By Manzer Munir for Pakistanis for Peace
This is already my third article on the NYC Mosque controversy. When I started my Facebook group and website Pakistanis for Peace by the same name nearly two years ago, I did it in response to the tragic and callous terrorist attacks in Mumbai India in 2008 and my desire to see peace in that region and beyond. As a firm believer in God, but not a particularly religious person, I never would have imagined that I would end up making a big part of my focus not just peace between India and Pakistan, but also peace and understanding between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds as well. Heaven knows I have my own questions and issues with certain Muslim laws and practices and I of all people am the least suitable to be one of its defenders. However, I am a strict constitutionalist and as mentioned in my previous articles on this subject, I have advocated the building of the mosque simply on First Amendment religious freedom grounds.
Now here I am in less than one month, I find myself already writing a third article on the mosque controversy. Much has been written already by others on this topic also, but I wanted to give a few more opinions from a rational, moderate and patriotic American Muslim perspective, one which is missing in the current dialogue.
We know that many people who are opposed to the building of the mosque in lower Manhattan simply ask “Why there?” “Why would “they” possibly want to build it there of all places? It is seen as an affront by them that Muslims should want to build an inter-faith mosque, community center and a planned outreach ministry in the heart of Manhattan two city blocks from the site of the World Trade Center and the attacks of September 11, nine year ago. In fact, last night, while watching CNN, I saw Rick Sanchez ask former Governor George Pataki of New York about the Ground Zero Mosque controversy and his views on the subject. “Why there of all places would you build a mosque?” asked Gov. Pataki. Why there? As if he had fully bought into a favorite point of right wing groups that “Muslims build mosques at places they conquer” and that this is somehow a celebration of their “victory” over us because of the deaths of so many of our fellow countrymen on 9/11. That statement is wrong on so many levels that normally I would not even waste energy answering a clearly misguided assumption, but I will make an exception to clear the air as that is precisely what this article aims to do.
First of all, the 9/11 attacks were not a result of the actions of mainstream Muslims or the collective billion plus adherents of the religion but instead by members of a terror group known as Al-Qaeda, whose leader, Osama Bin Laden, we were very familiar and friendly with during the Soviet Afghan War of the 1980’s as he had assisted us in stopping the Red Army from conquering Afghanistan at the height of the Cold War between the two superpowers. Also a mosque is a place of worship. It is not a place where bombs are made and terrorists are trained either in ideology or practical training. To equate the building of a mosque to a direct link to terrorism or some other nefarious activity is in itself a deeply offensive argument to any Muslim, if one must speak of insensitivities.
So are we at war with Islam? This really is the only question we must ask ourselves to understand the debate over the mosque controversy. Debra Burlingame, the co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America, issued a statement saying that “Building a 15-story mosque at Ground Zero is a deliberately provocative act.” This is simply not true as it is not exclusively just a mosque, but rather a multi layered structure that will house an auditorium, restaurant, gymnasium, library, conference rooms and multi-faith prayer halls devoted to allowing non-Muslim visitors the chance to come explore the center and at the same time take time to meditate and pray according to their own customs.
The center, as its leader Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf pointed out recently, “will establish this community as the place where the moderate Muslim voice condemns terrorism and works for new, peaceful, and harmonious relationships with all New Yorkers and indeed all Americans.” Just the fact that this center will have a restaurant, conference rooms, a library and multi-faith dialogue and prayer rooms, already makes this proposed building the most uniquely American mosque in the world. Nowhere else will one find a mosque so devoted to understanding and bridge building between Islam and other religions and no other place and location will it be more sorely needed in the years to come than in New York City! Too often, many non-Muslims complain about the self segregation practices of Muslims and indeed a characteristic of all minority communities to be in their own bubble and for not having a lot of interaction between other communities or faiths.
