by Lindsey Kay
“I am a man with no country,” he said. “My Muslim brothers hate me because I have grown Western, but the West hates me because my brothers are Muslim.”
This one man is not alone in his plight. Across the United States, millions of Muslims find themselves walking the tightrope between embracing their faith and culture, and facing the rejection or even hatred of the American public. One should never discuss the fallout of 9/11 without paying homage to the Muslim Americans who often, wrongly, bear the brunt of our fears.
Another man angrily reminds me that “New York Remembers, New York will never forget.” One might assume what he means is that no one in Manhattan could ever erase from their memories the horror of that day. Who could forget the towers falling? Who could forget the ash that didn’t settle for weeks? Who could forget the myriad of people who wandered the streets, looking at the faces of hobos and wondering if a member of their family was lying amnesiac on a street corner, praying that they were merely broken, and not forever lost? Of course New York remembers ─ but what that man meant was not that they remember the tragedy, but that they remember who is to blame: Islam.
Both men live their lives with respect and honor. Both have a good job, take care of those around them, give charitably and keep their noses clean. Both shop at Walmart and Sam’s Club, both drive used cars, and both recycle. They both read literary fiction and dream of an evening that they can just kick up their feet on the porch and watch the neighborhood walk by, but their busy lives pursuing the American dream seem to always get in the way of relaxation. One flies the American flag from his window, the other has it as his computer’s wallpaper. Both read political magazines and try to keep up on current issues. Both research who they will vote for in the primaries as well as national elections. They write to their State Representatives and Senators. Both, as a matter of fact, usually vote Republican.
One should not enter into a discussion of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” without respect for both of the men who typify what the issue is about: First the American Muslim, and then the American whose principal knowledge of Islam is the horror of 9/11. The issue at hand here isn’t the legality or justice of a Mosque existing near Ground Zero, it is about the fear that many Americans feel when they sense Islam encroaching into their lives. The question isn’t if Muslims should be allowed to worship in lower Manhattan, it is if allowing Muslims to set their tent stakes in our cities means that we are inviting terror into our back yards.
People have painted the Imam behind the development of the mosque near Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan as a radical extremist who embraces Shariah law and would subjugate any American with whom he came into contact. Hypothetical situations have been set forth as fact, such as that the Muslims involved in the project are hoping to be martyred so as to bolster hatred between Islam and the West. Some have gone as far as to say that Imam Faisal is working for the devil, parading the name of peace, while plotting for destruction. Bible verses are quoted as a justification for that fear, making a chilling inference that these are the end times and Imam Faisal is tantamount to the antichrist. The truth is that one could not hope to have a logical discussion about justice and legality, while all interpretations of the issue are brushed in colors of fear and mistrust.
If the discussion was only about the rightness of having Muslims worship so close to Ground Zero, than long ago people would have taken up arms to prevent the Mosques that are already in operation in the same neighborhood. If the discussion was truly about the Muslims in question denouncing terror, than the multitude of quotes from Imam Faisal and the other architects of the development would serve as evidence enough for fears to be quieted. If the real argument was how the 9/11 families feel, than the fact that many of them have come out to support the building would be more widely reported. If the issue was in actuality how New Yorkers feel, then the fact that the vast majority of them affirm the Cordoba Project’s constitutional right to build ought to be enough. Yet the discomfort and opposition persist, despite mounting evidence that the issue shouldn’t be up for discussion.
A quick review of the time line: Manhattan based Soho Properties bought the land in question after it went for sale in 2009. The Cordoba Initiative, along with other developers, purchased a portion of the block with plans to establish a mosque as well as a community center. According to people involved in the project, a larger space for a mosque was necessary due to the rapidly growing amount of people attending services downtown, and established mosques simply not having adequate facilities to meet the Muslim community’s need. Services started being offered at 45 Park Place while plans for the community center at 51 Park Place moved forward. In early 2010, the developers took the plans for the center to a community board to be approved, and they won by a vote of 29 to 1. That was in May. June passed with little note, and then July came. Searching through article archives and using Google’s alchemy functions, one can see evidence that in mid July the Cordoba Project’s plans gained sudden national media attention with the existing mosque’s expansion and plans to build a community center two city blocks away from Ground Zero, as the building of a “Ground Zero Mega Mosque.” Suddenly Park 51, a community center “promoting tolerance and understanding through three types of programs: arts and culture, education, and recreation,” became rephrased as a tool of Muslim encroachment, with new descriptions like “creeping Jihad,” “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” “breeding ground for terrorism,” and “aggression masquerading as peace” attached to it.
