There were a few things I did and didn't expect when I first heard about the now controversial Cordoba Initiative's Muslim community center project in Manhattan. Of course, right wing fringe hysteria and contrived national debate -- that was easy to predict. But in truth, I never thought it would get as far as it has. And never did my jaded skepticism expect to see Mayor Bloomberg and other NYC authorities support Muslim rights to religious freedom so unequivocally. But the real shockers for me are 1) the national polls which reveal a deep seeded anti-Muslim bias in American society and 2) the way in which Democrats are balking on one of our country's greatest values because of a midterm election. That the construction of a "Muslim YMCA" has devolved into a lame discussion of "why there?" is not only insulting to our constitutional principles, it shows how little we have come as a society since 9/11, despite incessant overtures by American Muslims to be fully accepted in our society.
Let there be no mistake. For decades American Muslims have struggled to reconcile a falsely conceived identity crisis which pits their American and Muslim loyalties at odds. On the one hand were the hardcore old world loyalists who saw themselves only in terms of the global Muslim community and its post-colonial drudgery. On the other hand were the moderate pragmatists who saw it part and parcel of the Islamic message itself to be productive integrated members of American society. But after years of dominating the local mosque scene, the old world loyalists were routed and shunned after the events of 9/11 -- across the country governing boards were restructured, fiery imams replaced, and community education efforts re-doubled.
At the same time, western governments' initiated campaigns to produce a "kinder, gentler Islam" for the 21st century. For better or worse Muslims the world over jumped on this "good Muslim/bad Muslim" bandwagon and with the active help of the FBI, the State Department, or Rand (to name a few examples), community leaders have striven to nurture a culture of interfaith dialogue, civic participation, and responsible political discourse.
From towering figures in the American Muslim community like Dr. Ingrid Mattson, Shaykh Hamza Yusef, and Imam Zayd Shakir to the corner mosque preacher, Sunday school teacher, and student leader, the American Muslim message since 9/11 has been resolutely non-violent, ecumenical, and anti-Islamist. Even American universities (many state funded by the way) have even become bastions of progressive Islamic discourse where Muslim professors and graduate students are encouraged to explore, amongst other things, alternative methods of Quranic interpretation and kick start the long awaited "Islamic Reformation." All of this Good Muslim soul searching has produced a number of amazing leaders seemingly equipped to diffuse the ominous clash of civilizations.
Now the irony:
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the main force behind the Cordoba House, is among the best of them. He earns high marks right across the liberal Muslim check list: interfaith, Sufi, anti-Islamist, gender equity. Such scores have earned him the right to represent American Muslims on behalf of US government sponsored trips to the Middle East to talk about religious life in America -- something he has been doing since the Bush administration. Now, Imam Feisal -- not just the good Muslim, but one of the best Muslims -- is being tarred and feathered, branded as a radical, and left out to dry by a half-stepping President who has finally seen the limits of his hope's audacity.
What is it exactly then that America wants from its fellow citizens who happen to face Mecca when praying? If everyone agrees on the right to the build the center, on what grounds does the question of its location arise -- guilt by association? Were Muslim Americans not also among the many murdered by al-Qaeda and Co. on that fateful day nine years ago? Have they not borne the brunt of an ignorant and ongoing backlash of hate crimes and systematic discrimination? Were Muslims not assured, even by George Bush (and God forgive me for saying something good about Bush), that America understood that there was a world of difference between Islam and the political violence of Bin Laden and his likes?
The only standing argument that the Park 51 community center shouldn't continue as planned is the one which posits that American Muslims should accept that they, by simple virtue of their faith commitment, inherently share company with the perpetuators of international terrorism. It is a patently absurd argument that every American, regardless of their religious confession, must reject outright. If they don't, they in effect, are demanding that American Muslims accept second class citizenship.
To be honest until last night I still thought of 100 better ways to spend the 100 million dollars needed for Park 51. But today, I urge Imam Feisal and all others supporting the project to fight on because what is at stake is not a piece of abandoned property or a gloomy midterm election -- it is a fundamental American value, and like it or not Islam has long been an American religion.
Muslims were the navigators on Columbus's ships. They made up a full fifth of the enslaved Africans brought to pick this country's cotton. A generation later they were just as much a part of Ellis Island as any other immigrant. Some of them have been building cars since the first plants opened in Detroit. And there are now third generation African American Muslim children that can recite the Quran in Arabic by heart. Muslims are all of America's next door neighbors be they doctors, lawyers, teachers, mechanics or refugees.
Perhaps Muslims need to learn from other minorities in this country that Civil Rights must be fought for -- they can't be given to you, and you definitely can't beg for them. So, Imam Feisal, get some good lawyers and build that Islamic center -- and make it with a tall minaret and a big fat dome while you're at it -- Muslims are American too.
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