On May 11th, I received a Google alert about a poorly written article entitled ""Community Board 1 and The Cordoba Mosque." The article accurately listed my name as a member of the Financial District Committee of Manhattan's Community Board 1. I am hesitant to out myself as the type of person who wants to be alerted when her name is mentioned on the internet. However, my motivation to voice my opinions regarding the Cordoba House and some of the disgusting statements that have been made since the Financial District's meeting trumped my hesitancy. It's not just vanity that caused me to set up the Google alert. I also want to know when my name is mentioned in the context of something ignorant, incorrect or hateful.
At the Financial District committee's most recent meeting, stakeholders and supporters of Cordoba House publicly unveiled their plans for a community center in Lower Manhattan. The center will include a mosque, theater, aquatic center and public meeting space amongst other amenities. According to the Cordoba Initiative, the organization which is spearheading the community center, the goal of the project is to improve Muslim - West relations through cross cultural engagement. The center is scheduled to be built at the former Burlington Coat factory building, which was damaged during the events of September 11th. The building was vacant until the organization's recent purchase of the property. The general sentiment of the committee members present at the May 5th meeting was that the proposed center had the potential to be an asset to all members of the community, Muslim or not. The committee voted in favor of a resolution that essentially stated that we are entering into an ongoing dialogue regarding the project. For those that are unfamiliar with New York's community board system, it is important to understand that while the opinions of community boards are often valued, our actions are entirely advisory.
Following the meeting, I was disappointed but not surprised to find that thousands of people took to the internet to leave comments of resentment and in some cases threats of violence against the Cordoba House and the members of the community board. It's clear that adverse sentiment exists regarding the project, but not a single dissenter bothered to show up to the public meeting to let their opinions be known. These "emphatic" disinters prefer, instead, to lurk anonymously and cowardly within the confines of the internet. Or can not be bothered to form an opposing view point until a reporter contacts them for comment.
Disappointed, but not surprised, an indication that some cynicism has taken root in the nine years since I moved to the Financial District. A college freshman at the time, I moved to NYC a week before September 11, 2001. My proximity to the World Trade Center Site forces me to reflect upon the events and the after effects of 9/11 on a daily basis. The Cordoba House is slated to be built two blocks away from the World Trade Center site and is by no means adjacent. The Cordoba House is an as of right project, meaning that the proposed project can move forward without special approvals from the City of New York. To make assertions that Muslims will potentially gather at the Cordoba House to plot another attack, as one woman did in a recent Associated Press article, is akin to simple-minded bigotry. People of all faiths and backgrounds are capable of evil. I sympathize with those who were physically hurt by or who lost a family member during the tragedy, but I am unwilling to accommodate xenophobia even in the face of intense grief.
As a community, we can not allow our well intentioned and peaceful Muslim neighbors to be equated with extremists. To that end, a number of civil society organizations and religious institutions in the area have endorsed Cordoba House, including Trinity Church. As an Episcopalian, I regularly retreat to the confines of Trinity at Wall Street and Broadway for spiritual guidance and camaraderie. It is not wrong for a Muslim who lives or works in Lower Manhattan to desire a similar refuge. Let us not forget that Muslims hold congregational prayers on Fridays, therefore, the proximity of a mosque or other suitable facility to ones place of business is important to many practitioners of Islam.
The concept of tolerance is often discussed in the context of interracial and inter-religious relations. As a country, we need more than the aloof indifference that the term tolerance connotes; if we are ever going to realign our so called "American Values," of religious freedom and justice with how we view and understand Islam. From a community perspective, we can not simply "tolerate" from a distance and expect the relationship between the West and Islam to improve. We must engage, on both a social and cultural level. We must open ourselves up for a shift in mindset. As I currently understand it, this is the type of work that the Cordoba Initiative proposes.