I still don’t quite understand why what should have been a local issue has become a national debate. The community board approved the community center. District leaders support it. Even the mayor agrees there’s nothing inappropriate. Yet, the debate over whether to build a 13-story Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan continues, with people purporting to represent 9-11 families leading the charge against it.
Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing but the utmost sympathy for families who lost loved ones on 9-11. It was a great tragedy for our entire nation, but especially New York City. However, I think one of the most important things we can do as New Yorkers – and as Americans – is to clearly state that there is a difference between being a Muslim and being a terrorist. To forget that is to do exactly what the extremists want us to do, as it helps them gain credibility. Also, we can’t forget that Muslim-Americans were also killed on 9-11. What the terrorists were attacking wasn’t Jewish or Christian New Yorkers, but rather the values that New Yorkers of any creed hold dear: our commitment to pluralism and diversity. We can’t give that up.
Imam Rauf, the man behind the plan, so to speak, is Osama’s worst nightmare. The Imam is a moderate muslim and has been involved in the community for decades. He owns a bookstore in the neighborhood where the community center will be built. Rauf shows that you can be a devout muslim and be successfully integrated into a non-muslim, western nation. And breaking news: He’s worked with the FBI on counterterrorism efforts! Madeleine Albright looks up to him! He was welcomed into Democratic and Republican administrations alike.
He is the poster child extremists don’t want other muslims finding out about! The community center he’s building won’t be just for muslims: just like the JCC, it will be for people of all stripes, and help revitalize lower Manhattan.
And of course, those opposed to the Cordoba house will trot out all sorts of polls about how the majority of Americans doesn’t support building it. But really, that doesn’t matter. Just like I would’ve vote on whether to built a YMCA in Wichita, Kansas, neither should Americans who’ve likely never met a muslim before in their life be deciding whether a community center gets built in a city they’ve probably never visited. The only poll that matters is how Manhattan residents feel, and more Manhattan residents support than oppose the community center, not to mention that this community center will bring over 150 jobs to lower Manhattan at a time when unemployment is still high.
Maybe I’d be more open to hearing the other side if this wasn’t the first time in recent years when there’s been an uproar over a seemingly harmless muslim project. When I was a junior in high school, not too long ago, the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a dual-language English/Arabic public school, was in the middle of such a controversy. It was labeled a madrassa and founding Principal Debbie Almontaser (another moderate muslim and interfaith activist) had her reputation ruined. The highlight of the controversy to me was when she was forced to step down shortly before the school opened, and was replaced by an orthodox Jewish woman who didn’t speak Arabic. That’s the background I’m coming from: it’s hard for me to believe that this is anything but plain old islamophobia.
As a New Yorker, there are some values I remember being taught before I learned the times tables. I remember the potluck lunches in the first grade in my very multicultural school, the different units for different ethnicities in the third, learning Spanish in the fourth and singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” – the black national anthem – for my fifth grade graduation. To me, it’s unfathomable to oppose the Cordoba house simply on the basis of it containing a mosque. Bring me some real reasons, some real links to evil, not cloaked in lies in fears. Then we’ll talk.