Should a Muslim group be allowed to build an Islamic prayer center two blocks away from Ground Zero? This simple question has evolved into a passionate debate, as zealous support and opposition is seen almost daily in the news. Organizers of the Muslim mosque near Ground Zero are pushing the project forward despite a growing number of vocal opponents wishing to halt this project in its tracks.
At the center of this controversy is the "Cordoba House" (also being called "Park 51"); a $100 million construction project of a 13-story Islamic Center two blocks from where the twin towers once stood. The mosque is a project of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Cordoba Institute, which promotes cross-cultural understanding between Islam and the West. Led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the group hopes the new structure will stand as a symbol of tolerance and unity. Detractors call it an insult for an Islamic structure to be erected at the site of the tragic 9/11 attacks where nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives.
At a hearing last week at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, nearly 100 angry people gathered, advocating to obstruct this Islamic Center from being built. What may have begun as a civil show of disagreement often reverted to boorish shouts from the crowd whenever someone would speak in favor of the project.
With the passage of time, we see more mosque construction plans face opposition. Currently, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro is facing fierce opposition to its plans of constructing an Islamic Center to serve the needs of the Muslim community in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Back in 2007, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community canceled its plans to purchase a large plot of land in Walkersville, Maryland, for use as a prayer space and for national events after the township pressed government officials to halt the sale of the land.
As a Muslim, I know a mosque is meant to be a symbol of peace and must not be used as the source of hostility. The only way to maintain civility and peace is for the Muslim group sponsoring each mosque construction project to reach out to its neighbors and understand their concerns so that any erroneous fears can be addressed with peace and respect.
The bitter fact is that the actions of extremists have made it difficult for many Americans to trust even moderate Muslims because of the inability of such people to separate the extreme faction from the rest of the Muslim world. Consequently, Muslims in America need to be sensitive to the fears and the mistrust that have infiltrated the minds of many of their fellow citizens. Patience and perseverance are needed in order to help our fellow Americans understand that a Muslim and a Mosque are nothing to be afraid of.
It appears that the Cordoba House's organizers sought to avoid early publicity around the proposed construction project and apparently waited months before seeking public comment. The ensuing firestorm from the local neighborhoods and communities does not, therefore, appear to be all too surprising. A better and potentially more palatable approach would have been to conduct broad community outreach and enlist broad community support before pushing the Center's plan through local government channels. Given the sensitivities surrounding the Ground Zero site and the general ignorance of Islam, this approach may have averted the nasty debate we have now. Ultimately, I am in the favor of the construction of a mosque, but I am not happy with the way the organizers have appeared to have pursued it.
Any Muslim community planning to build a mosque must reach out to the surrounding neighborhood and personally share their intentions behind the construction project. If fear and mistrust is born of ignorance, then open dialogue and education is the only way to help people overcome this misplaced fear.
If Muslims want to stand for peace, they must stand patiently. We must respond to fear, intolerance and even hatred with peace, education and patience. That is our true Jihad.