Park 51, the former Cordoba House
Before I begin to expound on my topic for today, I need to state some things that may not be obvious to the casual reader. I am first and foremost an American. There is no doubt in my mind that I love my country. I can say categorically that I do not wish to live in any other country for any extended period of my life. I firmly believe in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which guarantee our basic freedoms and make us the envy of many other nations. Yes, some of our rights have been abridged in the security concerns following 9/ll, but I reluctantly understand they have been necessary in the fight against terrorism. I know that those that would see our country hobbled by fear would take any all steps to inflict further damage on our infrastructure and to our institutions by further bombings or catastrophic events like those that played out in the underground tunnel in London or on the trains in Spain. Terrorists are opportunists and we need to exercise due diligence to prevent them from striking at future targets by being vigilant and subscribing to safe practices. This may translate into having to disrobe at airport terminals before boarding flights or to support the war on drugs. Drug money has been shown to directly finance terrorist groups and there is little doubt that many cartels are sympathetic to terrorists' goals. With that said, I want to assure everyone that I have been studying the Cordoba Initiative's proposed Islamic cultural center, first named Cordoba House and now renamed as Park 51. This center would include a place a worship within its walls and because of that opponents have referred to it as a "mosque," even though that is a small part of what it would purport to be. The groundswell of controversy has risen because Park 51 would be located in the shadow of the former site of the Twin Towers, a mere two blocks away from Ground Zero. The relatives of those who died have weighed in that they would prefer it be built elsewhere out of deference to their feelings. Several well-known politicians and pundits have voiced their opinions that to build such a "mosque" in such close proximity to the place where over 3,000 Americans died would be in bad taste. I hear what they are saying and I am deeply affected by their arguments. The New York Landmarks Commission has the power to decide whether this cultural center can be built there and they have given the project a green light after months of contentious debate. They have in effect said that they believe such a building can help bring about healing in New York in the days following 9/ll. The majority of members have heard from their neighbors and they believe the Cordoba Initiative will make the abandoned former Burlington Coat Factory into a showplace for religious tolerance and understanding. The embattled project is headed by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has long promoted improved relations between Muslims and the West. The actions of a few misguided Islamic terrorists on September 11, 2001 should not be construed to be the feelings of all Muslims living in this country. Indeed, President George W. Bush warned the nation in one of his first speeches following the attacks on America that to indict all worshipers of Islam would be very wrong and anti-thetical to the principles of religious freedom we enjoy in this country. Rather than open up wounds that would inflame relations between patriotic Americans on both sides of this debate, we need to ask some basic questions. If building a center two blocks away is considered too close, then where would an appropriate site be? Is four blocks far enough or do we need to have the site moved as much as a half a mile away? Or failing that litmus test, is a mile or more going to be considered far enough? When the arguments are boiled down, it's not just a matter of inches; it's a matter of stopping the construction of the Islamic center, period. I see the point the relatives of the dead and those particularly vocal, patriotic Americans have made. Yet in the long run I see far more damage being done to the whole of our nation's community and to the fabric of our freedom by insisting the project be stopped. We are breeding distrust between our diverse religious communities by holding to such beliefs and doing irreparable harm to our fellow Americans by imposing such beliefs that fly in the face of what makes us such a strong nation. I am not a proponent of Islam. I am an advocate for America and its values. Those are the values that have shone like a beacon in a world where rights to practice one's religions have not always been guaranteed. Religious freedom is what led to the founding of this country and we should not forget that it is freedom of all religions that has kept us strong during periods of great strife. I would hate to think that well-intentioned Americans would react in such a negative way to a project that has been offered in peace and, ultimately, as a memorial to those who perished, many of whom were Islamic Americans too. It is not unreasonable to consider the feelings of those relatives and friends of the dead and to suggest ways in which the center can best honor their loved ones. There are already plans to remember the dead in a significant way inside the center but in the long run it will be the decision of Imam Rauf, considered a liberal or moderate among Islamic leaders in this country, and his board as how best to do that. Some suggest it is a deliberate slap in the face of Americans that this project has been allowed to go forth. Perhaps some Muslims feel that way. That is their problem. America went through several periods of isolationism and xenophobia and to what end? Our solution to dealing with our Native Americans was to corral them onto reservations or shoot them. Our solution to dealing with Japanese Americans during World War II was to send them off to "camps," much to our own shame. Here in the South we have had a horrible history of abuse when dealing with the civil rights for many of our people. Basic rights of ownership of land and voting for elected officials were denied and separate but equal school systems never worked. Today's generation of Americans demonstrates through their words and deeds that much of these racist attitudes are in the dustbin of history. For these reasons and countless others like them, I say we cannot let our fear of Islam or distrust of our Islamic-American brothers to guide us into taking a wrongful stand which might drive a wedge between our diverse religious communities from which we may never recover. As painful as this center may be to some of us, we must not let this controversy make us intolerant and intractable. We can and should voice our opinions. This is, after all, our right as American citizens; but in the end, if the monies are raised and the already-approved center is constructed, we should be supportive. This will teach an impressive lesson to our enemies, who would love to see us bicker with our brethren to show others that we are not the nation we say we are, that we are a nation that hates one another and is not worthy of emulation elsewhere. Remember that an adjudicated project that passes each legal test and is erected near Ground Zero has the capacity to send a powerful message to those that are bent on our nation's destruction. It is simply that they we are strong because of our diversity and because of that they will never be able to destroy us.