August 26, 2010
The imam wasn't sinister. He was starry-eyed.
Feisal Abdul Rauf, whose idea it was to build a 15-story mosque and community complex at 51 Park Place, two blocks from the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan, is no extremist. For decades he has worked to integrate American Muslims into the cultural mainstream. He has cultivated interfaith dialogue among Muslims, Christians, and Jews. He forcefully denounces violence. His views are so widely regarded and his integrity so trusted that both the Bush and Obama administrations have regularly sent him around the world to articulate the compatibility of American and Muslim law and values.
Imam Abdul Rauf conceived of Park51, as his project is called, as something New Yorkers would flock to — a place with something for everyone, an Islamic version of the Young Men's/Women's Christian Association (now called "The Y") or the Jewish Community Centers, with athletic facilities, an auditorium, meeting rooms, an art gallery, a fine restaurant, and a mosque in the mystic Sufi tradition where women and men worship together, religious garb is optional, and ecumenical activities are encouraged.
Indeed, he saw the choice of location as a statement — a symbol of solidarity between Americans who are Muslims and Americans who are not, a symbol of healing and of the renunciation of violence.
So sure was he of these aspirations that plans for the complex, according to the project's website, www.park51.org, include "a September 11th memorial and quiet contemplation space, open to all."
In their religious idealism, he and his supporters, including a host of prominent rabbis and Christian clergy, failed to read the signs of the times.
Almost at once, the proposal turned political, both micro and macro. The hearings of the Lower Manhattan Community Board in May and the Landmarks Preservation Commission early this month were marked by angry protests, and the overwhelmingly favorable votes were seen by many not as objective assessments of the project's civic worth but as compulsory political correctness at best or sympathy for the devil at worst.
On the macro side, Mayor Michael Bloomberg explicitly framed the issue in Constitutional terms. After the Landmark Commission vote, standing on Governor's Island with the Statue of Liberty in the background, he recalled New York's historic religious tolerance and called the decision "an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime."
Reactions were expected and understandable. One man asked, "What better place to teach tolerance than at the very area where hate tried to kill tolerance?" Another said, "The pain never goes away. When I look over there and see a mosque, it's going to hurt."
The actual problem is not about seeing a mosque but about seeing this one. There are several small mosques in the immediate vicinity, including one occupying a room at the proposed site; no one has challenged their right to exist. It is the enormity of this project that touches nerves. Rather than humbly living in the ghostly shadow of the Twin Towers, still ever-present to New Yorkers, Park51 is regarded by many not as a complement but as direct competition. Move it ten blocks away, they say, move it to Midtown — or, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, "build it in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. That is where 9/11 came from."
The most pragmatic argument came from Bill Doyle, representing a group of 9/11 families. Ground Zero, he said, "should be a serene site. Now you're going to see protests and demonstrations there all the time."
Last Sunday, his prediction was proved right. Protestors from both sides engaged in a shouting-match at 51 Park Place, held back from each other by the NYPD.
And it's not hard to think that much worse may come — not just raucous protest but a van-load of explosives sent by some extremist Christian group: terrorism from the opposite side.
Just as the Justice Department was forced to relocate the trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the so-called mastermind of 9/11, from the Federal Courthouse in Lower Manhattan because of the massive security risk and drain on NYPD forces involved, so too should this project be relocated. The question is not about religious liberty; it is about the common good.
Given the climate of suspicion and fear of Islam growing unabated in this country, it is certainly possible that an Islamic center of this scope would be a terrorist target no matter where it was located. But to have Ground Zero and the mosque, two symbols of such potency, so near each other would create a magnetic field attracting more the worst than the best of human nature.
Daisy Khan, the wife of Abdul Rauf and spokesperson for the project, told the press on Sunday that the developers were open to building elsewhere. It's too bad, but it's the thing to do.