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A Muslim Center Near Ground Zero?
by David M. Denny

I first heard about Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf when I discovered the American Society for Muslim Advancement’s web site. It is worthwhile to visit and at least read about ASMA’s mission, values and strategy. Then I watched a documentary called “Three Faiths, One God: Judaism, Christianity, Islam,” in which imam Feisal and his wife Daisy Khan appear. We have used this DVD with students, and it is an excellent means for learning more about the Abrahamic traditions and how we have understood and misunderstood each other over the centuries. Imam Feisal and Daisy Khan strike me as examples of American Muslims who are also model American citizens. I would love to be their neighbor.

I was surprised a few days ago when I discovered that the proposed Park 51 Muslim Center in lower Manhattan is sponsored by Imam Feisal’s Cordoba Initiative, a project of the American Society for Muslim Advancement. I was not surprised by ASMA’s proposal, but by some of the negative reactions to it, given what I have learned about Imam Feisal and Daisy Khan. But maybe I’m too naïve. I understand that in cases of abuse, it is crucial for the victim to get away from the abuser and find a safe place. I also understand that a victim of violence may struggle for some time to move from fear of an abstraction (“men,” or “priests,” “nuns” or “Muslims”) to an understanding that one person or these particular persons are perpetrators. If perpetrators belong to a category, it is not a species of maggot or devil, but of our family: the human race. It is impossible to find a safe place apart from this family. So we gradually learn to distinguish between perpetrators and others.

The painful, complicated part is that what may be good therapy may be bad public policy. How long do we wait for everyone to agree that most Muslims make good neighbors? Do we violate our constitution for a while?

Some Americans claim that “moderate” Muslims have not spoken up, so fanatics have taken over Islam. But, as Maureen Dowd noted in a recent New York Times editorial, “the imam in charge of the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is the moderate Muslim we have allegedly been yearning for.“ Why shouldn’t we enthusiastically back his proposal? Isn’t it a direct repudiation of fanaticism and a courageous act of peacemaking? The Anti-Defamation League contends that that controversy over the Muslim Center “is counterproductive to the healing process,” and recommends finding another site. The “pro-Israel, pro-peace” J Street organization “would hope the American Jewish community would be at the forefront of standing up for the freedom and equality of a religious minority looking to exercise its legal rights in the United States, rather than casting aspersions on its funders and giving in to the fear-mongerers and pandering politicians urging it to relocate.”

Writing in the New York Times, author William Dalrymple notes that Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has described “the Cordoba Initiative, which is dedicated to ‘improving Muslim-West relations’ and interfaith dialogue — as a ‘deliberately insulting’ and triumphalist force attempting to build a monument to Muslim victory near the site of the twin towers.” Dalrymple points out that such characterization ignores the wide differences between Muslim communities throughout the world, painting them all with the same brush. “That someone is a Boston Roman Catholic doesn’t mean he’s in league with Irish Republican Army bomb makers,” Dalrymple writes.

Dalrymple insists that people like Osama bin Laden despise Imam Feisal as an “infidel-loving, grave-worshiping apostate”—my kind of guy! Why not support him? Imam Feisal is a Sufi, and the Pakistani Taliban recently sent suicide bombers into a Sufi mosque in Lahore, killing 42 worshipers.

Two mosques already exist in lower Manhattan. Who attends? “Both mosques now welcome doctors, street vendors, real estate agents and service workers,” according to Anne Barnard, writing for the New York Times. “The imam of the Masjid Manhattan has a day job in a nearby post office.” One woman from Guinea works at a computer shop and hurries into the mosque in time to attend evening prayer before heading home to Queens, and one studies early childhood development at a nearby community college. They don’t sound like triumphalists eager to build a monument to terror.

If you wish to hear American Muslims discussing among themselves the challenges facing their local community mosques, you will find a fascinating conversation on a recent National Public Radio “Talk of the Nation” broadcast. Just listening to voices from within American Muslim communities can help us all feel more welcoming. You may also find it helpful, as I do, to visit Common Ground New Service from time to time. Common Ground News publishes and promotes “articles by local and international experts on current Middle East issues and the relationship between the West and Arab and Muslim communities.” They recently published “A Christian Response to the Islamic Community Centre Near Ground Zero,” by Julie Clawson, author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices. She gets the last word:

I am grateful for the families of those that lost loved ones on 9/11 who are speaking out on behalf of Muslims and in support of Park 51. These include the September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, who promote dialogue, non-violence and international cooperation, and have specifically spoken out in support of the centre. Out of their own tremendous grief they desire to protect Muslims from the kind of grief that comes from being condemned and ostracized. Instead of fearing some manufactured threat to freedom, they extend that precious freedom willingly to all.

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