Do you believe that the religion of Islam is represented by 19 men who willfully drove planes into three buildings and a field on September 11th, murdering thousands? Or do you believe that the religion of Islam is better represented by Imam Faisal and his wife Daisy Khan, founders of the Cordoba Institute and the force behind the proposed Islamic Cultural Center in New York City?
By now, most in America have certainly heard of the debate surrounding the “Ground Zero mosque.” To clarify, the proposed building is not a mosque: It’s a cultural center. And it’s not at Ground Zero, but two blocks away.
To further clarify, I believe this debate is more and more about religious intolerance, and less and less about sensitivities. I come from a large Irish Catholic family. Our political, cultural and religious beliefs certainly span the full spectrum; just come sit at our dinner table at a family event. I suspect most American families are like this. And the “9-11 Families” family is no different. We are not monolithic; we also run the gamut when it comes to politics, religion, race, nationality, and belief systems.
Thousands of decisions concerning 9-11 issues have already been made. With each decision, some family members are pleased, some are disappointed and some are heartbroken. Decisions regarding the building at 51 Park will be no different.
The Islamic cultural center has no current legal barriers. Nor are there cultural barriers, now that the Landmarks Commission ruled against landmark designation. So the argument against the cultural center boils down to two possibilities: sensitivities, or intolerance. That a number of 9-11 family members are sensitive to the proposed cultural center and mosque I can understand. I don’t share the same sensitivity, but I can understand. I would ask those family members to meet with Imam Faisal and his wife Daisy, to hear of their project, and to begin the long, arduous process of converting their experience of a Muslim faith so horrifically distorted on 9-11, to an experience of a moderate and loving Islam. For those who oppose the building of the cultural center for reasons of religious intolerance, remember your roots. This is America. And the beauty of our Constitution not only allows for, but mandates separation of church and state. The founders knew what they were doing. Several colonies in our nascent nation were founded specifically to escape religious intolerance, Maryland and Pennsylvania being two great examples.
The irony in the debate over the section of the building that would house a mosque is that one might assume that God (the same God to Jews-Christians-Muslims) would be pleased with any type of effort that involves prayer and service to others.
The other night I thought of Maya Lin, the Chinese American who designed the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. The design competition was blinded, so judges had no idea that the winning design was created by a Yale undergraduate of Asian descent. What I hadn’t remembered was the public firestorm that persistently swirled around the design, and its architect. For sure, some of the backlash was born of intolerance. For others, it was a matter of sensitivity. Soldiers were asked to fight an enemy who looked a lot like Ms. Lin. Today, 28 years after its unveiling, the Vietnam Memorial is one of the most visited and revered sites in the United States. It marks an excruciatingly painful time in American history. And the process to build the memorial itself mimicked that painful period. In many ways, the proposed cultural center reminds me of the Vietnam Memorial controversy.
Those who are sensitive to its creation, I can understand. Disagree with, yes, but understand. But those who are intolerant exemplify the best reason of all for its existence.
Twenty eight years might tell.
What do you believe?
Related City Conversation: Ed Koch on Mosque: Let’s Be Calm Now