August 15, 2010 - I live very close to Ground Zero in New York City. Under the leadership of Sheikh Feisal Abdul Rauf, a mosque has been proposed for a site close enough to Ground Zero to have more than just symbolic significance. This truly is the location of the attack: the building that originally occupied the site was damaged on that day.
At first I supported the mosque. I have since changed my mind.
I had heard Rauf's talk about "bridge building" and that Rauf is a Sufi. Sufism represents a mystical tradition incorporated into Islam, which has also often been at odds with mainstream Islam. Notable Sufi leaders such as Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi have done exemplary work promoting religious tolerance. So I made an association, prematurely, and assumed that if Rauf, who is called a Sufi, is claiming that he stands for religious tolerance, then his project should be worth my support.
But then I started hearing other things. On September 30, 2001, less than three weeks after the terrorist attack, in an interview with Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes Rauf blamed the attack at least partially on the United States, calling US policy an "accessory to the crime that happened." He continued: "In the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA." (5) In other words: America created bin Laden, made him who he is, and instigated him. America had it coming.
Rauf not only blames the United States for Islamic terrorism, he refuses to call such terrorism what it is. In a recent radio interview Rauf was asked if he agreed with this State Department assessment: "Hamas terrorists, especially those in the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, have conducted many attacks, including large-scale suicide bombings, against Israeli civilian and military targets." Rauf's response: "Look, I'm not a politician. The issue of terrorism is a very complex question." (4)
Should a self-described "peace builder" really need to hesitate when asked whether intentionally murdering Israeli civilians, including children, is wrong?
Rauf also has some questionable ties. He is featured prominently on the web site of the Malaysian Perdana Global Peace Organization, where his biography is displayed and he is listed as one of Perdana's "Role Players and Contributors." The web site has much material, including propaganda videos, supporting the Free Gaza Movement and its attempt to break the Israeli blockade of weapons into Gaza. A Reuters report documents that Perdana is the Free Gaza Movement's greatest contributor (2). The Free Gaza Movement is connected to the International Solidarity Movement. Both are radical pro-Palestinian organizations whose members support terrorist violence even though they may not personally engage in it. The Free Gaza Movement's flotilla project is an attempt to clear a sea lane into Gaza for delivery to Hamas of weapons supplied by Iran. Hamas has used its weapons to attack towns and cities in southern Israel. If Hamas can achieve this clear sea lane, it can gain access to weapons that would greatly expand its range, putting more Israeli population centers in danger. This is what "peace builder" Rauf has been supporting.
What else does this "moderate" Muslim leader support? Perdana's head is former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whose name some readers will recognize. Mahathir gained worldwide notoriety when in 2003 he addressed the Organization of the Islamic Conference saying that Jews "rule the world by proxy," that "they invented socialism, communism, human rights and democracy, so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong," that they are the enemy of Muslims, and that the Muslim world should use brains as well as brawn to fight them (3). Why does Rauf play a key role in an organization led by such a hater? The question deserves to be asked.
But there is a stigma against making such inquiries. If one tries to raise honest questions about the mosque, one is likely to be called a bigot. Even President Obama has tried to clamp down on those who would raise such questions. On August 13 he stated:
But let me be clear. As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. (1)
This as if to imply that those who question the mosque are against religious freedom.
I don't know of anyone who is trying to prohibit the building of mosques. Nor do I know of anyone who is attempting to block Muslims from practicing their religion. It is the symbolism of this particular mosque in this particular place that is at issue. New York Governor David Paterson has offered to donate an alternate site to the mosque organizers. They adamantly refused. The wisdom (or lack thereof) of Paterson's proposal notwithstanding, clearly the symbolism is as important to the mosque's supporters as it is to the mosque's opponents.
Throughout the history of Islam, when Muslims conquered a territory they would erect mosques over the holy places of the people they defeated. This served not only to promote Islam but to eradicate the conquered culture. In the Holy Land this is quite evident; examples include Bilal's Mosque built over the Tomb of Rachel, the Ibrahimi Mosque built over the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and the great Dome of the Rock built on the site of the ancient Jewish Temple. Many Christian holy sites suffered the same fate, including the Umayyad Mosque, built over the Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Damascus, and the Ayasofya Mosque built on the great Hagia Sofia Orthodox Basilica in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). The proposed mosque, named the "Cordoba Project" after the Muslim conquest of Spain, is slated for the site of another Muslim victory. A coincidence? Even if it is, the organizers of the mosque have shown an alarming lack of sensitivity to historical context.