To see the extent to which the issue has been mischaracterized, you need look no further than the metaphorical language used to describe people’s feelings. When asked why it is wrong for there to be a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero, one man responded that it was like pedophiles buying a house two blocks from a park where children play. When asked why Muslims choosing to have a memorial near Ground Zero was wrong, another responded, “Even a dog knows the difference between being tripped over and being kicked.” Other evocative turns of phrase are used like “spitting in the face of American’s pain,” “kicking us when we are down,” “trying to provoke us,” “using Freedom of Religion and zoning laws to mock an American tragedy,” and my personal favorite, “taunting the American Public.”
All such language shares two common attributes: The first is that it paints the American public as a helpless victim of Islamic torment. We are the innocent babies in the park, powerless to defend ourselves against pedophiles. We are the sleeping dog that is either being tripped over or kicked by the advancement of Muslim rights. We are the ones who, while lying there in pain, are being alternately spat on, kicked, provoked, or having our laws used against us. At the very best we are being taunted. Why would a proud, patriotic American choose to portray himself as a passive victim? The second common attribute is that it makes a clear line of separation ─ the often unnamed but clearly malevolent “they” are doing something awful to “us”. The implication such language makes is that the Muslims in question are not like “us,” they are not Americans nor are they patriots, nor have they been hurt by terrorism.
Imagine how offensive it must be for Muslim Americans to hear themselves portrayed in such terms. Do not for a moment assume that what happened on 9/11 is a tragedy that is solely owned by white America. The tragedy happened to us all, every race and religion, every color and kind. We are all Americans, and we were all attacked. As one Muslim neighbor said, “the only person who the terrorists hate more than white Americans is Muslim Americans.” Muslims were attacked on 9/11. They lost their friends and family, too, as the Towers fell. Muslim Americans hit the streets to help look for people wandering lost and injured. Muslim firefighters and police risked and even lost their lives trying to help survivors from Ground Zero. It was a tragedy that all of Manhattan felt keenly. Not a soul living in that city survived unscathed. We all share in it as a nation.
If we, as Americans, have a right to memorialize that day, than Muslim Americans have that same right. If we, as Christians, have the right to build and worship in the shadow of that site, then Muslim Americans have that same right. If we feel our hearts broken by the tragedies of the past, and feel fear tearing at our lungs when we think of further acts of terror, what makes us think that we are alone in those feelings? Many Muslims have condemned acts of terror. Many have expressed fear about the future and the safety of their families. Many have stated that being able to build a community center so near Ground Zero stands as a moral victory, as it shows the terrorists that America is left undivided and will not bend its moral principals in the face of violence.
Ultimately, the question of Muslims being allowed to build near Ground Zero is not a question of that which is right, what is legal, or who needs justice. It is a question of who we are as Americans, and whether or not we will give up some of the principles of what it means to be American because of nothing more than xenophobia. America was founded on high ideals. We are a nation of freedoms. We are to be a safe harbor in the storm, a place where all immigrants can lay their weary heads and seek the hope of a brighter future. If Americans allow ourselves to be ruled by fear, we lose something very precious: our identity as a Nation of “liberty and justice for all.”
We must never forget that who we are as Americans is not defined in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. It is not defined by what God we pray to, but by what ethical standards guide us as a people. Those ethical standards are the same whether we are Christian or Muslim. They transcend all religions and come from the unfailing heart of mankind. A Christian may say that God was the architect of objective morality, a Muslim may say Allah made it so, and an atheist might say it was birthed by reason. One thing remains a constant: we believe that greater good and inarguable rights exist, and we pursue those beliefs as a society.
The most American thing any of us can do is go to the staff of Park 51, take them a cold lemonade and an apple pie, and extend a hand of neighborly affection. My dream as both a Christian and a patriotic American is that one day, a Mosque and a Church can share a street corner in lower Manhattan, and an Imam and a Priest can share a table and smile at each other, saying, “we are not so different, you and I.”
The Bible has a lot to say about kind words turning away anger, love casting out fear, even loving those that hate us and praying for those who persecute us (Proverbs 15, 1 John 4, Matthew 5). The balm that we seek for the wound of Ground Zero should not be a rejection of those we fear, but a celebration of who we are when we are united as a nation. As Terry Rockefeller, a man who lost his sister on 9/11 said, “This doesn’t insult her at all. This celebrates the city she loved living in. It is what makes America what we are.” And as Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf said at a Ted Talk he gave in October of 2009: “Our objective and our mission must be to be sources of compassion, actors of compassion, speakers of compassion and doers of compassion.”
If only we could all feel as they do.