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Firas Al-Atraqchi

Firas Al-Atraqchi

Posted: September 12, 2010 10:55 AM

I cannot in good faith and conscience support the building of a $100 million Islamic center in New York City.

The bottom line for me is not about whether Muslims have a right to build an Islamic anything two blocks distance from Ground Zero.

The argument about proximity is academic at best; I would be equally opposed to the center if it were to be built anywhere else in the US. I am opposed to it because such multi-million dollar initiatives could be put to better use elsewhere, particularly in areas where there is paramount desperation and need.

And it is precisely this line of scrutiny which seems to have been lost not only in US but in Muslim media as well. Would all those funds and energies not be of better benefit elsewhere? Is the building of an Islamic center in New York a priority for the Muslim ummah (community)?

While the debate over the Cordoba House - renamed Park51 - initiative raged in the US, dominating headlines on both sides of the Atlantic and becoming a "Trending" topic of discussion on Twitter, far less attention was focused on the plight of tens of millions of Muslims who are hungry, homeless and hopeless around the world.

How will many of those homeless, flood-hit Muslims in Pakistan, who have been largely ignored by their very own Islamic ummah, react to news that the Islamic center in New York will eventually house an auditorium, a performing arts center, and culinary school?

Will they be delighted to hear that Park51 is designed to include all the modern facilities of a healthy lifestyle such as a fitness center, swimming pool, and basketball court? So poor and destitute have they become that efforts to distribute Eid (post-Ramadan holiday) gifts over the weekend were marred by riots. You cannot blame the hungry and helpless for their desperation.

Six weeks ago, the UN called for more than $450 million in immediate relief for the 18 million Pakistanis devastated by flooding; on September 1, the UN said that relief funds for Pakistan had stalled at $291 million.

Imagine what $100 million slated for Park51 would do for Pakistan, for example.

If I were a child in Gaza or Iraq living under the shadow of homegrown terrorism and a brutal occupation, would I be reassured to know that Park51 will house a childcare center? The United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) has kept the people of Gaza alive by providing much-needed food, temporary shelters, and other humanitarian assistance in the past decade.

In December 2008, UNRWA made an emergency appeal for $275 million in the wake of Israel's brutal onslaught on the Gaza Strip. By June 2009, it had received pledges for only 55% of that amount. Kuwait delivered $34 million, whereas Qatar provided $10 million through various charities; in the same year that it unveiled the highest building in the world, the UAE managed to deliver $500,000 through its Red Crescent Society and another $1.5 million through various foundations.

The US responded to the emergency appeal in excess of $18 million dollars. However, many Muslim countries six months after the appeal had provided insignificant funds.

In December 2009, UNRWA announced it was going broke and needed an immediate injection of $323 million to continue to provide assistance to Gaza and the West Bank. In June, the US brought its UNRWA donation up to $165 million. Libya pledged $50 million; Saudi Arabia delivered nearly 2,000 tons of flour.

Imagine what $100 million slated for Park51 would do for Gaza, for example.

It is no secret that the the education systems in many Muslim countries are lacking; in the cases of Iraq and Palestine, they are on the verge of collapse.

So how are parents to react when the Park51 initiative includes plans for a bookstore and art studio, when in many Muslim countries there are 100 students to a classroom having to share a small number of books due to poor supply?

In Afghanistan, extremists are using threats, intimidation and violence to discourage girls from attending school.

And for those who have no access to clean water and have to routinely stave off malaria in Somalia and South Sudan - are they to relish in the knowledge that a food court will be built in Park51?

I can't help but wonder how much good $100 million would do in the aforementioned countries. How many infirmaries and clinics could these funds buy? How much hope - indeed, a priceless commodity in such short supply in these countries - could it instill?

Nearly 400,000 women die during childbirth around the world; half of those are Muslim women, the UN says. The World Health Organization says Iraq has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world now, thanks to US sanctions and invasion.

The United Nations Economic Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that in 2005 adult illteracy rates were 57% in Bangladesh, 59% in Iraq, 40% in Egypt, over 52% in Pakistan, 46.5% in Morocco, 37% in Sudan and 47% in Yemen. While UNESCO provided no figures for Somalia, it is worth mentioning that Kazakhstan and Tajikistan both had less than 1% illiteracy.

Imagine how many schools such funds could build and not only educate an entire generation, but provide them the tools and skills to help develop their societies. Surely this is more important than an Islamic center in a country where almost everyone can read and write.

Before Muslim organizations talk about constructing skyscrapers in New York City, perhaps they would feel more in line with Islamic principles by saving a village in Pakistan or providing drinking water to drought-hit South Sudan.

If Muslims want to educate Americans about Islam, let our good works, benevolence and charity speak louder than brick and mortar ever could.

 

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