Mosques all over the world have become centers of extremist thinking and teaching. Certainly not all mosques have, and whether this one will remains to be seen. But this mosque is spearheaded by an Imam whose views are more radical than he readily admits. It will be indeed a great irony if, a decade since the 9/11 attack, we have nothing new and noteworthy to show for that site except a mosque whose leader proclaimed that the United States was an "accessory" to that same attack and that its main perpetrator Osama bin Laden was "made in the USA."
In spite of the patent absurdity of such an occurrence, it still cannot be discussed freely. Obama's implication that critics of the mosque are against religious freedom is hardly the worst of it. Those who question are reflexively called racists, Islamophobes and worse. Their integrity, morality, and even sanity are questioned. We simply cannot have an honest conversation about Islam today.
And we need to have such a conversation. To those who judge people who raise questions about Islam, I would only mention that many of the worst atrocities committed around the world are done in the name of that religion. In Afghanistan: blinding schoolgirls with acid thrown in their faces, stoning women accused of adultery, cutting off the ears and nose of a teenage girl who fled an abusive marriage. In Iran: stoning to death women accused of adultery, persecution of Bahais and gays. Saudi Arabia: using vast oil wealth to export its Wahhabist hate-filled version of Islam around the world, severe restriction of women's rights, persecution of Christians who practice their faith. Gaza: indiscriminate shelling of Israeli population centers. Gaza and West Bank: widely institutionalized genocidal anti-Jewish incitement. There is also Iran's denial of the first Holocaust while proclaiming the need for a second. There is also the persecution of Christians in Iraq and Turkey and other places throughout the Muslim world. One could go on. This is not just a lunatic fringe that has "hijacked" a great religion. We are talking about the most important centers of Islam around the world.
I am not associating Sheikh Rauf with any of this. I am only saying that it is not racism or "Islamophobia" to wonder why these atrocities have drawn no significant protest in the Muslim world, especially when Muslims have shown the world that they do have a voice by loudly and violently protesting the publication of a few cartoons in a Danish magazine.
None of this is to say that mosques should not exist, even in lower Manhattan close to Ground Zero. But if a mosque is built on this historically important and emotionally charged location, those who build it need to demonstrate a true spirit of tolerance that can be trusted and that is not tainted by any association with the radical views that Imam Rauf has expressed in unguarded moments and when Western audiences are not listening. Otherwise build the mosque, but not where this country was attacked and thousands killed by Osama bin Laden, who Imam Rauf, the leader of this mosque, said was "made in America."
Muslims cannot say they have no responsibility to denounce the atrocities committed in the name of their religion. Non-Muslims can know Islam only by what Muslims show it to be. The reform of Islam can come only from within Islam. Nevertheless, our society has the right to ask that any monument to Islam built on ground hallowed by the deaths of the innocent be free of any trace of the intolerance that has characterized Islam throughout centuries and that led to the attack on this country.
One can protest this mosque for many reasons. If one does so from antipathy towards Muslims, that is wrong. It is extremely important to distinguish ideas from people, and to recognize that we can - and must - criticize destructive ideas while not encouraging hatred of anyone. Opposing this mosque's construction on Ground Zero need not be an expression of intolerance. It can in fact be a stand for tolerance. It can be a call for a rational discussion of a subject we have for the most part been unable to discuss rationally. If one good thing could come from the construction of this mosque over the sorest wound in America right now, it would be the ability to have this honest and badly needed conversation. But I have little faith that it will happen.
(1) Jackson, David. "Obama's Comments on Mosque Near Ground Zero Draws Strong Reactions." USA Today, August 14, 2010.
(2) Kambas, Michele and Tim Pearce. "Factbox: What Is the Group Challenging Israel on Gaza?." Reuters, June 4, 2010.
(3) "Mahathir Attack on Jews Condemned." CNN, October 17, 2003.
(4) Topousis, Tom. "Imam Terror Error: Ground Zero Mosque Leader Hedges on Hamas." New York Post, June 19, 2010.
(5) Transcript of CBS's 60 Minutes interview on Sept 30, 2001. September 30, 2001.
Peace with Realism