The Battle for Tolerance at Ground Zero

Rachel Curtis

Plans for the Muslim community center to be built a few blocks from Ground Zero, approved May 25 by the Manhattan community board, continue to stoke indignation among patriots who find Islam to be irreconcilable with respect for the lives lost on 9/11. The majority of those opposed describe the center’s location as insensitive, at the least. Joyce Gales, who lost her son in the WTC attacks, told “This was going to be our place, where they were killed, where we could go and pay our respects.” Gales wonders why Muslim organizations would choose a site near Ground Zero, calling the idea “a little suspicious to me,” and questions the planners’ claims of moderation. Likewise, C. Lee Hanson also lost a son in the attacks, and views the center as a tribute to Islam that has no place near Ground Zero. “The pain never goes away,” Mr. Hanson told the New York Times. “When I look over there and I see a mosque, it’s going to hurt. Build it someplace else.” For those so close to the tragedy, this knee-jerk reaction might be forgiven. Jay Tea’s blog post on could have put to rest the mistaken and dangerous idea that the tenets of Islam justify mass murder. But instead, Tea’s ardor fans the flames of intolerance – which motivated the despicable attacks that killed 3,000 innocent people. Tea concedes, “It might be unfair to blame all Muslims for 9/11, or even a majority,” but he holds firm in his opposition to the mosque since “the connection between that attack and Islam is inescapable.” He criticizes the project’s name, the Cordoba House, as homage to Spain’s Great Mosque of Cordoba, which he notes has been considered “the greatest monument to the Islamic invasion of southern Europe.” If the mosque backers were truly respectful of others, if they weren't trying to exploit the atrocities carried out by Muslim extremists, they would not be building a mosque in what once was the shadows of the twin towers. They wouldn't be naming it after one of the greatest symbols of Muslim conquest of the West. And they wouldn't schedule its grand opening for the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. No, this is clearly an "in-your-face" move, designed to prey on Americans' traditional tolerance and acceptance of others, our eagerness to show how open-minded we can be, and the willingness of so many of us to "blame America first." Each of these views is based on an underlying distrust of Islam. Tea’s post proposes no explanation for the center’s choice of location or opening date, other than an apparent desire to be offensive. A brief glance at the Cordoba Initiative’s website (the group building the community center) fills in some blanks. For instance, the Cordoba House's name does stem from the Spanish city, but in a different historical context: For nearly 800 years, the city of Cordoba in Spain endured as a shining example of tolerance among the three monotheistic religions. Muslim, Christian and Jew cohabited in prosperity during a period known for its outstanding literary and scientific productivity. The Cordoba House is a Muslim-led initiative, but is meant to further the group’s mission to enhance “mutual recognition and respect” by providing a “world-class facility that promotes tolerance, reflecting the rich diversity of New York City.” Its doors will be open to all, encouraging integration through arts and culture. Although commonly labeled as such by throughout the media, it should be noted that the center is not a mosque. Although there will be a prayer space, Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, points out here that a mosque has “some very specific parameters.” For example, the center will provide spaces for eating and playing music—two things forbidden in mosques. In short, the center is not a tribute to violence, extremism or even religion. It is a tribute to compassion and respect. Many critics of the project claim to distinguish between radical and moderate Muslims; their insistence that an interfaith community center is offensive—when erected by Muslims—betrays their lingering prejudice. But there is ample enthusiasm for the Cordoba Initiative’s mission among New Yorkers. TriBeCa resident Jean Grillo’s point of view is likely to become more prevalent once the center opens: “What better place to teach tolerance than at the very area where hate tried to kill tolerance?” Another review of perspectives on the Cordoba House can be found at:

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Rachel Curtis is an In These Times intern, earned her master’s degree in international journalism from Cardiff University, Wales.
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