Islamic Center at Ground Zero — an American Ayodhya

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By ASHISH KUMAR SEN
America is a formidable bastion of freedom, glorious exemplar of religious tolerance, magnet to talent from across the world, bewildering salad bowl of people of   different faiths, nationalities, ethnicities…. It’s this America that finds its cherished values threatened by a raging debate over a proposed Islamic centre in Lower Manhattan. The lines are sharply drawn, facts have been twisted, and dissimulation dominates. The biggest falsehood, which triggered the debate has now been forgotten in the fury of impassioned speeches: that the proposed centre is to be built at the site where the  World Trade Center stood till 9/11.

The truth is different, definitely not provocative enough to have the entire nation agitated. The fact is, the proposed centre is to be built at least two blocks from Ground Zero, considered hallowed ground in the American consciousness, consecrated as it is by the blood of those killed in the attack on the twin towers. The center won’t even overlook  Ground Zero: the two are separated by a two- to five-minute walk. For critics, though, the center is still two blocks too close, and reflects the insensitivity of its proponents towards the victims of 9/11.

At the site of the proposed center stands a decrepit building that once housed a Burlington Coat Factory, a clothing chain. It’s in a strip club-pocked neighborhood through which tourists amble to glimpse Ground Zero. The Islamic Center, officially named Park 51, will house a mosque, a swimming pool, a basketball court, an auditorium, a library, a day-care facility and restaurants. The center is the brainchild of Imam Feisal Rauf and his wife  Daisy Khan of the New York-based Cordoba Initiative. They say the community centre will be based on the model of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, will serve the needs of a large community of Muslims in the neighborhood, and promote inter-faith dialogue.

The debate received fresh impetus because of President Barack Obama’s comments at an Iftaar dinner at the White House on August 13. Obama said Muslims had the right to practice their religion just like everyone else in America. “And that includes  the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan,” he added. A day later, as a firestorm raged  over his remarks, Obama appeared to backpedal, saying he was only speaking on the issue of religious freedom  and “not commenting…on  the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque” in lower Manhattan. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, says, “Obama raised an important argument the first night and hedged the second day. When he hedged, he opened the door wide for this debate to persist.”

Into this debate jumped the irrepressible Sarah Palin, the Republican Party’s self-anointed “Mama Grizzly.” Unable to contain her excitement at sniffing out a potent vote-getter, she shot off misspelt tweets criticizing plans to build the center near Ground Zero. In one such malapropism-bearing missive she wrote: “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.” Another influential Republican,  Newt Gingrich, described plans to build the center as “a test of the timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American  elites.”

Such rhetoric has shocked people like Zogby. “The doors are now  open for  bigots    and bigotry,” he says. He believes the controversy will cause more damage to America’s reputation than Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay combined. “How you  treat an Iraqi prisoner is one thing, but how you treat your own is a measure of who you are. I think in this instance we are failing badly,” he told Outlook.

A few luminaries refused to budge from their initial support for the Islamic center, considerably burnishing their secular credentials. For instance, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Jewish American, said: “The WTC site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no    to a mosque in lower Manhattan.” He further warned that to “cave (in) to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that.”

But the tide of popular opinion seems decidedly against the Islamic center. A CNN poll found nearly 70 percent of Americans opposed to the mosque. A  Time Abt srbi survey found 61 percent in opposition; as many as 46 percent thought Islam was more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against non-believers. The Pew Research Center found that 18 percent of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim.

No doubt, conservatives have exploited the issue to attack the President and his Democratic  Party ahead of the mid-term elections in November. But the xenophobic bluster is likely to have detrimental ripple effects worldwide. Scott Atran, a research director at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, who studies Islamic terrorism, says Muslims around the world are “outraged at what is perceived as the bigotry of the majority of Americans” but they support what is viewed with admiration by intellectuals as Obama’s  articulated “minority” stance.

Even closer home, the debate over the location of the center in New York has triggered off protests in states as far away from Ground Zero as California and Tennessee. “It’s not about the location. It’s about Muslims. Period,” Zogby says. Quite depressingly, nobody is prepared to listen to Rauf, who has presided as imam at a mosque 12 blocks from Ground Zero for the past 27 years. The imam has been repeating what the Cordoba Initiative notes  on its Web site: “As Muslim New Yorkers and Americans, we want to help and be part of  rebuilding our neighborhood in lower Manhattan. It is important for all of us to show the world that Americans will not be frightened or deterred by the extremist forces of hatred.”

For now, some Americans have stirred a storm of hatred. And it’s the Cordoba Initiative, which has refused to buckle under. Dismissing the suggestion of New York State Governor David Paterson to shift the center to a different part of town as a  gesture of peace, the Cordoba Initiative shot back: “No one should be driven out of his or her own neighborhood-especially for religious reasons.” And then to remind Americans about their values, it said it would be “unconstitutional and un-American” to shift the center elsewhere.

The high-pitched rhetoric is not only a dangerous symptom of a metastasizing Islam phobia, but threatens to change what being American really means.
Courtesy: Outlook India

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