Monday, August 9, 2010

Why Build The "Ground Zero Mosque"?

As a New Yorker living in L.A, and one who has stood at the WTC site and stared at the names of friends on a plaque, I've followed the recent controversy over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque with some interest. And, as with most public debates, it's been quickly reduced to its simplest pro and con arguments. On the pro side, it's a matter of religious freedom, a way of showing that we, as Americans are above the base, gut-level thinking that demonizes Islam based on 9/11 and world-wide extremism. Let's show the world what it means to be American by celebrating religious freedom. This is New York. We celebrate diversity. We are diversity. The con arguments are less theoretical and more emotional. It's a slap in the face to all New Yorkers, all Americans, all people - particularly those who suffered personally on 9/11.

But the more I listen to the arguments, there's another one I don't hear. It's not about permission. It's about intent. It's not about whether or not an organization should be allowed to build an Islamic cultural center/mosque so close to Ground Zero. It's a matter of why they  would want to.

Even if you ascribed the worst possible motives to those behind the project - adding insult to injury -- what harm could the insult do that could even come close to the pain of the injury? The injury was so devastating that the insult would pale in comparison. It would be a long way to go for a relatively meaningless symbolic gesture.

But, for argument's sake, let's ascribe the best possible intentions to those behind the project. A chance to show the true face of Islam and wipe away the stain of those black-hearted fools who were dumb and angry enough to be convinced that they were enacting the will of some higher power by committing mass murder. If the intention is to ask us not to judge Islam by the actions of terrorists, to show that we share a common religious tradition and to reach across cross-cultural barriers, then why do the one thing that would embitter American hearts even more? To think that there wouldn't be a strong, visceral reaction to the project is disingenuous. By announcing plans to build a mosque just blocks away from the site you not only add to the pain of those who suffered on that day and continue to suffer, but you enable every politician, not to mention every Idiot American with a Twitter account, to set out on a campaign to demonize Islam and score political points in an election year. You fail at the very thing you set out to accomplish. And, to be a bit more cynical, if the goal is mere public relations, then this is just very bad PR.

If one accepts the idea that compassion is at the root of all religious traditions, and if even the partial intent of this project is to reach out and show compassion for the victims, this simply isn't a very compassionate thing to do. If the people behind the project really wanted to show the true heart of Islam, why do it through a building? Even though I left NY over 20 years ago and only get back about once a year, if memory serves, I'm pretty sure that the one thing NY doesn't absolutely need is another building. The city is lousy with buildings. Instead off adding to the architectural landscape, if the goal is to heal wounds, why not take that $100 million and actually heal? Start a fund for victims' families. Cops. Firemen. EMTs. Rescue workers. (Especially those whose continuing medical coverage didn't seem necessary, at least as far as Republicans in the House are concerned.) Use the money to treat wounds that may never heal. Ease suffering. Help rebuild the lives of the people whose lives stopped like a watch that got stepped on almost 9 years ago. Give money to schools. Help the sick. Give relief to families who are struggling. Momentarily put aside the symbolic gesture in favor of actual help.

At some point, it's less a matter of religious freedom than of common sense. You won't teach Americans about Islam by building a community center/mosque. Particularly on that spot in lower Manhattan. You could teach Americans about Islam through actions that demonstrate love, compassion, and a desire to heal. By doing that, you may one day discover American partners who would help you build an Islamic cultural center and mosque in the city - and that building would stand as a true monument to our mutual understanding, and mutual healing.

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