Many times my own non-Muslim friends have been curious and inquired on how Muslims pray and what they believe in and what exactly goes on in a typical mosque. But typically a small, regular mosque does not have the sort of access and resources to satisfy this curiosity and neither the infrastructure nor the logistics to handle curious visitors of other faiths. Primarily mosques in this country have been built with Muslims as its sole audience and occupants. This is the first time a mosque and cultural center is being proposed that will eliminate the barriers that many non-Muslims feel when it comes to understanding Islam and Muslims and actually takes into considerations its non-Muslim visitors when planning the structure. For many years to come, many Americans and indeed tourists from around the world will be coming to the proposed complex now under construction at the site of the World Trade Centers that will house the 9/11 Memorial. What better place will there be than a few blocks away from the 9/11 Memorial where visitors can be told about the Islam of the great boxer Muhammed Ali and hall of fame basketball player Kareem Abdul Jabbar and not that of evil individuals such as Mohammed Atta and Osama Bin Laden? Where else should they be told of the difference between the Islam that is practiced by comedian Dave Chappelle and Oprah’s Dr Mehemt Oz versus the one practiced by the backward barbarian murderers known as the Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan? Where else can they come to know of the type of Islam practiced by patriotic Bronze Star and Purple Heart decorated deceased US soldier Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan or the one practiced by the deranged Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the accused perpetrator of the Fort Hood Army base who sadly killed 13 fellow soldiers almost 1 year ago?
Now in order to satisfy the opponents and critics of the center, I also believe that all the funding needs to be transparent, there needs to be a multi-faith board of directors, and the Muslim leadership needs to be cognizant that this is indeed a very special place for all Americans and a place of national mourning. This mosque needs to therefore address the attacks of 9/11 and also needs to be a reminder not just to non-Muslims of the tragedy that was 9/11 but more importantly it needs to serve as a constant reminder to the rest of the Muslim world of the terrible actions some have committed in the name of Islam.
Why build it here of all places you may still ask? Why not here? What other place in America, nay, what other place in the world did Islam take the biggest blow to its reputation and image? It is Ground Zero and lower Manhattan itself where this religion of over a billion people got literally hijacked and its message of peace and tolerance got forever destroyed in the eyes of the world’s non-Muslims by events of 9/11 and the actions of a handful of radical extremists who were terrorists and part of a network known as Al-Qaeda. So, why not build a monument to tolerance and understanding for the very religion that took the biggest hit to its global credibility by events that happened in this area? I believe that it is not out of any provocation or insensitivities that Muslims want to build a community center near Ground Zero, but rather because this is the one place in the world where truth about the religion needs to be told and the need to showcase the real Islam of the world’s Muslims rather than allow the story of the hatred and violence perpetrated by the terrorists to be the only story one hears when discussing the religion of Islam. This center needs to be a part of the healing process we must go through as a nation and will be a testament for the rest of the Muslim world outside our shores of the grandeur of our nation and for our acceptance of Muslims and for not allowing the stereotyping of a religion of hundreds of millions of people over the actions of 19 evildoers.
Trust me, the terrorists will triumph if this mosque does not get built. We must not forget who we’re fighting against, and what we are indeed fighting for. The Taliban, the terrorists and other radical Islamists do not respect religious freedom or tolerance. Their distorted and narrowly interpreted Wahhabi views of Islam leave no room for dissent, debate or disagreements. These terrorists are responsible for more deaths of dissenting and or differing Muslims than of any other religion at their hands. These terrorists are Islam’s biggest enemy and threat and we must remember that this is not a war between us and the Muslim world. It is a war between us and Al-Qaeda. And to prevent moderate, peace seeking, bridge building, and patriotic American Muslims from building a structure that will help ease the pain and misunderstanding of the events of that dark day 9 years ago in September will only play into the hands of those who hate us for our freedoms. To have Muslim Americans potentially lose these very freedoms due to all the pressure, in this land built on freedom and liberty, will only strengthen the hands of the terrorists and bolster their claims that this is truly a war on Islam and that they are second class citizens who do not even have the fundamental rights to worship that is afforded to all Americans. This is a battle for Islam itself, one where the forces of evil are attempting to commandeer the entire religion towards their narrow minded interpretation of the sacred texts. We must hold steadfast to our principles and ideals and support moderate Islam in taking back the religion from the extremists and allowing this mosque to be built will go a long ways in turning the tide of radicalism, and ensuring that we stand for our time tested principles, no matter how unpopular they may be in the current climate.
-Manzer Munir, founder of Pakistanis for Peace, a proud Pakistani American and peace activist, is a freelance journalist that writes for PakistanisforPeace.com and other publications.