Hope at Ground Zero
America and Muslims have an opportunity to repair frayed relations and build bridges for the future, writes Aijaz Zaka Syed*
As if there were not enough issues already to drive America and Muslims apart, we had to invent this one. Look at the case of the proposed mosque in New York. The entire US media and rightwing brigade are acting as if Muslims have invaded America and are building a monument to Osama Bin Laden at the site where the World Trade Center once stood.
Reality is a little different. If anyone cares to know, the United States, and New York in particular, are home to a large Muslim population and this isn't the first mosque to be built in the Big Apple. There are numerous mosques and prayer halls all over the city.
More important, it's wrong to call it the "Ground Zero mosque". For one, it's not being built at the site of the Twin Towers but a few blocks away from it. Besides, it's not just a mosque in the strictest conventional sense that is coming up in Manhattan. Cordoba House, a $100 million project mooted by a Kuwaiti immigrant, Imam Feisal Abdul-Raouf and his Indian wife Daisy Khan, is a cultural centre, which will include a prayer area, sports facilities, theatre and a restaurant.
The aim, according to the promoters, is to foster "integration, tolerance of difference and community cohesion ... a place where individuals, regardless of their backgrounds, will find a centre of learning, art and culture." Imam Abdul Rauf calls himself a follower of "moderate Islam" in the tradition of South Asia's Sufis. Frankly, I do not care much for this nonsense about "moderate Islam". For there is no such thing as moderate or extremist Islam. Islam is Islam is Islam: take it or leave it. You accept it the way it is. You cannot distort or mould it or water down its teachings to suit your own convenience or requirements. This is one faith that brooks no half measures. And it needs no testimonials from either its followers or foes.
No matter what anyone says or thinks, Islam is moderate by nature and preaches moderation, reason and restraint in all respects -- even in your devotion and faith. It doesn't want you to spend all your time in the mosque or cloister yourself from the world to do nothing but pray all the time. If it stands for submitting oneself to the will of God, it also means peace, literally. This is why all this fuss over an Islamic centre near Ground Zero is rather unfortunate.
It's all the more absurd considering Imam Abdul-Raouf has long been a champion of building bridges and better Islam-West relations. He never tires of sermonising to his flock on the need for the faithful to live peacefully with other religions and communities, going out of his way to emphasise all that is common in all religions, especially between Islam and Christianity, and Judaism. In fact, in his recent book, What's Right With Islam is What's Right with America, he argues that unlike many Muslim countries, America is "the ideal Islamic society" because it encourages tolerance, human rights and promotes freedom of practising faith. As Fareed Zakaria puts it, the cleric's vision of Islam is Bin Laden's worst nightmare.
With the Cordoba House, Imam Abdul Rauf hopes to carry forward this mission of building healthier Islam-West relations. That such a noble initiative should face such bitter opposition and hostility from the US right, and even ordinary Americans, the majority of them genuinely tolerant and generous of spirit, is tragically ironic.
Having failed to block the project, the neocons are venting their ire on Muslims. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (remember her?) has gone on Twitter to ask "peaceful Muslims" to "repudiate the mosque", because it "stabs hearts". Conservative pundit and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says no mosque can be built near Ground Zero as long there are no churches and synagogues in Saudi Arabia.
A former New York mayor and another frustrated presidential hopeful terms Cordoba House a "desecration" and an insult to the victims of 9/11 attacks. A Florida church has given the call for "burn a Quran day" to protest the "Ground Zero mosque".
As these instances of Islamophobia grow across America, fuelled by preachers of sweetness and light such as Pat Robertson and Ann Coulter, and TV networks like Fox News, some wonder if Cordoba House is such a good idea. Given the rancour and acidic bitterness the issue has already generated, which is being exploited by Muslim bashers, some think the promoters should just call off the whole thing. It now seems to defeat the very object of the project.
They're probably right. Islam believes that the whole earth is a mosque for believers. You do not need walls and a roof to pray. Wherever you stand to pray or prostrate before God, that piece of land is the mosque. This is what early Muslims did, praying wherever and whenever they could, even when they were fighting for their lives. So Islam and Muslims in America do not need that piece of land near Ground Zero for their survival or identity. Their faith is beyond all this.
However, the Manhattan mosque initiative has subjected both America and Muslims to an unprecedented test. It not just tests America's claim to be the "land of the free" but also the much-celebrated ideals of its founding fathers. It tests its fabled democracy and freedom and its claim to be a land where everyone is welcome and has the right to do his or her own thing.
By giving the go-ahead for the mosque project in Manhattan, close to the site of the 11 September terror attacks, New York and its mayor Michael Bloomberg have already earned the admiration of many Muslims around the world. However, the ongoing campaign against the mosque and indirectly against Muslims is sure to get fiercer and nastier in the days and months to come. The response of the US leadership will be watched closely around the world, especially by Muslims.
On the other hand, Muslims face a situation that refreshes the memories of the 9/11 aftermath. Right now, they need all the survival skills they've got. Already, there's an alarming upsurge in hostility and paranoia in the land that they chose to make their home.
But I see an opportunity in this brewing crisis. Muslims must use this opportunity to clear the cobwebs clouding the image of their faith in the minds of Americans. They have an opportunity to remind and explain to Americans, and the world, that the destruction that struck the Twin Towers does not represent Islam, but peace, compassion and equality do.
In the Manhattan mosque initiative, America and Muslims have an opportunity to repair their long-frayed relations and build bridges for a shared future. The wounds inflicted by the US wars and policies in the Muslim world are deep, but gestures like these could make them less painful.
The Cordoba House project should be a monument to healthier and better Islam-West relations, and for a better world. There's too much at stake in this struggle for America and Islam's soul.
* The writer is opinion editor of Khaleej Times .