New York City has voted for tolerance

9/11 was despicable and devastating. Does that mean there cannot be a mosque on Park Place, near the site of the Twin Towers?

Bloomberg 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Bloomberg 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
‘No Catholic church should be within a few blocks of any school or playground.” No, no one seriously said that in New York recently, at least not in public. But it seemed apropos to one reader commenting in The New York Times last week after a vote by Manhattan’s Landmarks Preservation Commission cleared the way for an Islamic center and mosque to be built two blocks from Ground Zero.
Many opponents of the center, officially called the Cordoba Initiative, have dramatically played the racist fear card, with vociferous anti- Muslim sentiment that brands billions of Muslims for the terrorist acts nine years ago of 19 men in four airplanes.
Of course that act on 9/11 was despicable and devastating.
Does that mean there cannot be a mosque on Park Place, near the site of the Twin Towers in this nation that celebrates religious freedom and the right to worship? “By similar logic, to protect children from abuse, no Catholic church should be within a few blocks of any school or playground,” wrote the Times reader, referring to the scandals regarding pedophile priests.
What is the Cordoba Initiative to symbolize – tolerance or extremism? It depends on whom you listen to.
The city has voted for tolerance.
Bravo to Manhattan’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. It refused last week to designate the mosque’s intended site – a building once used by a discount clothing store – as a landmark. A landmark status would have prevented the Cordoba Initiative from demolishing the site (and a neighboring building) to erect the center, which is said to be modeled on a Jewish community center or YMCA. Now it can construct the site, called Park51, which will include the mosque, an interfaith chapel and a memorial to 9/11.
AMONG THE OPPONENTS was the Anti-Defamation League, which vigorously has defended the religious freedom of many faiths, but found that the mosque was a bit too much. It issued a one-size-almost-fits-all statement that simultaneously called freedom of religion the cornerstone of American democracy, condemned religious prejudice and “condemn[ed] those whose opposition to this proposed Islamic Center is a manifestation of such bigotry.”
Then it registered its opposition to the site. “Ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right,” the ADL said. “In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.” The problem with this argument is that the protection of religion and religious minorities in the US is only about rights. It is the legal rights guaranteed by US law that have provided the ADL’s armor for decades. Is there some instance in which American Jews would find it acceptable to say: “Oh, let’s forget about my rights and the US Constitution; let’s talk about your pain.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in a speech after the commission’s unanimous vote, recalled that religious freedom was not always a given. “Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish. And it is a freedom that, even here in a city that is rooted in Dutch tolerance, was hard-won over many years,” he said. “In the mid- 1650s, the small Jewish community living in Lower Manhattan petitioned Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant for the right to build a synagogue – and they were turned down.”
The mayor noted that Muslims were among those murdered and grieving on 9/11. “It is my hope that the mosque will help to bring our city even closer together and help repudiate the false and repugnant idea that the attacks of 9/11 were in any way consistent with Islam,” he said.
Many Americans apparently need some serious lessons about Islam. Take the lieutenant governor of Tennessee, Ron Ramsey. Speaking about another proposed mosque and Islamic center, in the town of Murfreesboro, near Nashville – where there do not seem to have been reports of Muslim terrorism – Ramsey distinguished himself for ignorance or bigotry, or both. Campaigning to become the Republican candidate for governor, Ramsey reportedly said: “You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, cult or whatever you want to call it.”
ZEV CHAFETS, formerly the spokesman for Menachem Begin, recently was a guest on a public radio talk show in New York. He was promoting his new book Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One. As it happens, Chafets was scheduled to speak after Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a Sufi Muslim who is founder of the Cordoba Initiative, and Daisy Khan, the imam’s wife.
Chafets, not known for his liberal leanings, made a significant point before discussing his book about the right-wing talk show host Limbaugh.
“I heard the imam and his wife just now and I thought that he was saying important things,” Chafets said. “I think Sufi Islam, from what I know of it and I am not an expert, is a moderate and sensible and reasonable, if I can say that without being condescending, form of Islam, and I think it is all to the good.
“We keep asking where are the moderate Muslim voices, and here is one,” he said. “And I think that ought to be encouraged.”
How true, and how tragic that it falls to a city commission whose task is to identify architecturally significant buildings to make our moral choices and to teach tolerance.
The Islamic center will be new, not the Muslims’ presence. They have been worshiping at the site for about a year. “Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure,” Bloomberg said. “And there is no neighborhood in this city that is off limits to God’s love and mercy.”
We should thank the Landmarks Commission for reminding us.