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The NYC Mosque:

What We Didn't Learn from History

by Mary Miller, Director of Research


As the 9th anniversary of September 11, 2001 approaches and we memorialize the slain and remember the events of that day, New York City is once again in the headlines. The debate of whether or not to allow the building of an Islamic mosque two blocks from “Ground Zero” is doing more than pouring salt into the wounds of history—it is rewriting history.

While both sides of the debate discuss healing, religious freedom and tolerance, a far deeper concern is revealed in the name of the project—The Cordoba Initiative.

The Cordoba Initiative is the brainchild of Kuwaiti-born American Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. He and his wife Daisy Khan are well known in New York for their interfaith work and progressive practice of Islam. They have worked closely with a sister organization, The American Society for Muslim Advancement, to create a new “American Muslim identity.”

Through his Initiative, Imam Feisal plans to build Cordoba House, a multicultural center surrounding a mega mosque. His statement to the press discusses a center not focused on “religious freedom,” but of inter-community cultural events and community services such as gym facilities and cooking classes.

Religious freedom, however, quickly became the focus when describing the reason for the name Cordoba.

Inspired by the struggle of other religious communities seeking acceptance in America, Cordoba House is named for the Spanish city where Muslims, Jews, and Christians together created one of the most fertile and creative civilizations in the world.

On the surface, the plans of Imam Feisal play into the heart of American liberalism—forget the past because we are forging a new future. Islam, however, has a long memory and teaches its proponents from generation to generation the glories of its past and continually creates a renewed spirit to reclaim it. The Cordoba Initiative serves as a part of that restoration.

Cordoba was located on the Iberian Peninsula in the extreme southwest of what is now Europe. The modern-day countries of that region include Portugal, Spain, Andorra, the Territory of Gibraltar and a small section of France.

During the time of the Islamic Caliphate (rule) of Cordoba during the 10th century, Cordoba served as a shining beacon of Islamic culture. It was a time when Islam reigned in the advance of science, history, geography, philosophy, and grammar.

However, the Christians and Jews living under this Caliph-ate did not share the same life as the Muslims in Cordoba. All non-Muslims were given the status of ahl al-dhimma (the people under protection) and were forced to pay a Jizya tax.

The concept was similar to that used by organized crime families in America who demanded payment from local business owners for “protection.”

While scholars disagree with the intensity of diversity in Cordoba during the reign of the Caliphate, most agree that it was not a paragon of interfaith relations. British-American historian Bernard Lewis argued that the view of Cordoba as representative of a time of interfaith unity is both ahistorical and apologetic. He wrote, “Islam traditionally did not offer equality nor even pretended that it did. To argue that it did is both a theological as well as a logical absurdity.”

The reason Imam Feisal reveres the name of Cordoba and wants to place it two blocks from Ground Zero is to link the recent Islamic “victory” of 9/11 with the days in which Islam shone bright against the medieval Christian West in Europe and a scattered and broken Jewish nation.

We cannot forget that the attacks of September 11th were not religious Islamic attacks against Christian churches as seen in other regions of the world. They were deliberate at-tempts to bring down the pillars built on American Christianity: a constitutional republic, capitalism, and military might.

At a time when espousing Christian faith and conviction is becoming virtually impossible in classrooms, the work place, and social gatherings across America, it seems incredulous that New York City’s commissioners are allowing the Cordoba Initiative to move forward just 500 feet from Ground Zero.

But, then again, proponents of the plan believe that by simply renaming the Initiative to the Park 51 Project, all doubt as to the plan’s peaceful intentions are removed.

In fact, the vitriol that occurred at the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing in July caused the project developer, Sharif el-Gamal (CEO of Soho Proper-ties), to respond with an urgent call, “I see this as more of a reason for this project to move forward.”

And this project is moving forward. The planned building (150,000 square feet and 13 to 15 stories high) will be divided to allow prayer space for Muslims, meeting rooms, meditation rooms, a spa, a basketball court, swimming pool, auditorium, classrooms, and a memorial dedicated to 9/11.

The project is being “professionally planned.” The entire facility is “green” and includes a garden. All of these attributes helped in getting the project approved. New Yorkers of all backgrounds, faiths, cultures, and races will have access to this facility.

According to project spokesman, Oz Sultan, “This space is going to be available for public lease. If a Jewish group wants to have an event, they can come in and borrow the space. We’re looking to fill the needs of the community.”

While this is an intriguing thought, Sultan is very careful with his words. I highly doubt there will be a functional synagogue or church utilizing the same space as a mosque. Filling the needs of the community is an accurate statement, however.

The 2009 Census Bureau estimates there are approximately 1.6 million people living in Manhattan. A study published in 2004 stated, “an estimated 600,000 Muslims now represent one of the fastest growing religious communities in New York City.”

A July 1, 2001 article in The National, “New Yorkers Campaign for Muslim School Holidays,” estimates there are about 100,000 children in the New York public school system. Based upon population estimates, New York City could be the largest Muslim city in the Western Hemisphere.

Park 51 will provide the community center required to service the needs of growing Islamic community and be the first center of its kind to help make Muslims more aware of Islam in the 21st century.

According to Sultan, “We need to open a cross-cultural dialogue that will address issues that people don’t talk about but do face the Muslim-American community, just like they face the rest of American society. Issues like homosexuality, obesity, drug, and alcohol abuse.”

Sultan continued, “It’s not just the space that’s lacking, but the education initiatives. And to create a space where people of all faiths can come and learn is wonderful.”

Education in Islam is not a benign term. In order to address the cultural issues facing American Muslims, the religious and cultural realities of Islam will be taught. It is naïve to think of Islam as only a religious or only a cultural phenomenon. It is both. In fact, Islamic Sharia law is all encompassing in the daily lives of Muslims of all countries.

Sharia addresses such topics as religion, crime, politics, economics, as well as the personal matters of hygiene, sexuality, diet, fasting, and prayer. In order to appropriately deal with the issues facing the “Muslim-American community,” Islamic Sharia education will be paramount within Park 51.

As one Islamic blogger wrote:

Muslims aren’t just immigrants anymore, we are first-, second- and third-generation Americans, and we are a part of the fabric that binds our society. If Park 51 were realized, it could create more than 150 jobs in Lower Manhattan, which has not recovered economically since 9/11. To announce a $100M project that will create employment and bring more people to the area will rejuvenate an entire district, boost moral, and help heal our country’s economy.

It is true that many Muslims are generational within the United States. However, America used to be referred to as a “melting pot,” not an inclusive “plural” society. A $100 million project makes sense for New York City on many levels. How-ever, the source of foreign funding for this project also lends itself to more scrutiny.

Those who object to the building of Cordoba House, or Park 51, are not all fear-mongering. The red flags of history have risen on all aspects of this project.

I have to ask myself if this is what it felt like to be a citizen in Germany and Japan when the “rebuilding” started after the destruction of World War II? When something in your gut must be telling you life is never going to be the same again….

We suffered destruction in New York City and collateral damage throughout the U.S. on September 11, 2001, and it now feels as if the perceived “enemy” is trying to do the “restoration.”

Intelligence sources have revealed no fewer than five foiled terrorist attacks against New York City in the years following 9/11. And yet, it is the attack that is occurring in plain sight that has the deepest implications.


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