In recent weeks there has been a controversy playing out in New York City. If you somehow managed to miss it, a group, led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (a religious leader educated in Egypt, Malaysia, England and the United States) has asked for permission to build an Islamic community center and mosque in Lower Manhattan only two blocks from ground zero. Tempers have flared over whether this group, or any group, should be allowed to build a mosque so close to the site where many Americans, including Muslims, were killed by fanatics in the name of Islam. I have been thinking about this and have been following the news as well as a few of the blogs that are being written about this. It has taken me a while to get my hands around this issue simply because I have mixed feelings and I needed time to better understand how I felt before I could say anything.
Part of my problem is that we all, myself included, have strong feelings about what happened on 9/11 and many of us have strong nationalistic feelings as well. I served ten years in the Army Reserve and my unit was called to active duty (in Kentucky) for six months during the first Gulf War. I have always felt that part of what I did as a soldier was to defend the rights of people even when their actions differed from mine. I have friends who are pacifists and who, for religious reasons, refuse to serve in the military. I have been willing to serve in order to protect their right not to serve. Flag burning offends me greatly but I will fight to protect the rights of others to express themselves in this way. Likewise, those who propose to build an Islamic Center two blocks from ground zero deliberately play upon two fundamental principles of our constitution, the right to property and the freedom of religion. The American right to property allows the owners of land or other property to do whatever they desire within the limits that the law allows and so, if you own land, you should be able to do with it as you wish. Freedom of religion tells us that we cannot deny the right to build a place of worship simply because their particular religion is unpopular or even offensive to others. For these reasons, the developers of this mosque/community center/cultural center should clearly be allowed to pursue the necessary permits and contracts to begin building, but the story isn’t really that simple.
The Imam heading this project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, claims that his mission is to develop bridges of understanding between our two cultures and his background and education would seem to indicate that he is, perhaps, in a unique position to do that. He has sometimes seemed to be a moderate Muslim who condemned the 9/11 attacks, but in the same interview where he condemned the attacks, he also declared that the U.S. was at fault for those attacks and he likewise has refused to concede that Hamas is a terrorist organization. We are told that this building is to be built by American Muslims and for American Muslims but the estimated cost of this project is over $100 million and there is a very real possibility that it may be funded by radical foreign Muslims who intend to use our system of constitutional law and justice against us in order to demonstrate what they perceive to be our weakness. It is disturbing, in light of our obvious concerns, that the developers have refused to reveal the actual funding sources.
In places like Jerusalem and Mecca, and throughout the Middle East there is a tradition of building mosques to commemorate great Islamic victories. Throughout the centuries, I do not doubt that many Christian cathedrals have been built with similar motives. In light of concerns about offending the families of the victims of 9/11 however, it may well be worth our time to discern whether this building is being built by American Muslims in order to facilitate understanding between out cultures or by foreign radicals who intend for its construction to stand as a testimony to the defeat of American imperialism.
A few other pieces that need to be fitted into our understanding: Two mosques already exist in Lower Manhattan (one built prior to the construction of the World Trade Center) and indeed an Islamic Cultural Center also exists not far away in Midtown Manhattan near Central Park. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church stood in the shadows of the World Trade Center and was destroyed when those building collapsed. St. Nicholas church is negotiating a settlement with the New York Port Authority but although there has been some difficulty in negotiations caused by demands from both sides, St. Nicholas church, nearly nine years later, has not yet received permission to rebuild. While an Islamic group should not be discriminated against simply because they are Muslims, neither should they get preferential treatment. Just days ago, it was discovered that the developers of this proposed building do not own both parcels of land needed to build. Whether this omission was accidental or deliberate raises a whole host of additional questions.
So where does all that leave us?
Constitutionally speaking, there is no reason that this group should be singled out from any other group that wants to build any legal structure in Lower Manhattan. If the construction is legal then it should be allowed to move forward. On the other hand, a center that desires to advertise itself as a bridge for “cultural understanding” could certainly do better, and should do better than to build in this particular location. Building here would be insensitive in the extreme. It would be out of place for the nation of Germany to build a cultural center within two blocks of a Nazi death camp. The desire to build in this location seems hostile, inflammatory and deliberately divisive.
It is important to remember that Islam didn’t fly two airliners into the World Trade Center. It is unfair to condemn all Muslins for such a crime, but we remember the places where people danced in the street when they heard the news. Perhaps it is unfair to paint with a broad brush and blame an entire religion for the actions of a few, but I suspect that, rightly or wrongly, this is the memory of a majority of our nation. As people of faith, Christians should be well acquainted with the false accusations that other religions have historically directed against us and so we should be sensitive to how this might be happening to Muslims in our nation today. On the other hand, we are called to be wise as foxes and to understand our world and how it works. If our nation is being deliberately manipulated in order to make us look weak, stupid and foolish then we should have every right to say no. If our constitutional system of law and justice is being used against us in order for our enemies to celebrate our defeat, then we should find a way to say no.
I believe that too many questions remain unanswered. The events surrounding 9/11 give us every right to be suspicious and careful. It seems as if the developers of their proposed building are getting a pass so that we can feel good about not discriminating against them. In order to answer the legitimate questions that have been raised, and in order to assuage the fears of the victims’ families and indeed the fears of many across our nation, more information must be revealed and more must be understood before construction should proceed. If the developers should refuse to be straightforward and reveal this information and should they refuse to answer the difficult questions, then let them build somewhere else. Without those answers, construction of this building, in this place, would be an affront to all Americans and would desecrate the memory of the victims of 9/11. If nothing else, things need to slow down while everyone takes a second and third look at the problem and as we search for answers to unresolved questions. Until then, under our system of government, if there exists a proper and legal way for this project to be stopped, then it should be.