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan, and developer Sharif el-Gamal, were surprised by the coordinated national opposition. Barnard writes, “More strikingly, they did not seek the advice of established Muslim organizations experienced in volatile post-9/11 passions and politics.” In this week’s Newsweek cover story Khan is quoted saying that “in hindsight, if we had known this would be such an issue [for some 9/11 families], we would have started with them [before taking it to the community board that ultimately votes approval].”

It is important to engage the 9/11 families who mourn the loss of loved ones and who may carry sincere misgivings about this project. But I wonder if Khan and Imam Abdul Rauf understand the important value of engaging American Muslims who also mourn the loss of loved ones and who have struggled since that wretched day to combat stereotypes forced on us by extremists. Moreover, that any American Muslim who lived through September 11th can’t guess that some people may have issues, be they legitimate or illegitimate, with a Muslim center being established near Ground Zero is dangerously naïve.

Which begs the question: If they didn’t expect this fallout, just how connected are Khan and Imam Abdul Rauf to the American Muslim community? It is apparent to many that they are in fact not connected. Case in point, at a time when the news media is falling over itself with stories about their center, where is Imam Abdul Rauf? Now is certainly not the time to be traveling around the world and leaving your team at the center of the storm.

The couple does have a strong track record when it comes to interfaith work, but it doesn’t appear that they have a track record working with Muslims. Will any prominent American Muslims be associated with this project directly, as opposed to simply appearing on talk shows as surrogates? This must be answered.

There is a difference between building a building and building a community. This is a question of leadership. American Muslims ought to ask more questions and expect meaningful answers. If we are to grow as a community, we must demand strong leadership.

It is easy to write off Sarah Palin’s Shakespearean tweets and Newt Gingrich’s kickoff to his presidential campaign. But if there is honest critique coming from American Muslims to ensure this project’s ultimate success, it must be heard.

If it is the case that Park51 is to be a community center for all, then surely the Muslims of New York, and indeed all across America, have a stake in its success, arguably more than anyone else. That is why more American Muslims need to be brought on board. The sooner the better.

I cringe when I think of the political and social capital already burnt, not just by American Muslims, but by many of our allies in this fight. Mayor Bloomberg and the NYC Landmarks Preservations Commission rose to the occasion, strongly backing the rights of American Muslims to practice our faith freely, even in Lower Manhattan. Keith Olbermann, Fareed Zakaria, and, yes, Sam Seder have all taken powerful stands in support of the religious freedoms of their fellow Americans and against the outrageous right-wing opposition.

Even President Obama understands the added value to this center: the United States cannot have a strong foreign policy, especially towards the greater Muslim world, without first having a strong domestic policy that ensures the rights and freedoms of his Muslim constituents. The world must see that Americans distinguish between their American Muslim neighbors and the terrorists who perpetrated the crimes of September 11th.

That American Muslims ought to feel some level of collective guilt for the actions of a few terrorists is unacceptable. That any Americans be pressured to relocate their house of worship out of fear is un-American.

Americans of all faiths are not lining up behind this project because we are enthusiastic about it. We are lining up because we know what is at stake. Let there be no mistake, Park51 has morphed from a local community issue into a national test case for religious freedoms. In an interview with DemocracyNow, Khan was asked if she was afraid for herself and for her community, and she rightly answered that she feared for her country.

This project cannot fail. It must not fail. Indeed, it has become a fight that needs fighting by all Americans. But it must begin with strong Muslim leadership.

(Photo: Bassam Tariq)

Abed Z. Bhuyan, a Muslim from New York, is a graduate of Georgetown University. Bhuyan taught high school history and government in New York City with Teach For America from 2008-2010. He will be teaching English in Turkey next year as a Fulbright scholar. This article was previously published at Newsweek/Washington Post’s On Faith.

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