After marking the ninth anniversary of 9/11 last weekend with meditation and prayer, I was finally able to articulate my support for Park51, the Muslim-sponsored interfaith community center to be built near Ground Zero.
We know by now that Park 51 is not the “Ground Zero Mosque,” as it is neither at Ground Zero nor is it a mosque; what remains of the opposition are two main angles. The fringe right claims that Park51 is a monument to terrorism, that Muslim Americans have designs to “Islamicize” the United States (i.e. Pamela Gellar), while other, more mainstream voices argue that sensitivity to 9/11 families supersedes the constitutional protections of religious freedom and property rights of the Park51 planners.
The rightful stakeholders in this debate – the Muslim community of lower Manhattan and 9/11 families – have been demonized or appropriated in this debate by conservative media pundits. The predictable and frightening impact of the stoking of Anti-Muslim sentiment has been the recent spate of crimes and harassment targeting Muslim Americans and Islamic Centers around the country. Hena Ashraf, a Muslim American resident of lower Manhattan wrote on September 12 in the Huffington Post: “Never have I received as much consistent harassment in one place during one length of time as I have this summer in New York, from a shopkeeper asking in May if I was a suicide bomber, to a man shouting furiously… “Where’s Osama?!”
Such experiences are why I believe that Park51 must be built. When the rights and safety of one group are under fire in the name of supporting another group, we denigrate our identity as a freedom and equality-valuing country. We must stretch beyond this debate to see that our fates, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, are intertwined. But this requires that we recognize the fear that keeps us separate.
On all sides of this debate, fear brings down its divisive scythe. For those of us who support the building of the Islamic Center, we worry about the eroding of constitutional rights and growing racism. Muslims, and those who look Muslim, may fear being targeted with discrimination or violence. For those in opposition, the fear is perhaps around not having pain and loss honored in ways that feel appropriate. For those who believe Islam is antithetical to peace, the fear is about a perceived lack of safety, a fear of a faith and a people that seem culturally and racially different.
What I believe is that all these fears share a common source: whether we support or oppose Park 51, we fear that we will not be seen for our humanity; that we will not be honored or treated fairly, that safety and comfort may never again be features of our national identity.
As a nation, we are challenged by forces that remind us of our divisions, of how different we may be from one another. But we have a choice. We can find strength in our unique perspectives, and allow innovative solutions to arise from them. Or, we can abide in our separateness, and we will perish in our promise to be a different kind of nation, we will fail to live up to the best in us that can withstand tragedy and remain inclusive. Though moving Park 51 farther from Ground Zero may comfort some who find it’s presence a source of pain, it will not make us safer, punish the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks, bring justice to the victims, or make us a stronger nation.
I am heartened by groups such as the Coalition of New York Neighbors for American Values and 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, who sponsored pro-Park 51events this past weekend that were attended by thousands of supporters. I am also encouraged that despite the furor and unpopularity it brings, President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg have affirmed their support of the project.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Let us work toward making our inescapable network of mutuality the starting point for progress. Let’s all look at our fears, name their common roots, and work together to figure out how to be both reverent of Ground Zero and protective of religious freedom.