Park51: Looking for common ground in lower Manhattan

Scorched earth

That most Americans are fearful of Islam and distrustful of Muslims is not new. Most polls show that 1 in 2 Americans have a negative view of Islam. Thus, it is not surprising that a majority of New Yorkers acting on such perceptions oppose the construction of an Islamic community center and mosque called Park51, two blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood. Opponents of Park51 have often cited the negative public sentiments as a reason why American Muslims should voluntarily give up their right to freedom of religion. That argument was most vocally articulated by the storied and iconic Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which opposed the mosque construction, explaining that “ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right.” The ADL’s leader, Abraham Foxman, went on to assert that the anguish of the victims of 9-11 “entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”

Supporters of the project, however, have also been full throated in their support. Jewish Rabbis such as Arthur Waskow and Christian leaders such as Bob Roberts have decried the opposition. However, the most articulate defense came from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In a speech for the ages, Mayor Bloomberg succinctly framed the issue saying, “Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.”

Mayor Bloomberg drew attention to an often ignored fact when he said:

“Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11, and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans… Muslims are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith. And they are as welcome to worship in lower Manhattan as any other group. In fact, they have been worshipping at the site for better, the better part of a year, as is their right.”

Perhaps the boldest stance was taken by Newsweek columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria, who returned an award he had received from the ADL in 2005. He urged the ADL to reverse its decision and refuted its arguments by wondering aloud, “Does Foxman believe that bigotry is OK if people think they’re victims? Does the anguish of Palestinians, then, entitle them to be anti-Semitic?” He then went on to mount a practical defense of Park51, noting that “if there is going to be a reformist movement in Islam, it is going to emerge from places like the proposed institute. We should be encouraging groups like the one behind this project, not demonizing them. Were this mosque being built in a foreign city, chances are that the US government would be funding it.”

Park51 was intended to bring people together, but unfortunately it is fueling divisiveness. The developers of Park51 were perhaps guilty of “insensitivity” – not for choosing the proposed site, but rather for not better anticipating the sometimes understandable but often contrived opposition. The opponents, on the other hand, may have a few legitimate concerns but overall are misguided in their opposition. Arguing against the core American value of religious freedom while purporting to protect America makes the opposition irrational and hypocritical.

Now that Park51 has won its legal rights, how can it win the hearts and minds of fellow New Yorkers, at least those who are willing to be fair? And how can the ADL gain back the moral high ground? First of all, cooler heads must prevail. The ADL should withdraw its opposition without giving up its right to ask the developers of Park51 to be sensitive about the pain being felt by so many people of good will. In return, Park51 should also take steps to address legitimate sensitivity.

Next, Park51 should pledge to not accept any foreign funding. While they have the right to seek donations and support from all legitimate sources – including foreign ones – it is better to make this institute an all-American effort. In the best traditions of Prophet Muhammad, who allowed a Christian delegation to pray at his mosque, Park51 could dedicate space for Jewish and Christian prayer services. During the 8th century, the Cordoba Mosque in Spain set a good example of religious traditions sharing worship space. Why not recreate such convivencia (coexistence) in New York, where the Statue of Liberty beckons all to freedom?

Some people will never be convinced of the moral legitimacy of Muslims seeking a place of worship in some proximity to Ground Zero. Yet many may change. Giving that moderate center a fair chance rests partly with the developers of Park51. However, putting their vision into practice will also require the support of a broad cross section of civic and religious leaders. Groups like ADL and leaders like Newt Gingrich will serve America better by seeking ways to positively engage with projects like Park51. Strident opposition and fear mongering are not the answer. A vast common ground does exist, a point that one of the main leaders of the development effort, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, evokes in his book, “What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America.” There is no better way to defeat the morally bankrupt ideology of al-Qaida than to seek that common ground.

(Photo by Johnnie Utah via flickr

Professor Parvez Ahmed is a Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida. He is also a frequent commentator on Islam and the Muslim American experience.


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