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Say Yes to a Mosque at Ground Zero

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Sarah Palin heated up a local zoning debate over the weekend with one tweet: "Peace-seeking Muslims," Palin wrote, "pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing."

She was writing about a plan to build a mosque in lower Manhattan, a few blocks from Ground Zero, and she waded into the fray just behind Rick Lazio, Republican candidate for New York governor.

"New Yorkers have a right to feel safe and be safe," the New York Daily News quotes Lazio as saying. "There are serious security questions about the appropriateness of this mosque."

The sorrows and grief, the toxic clouds of benzene and asbestos, and the years-long financial hardships of September 11th fell on Christian and Jew, atheist and Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist -- and Muslim -- alike.

Can we have forgotten this? Have people really forgotten that Muslims were among the dead, injured, missing on September 11th? Can it be that, a mere nine years later, people need to be reminded that Muslims were also among that day's heroes?

The answer, I guess, is yes.

So let me now remind them: The 2001 terrorist attacks were carried out by a group of Islamic fundamentalist zealots, mostly from Saudi Arabia, against Americans, of all races, politics, and religions, including Islam.

It is not a "provocation" or "security question" for Islamic New Yorkers to build a community center a few blocks from Ground Zero. As Islamic New Yorkers shared in the struggles inflicted on our city by those attacks, so too must they share in our recovery. To that end, building the Islamic community center in lower Manhattan is a vital step in the right direction.

An Oasis

So what is this scary plan that has Palin and Lazio so upset? A not-for-profit group wants to build a mosque and 13-story community center on Park Place in lower Manhattan. If approved it will be called Park51 and will host not only host religious services, but also educational classes, exercise programs, and a swimming pool.

Park51 will be like the Vanderbilt YMCA on east 47th Street, which offers a teen ethics program along with Polliwog swimming classes in a building just a stone's throw from the United Nations. And it will be similar to the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan's Upper West Side, (where, full-disclosure, I take NIA classes), a 10-story building on Columbus Avenue which offers family movie nights, Jewish singles parties, and, also, swimming lessons.

It seems unlikely that Palin, Lazio and other opponents of the project are enraged at the specter of polliwog swim classes and family movie nights a few blocks from Ground Zero. Could their real concern be that the polliwogs and moviegoers will be Muslim, that by its presence, the community center will invite Muslims to Ground Zero?

If that's so, they fail to grasp that Muslims have been a part of Ground Zero since the beginning, even in the ashes.

Never Forget

Will Sarah Palin call it a "provocation" to see Abdoul Karim Traor's name etched into the National September 11 Memorial? For Abdoul Karim Traor's name must surely be there. He emigrated to New York from the Ivory Coast, and died at work on the morning of September 11. A cook for Windows on the World, his coworkers remember him as hard-working, funny, kind. He left behind a widow and three children, who were aged 8, 3 and 1 when he died. Abdoul Karim Traor was also a Muslim.

One day, Mr. Traor's children could lay a bouquet of flowers next to the plaque bearing his name, then head to karate class at Park51. The only thing wrong with that picture is that they are growing up without their father.

Touri Bolourchi was a 69-year-old mother of two, a grandmother, and a nurse when she boarded United Flight 175 in Boston. The fact that she was also a Muslim did not deter the five hijackers on that flight from killing her with 60 others when they flew that plane into Tower 2 at 9:01 a.m. Would Rick Lazio call it a security risk for Ms. Bolourchi's grandchildren to visit the memorial, then walk to Park51 to pray for their grandmother?

Equal Opportunity Disaster

No one called it a "provocation" or "security risk" when the doors of the Disaster Assistance Center on 141 Worth Street opened and welcomed anyone who made it out of the World Trade Center, or its vicinity, alive. When I worked there for the Salvation Army, my fellow caseworkers included Muslims, Hispanics, blacks and whites, Jews and Christians, Asians and Middle Easterners. We looked like New York City.

We saw immediately that the financial fallout rained down on every race, religion and class. In a single day at Worth Street, five months after the attacks, I approved financial aid for:

  • A Queens man laid off from his job in customer service for United Airlines;
  • A middle-aged woman who spoke only Mandarin and lost her job as a seamstress when her Chinatown garment factory shut down;
  • A laid-off stockbroker from Greenwich, Connecticut;
  • A 50-something man who barely made it out of Tower 1 before its collapse and who struggled to find work because he was caring for a sister who suffered a stroke;
  • A single mother who had been director of diversity for a large accounting firm in the Twin Towers and whose unemployment was about to run out; and
  • Mohammed, (not his real name), who once paid 30,000 dinars to bribe his way out of the Sudan. He scraped together 10,000 more Sudanese dinars than he'd made the previous year so that he could avoid being drafted into the army and forced to participate in a genocide against Christians and animists in Sudan's south. He emigrated to the United States and found work as a translator and clerk for an attorney in lower Manhattan, only to have terrorists try to drop a building on him.

In the months that 141 Worth Street was open to the victims of September 11, the people running it thought to set up security screening with a metal detector, to forbid people to bring scissors into the building, to evacuate quickly when a crank called in a bomb threat. It never occurred to anyone to screen out Muslims, to keep Mohammed out while admitting everyone else.

A Burden Borne By Muslims

But there was one burden post-September 11 New York that Muslims shouldered more heavily than everyone else -- that of being arrested for practically no reason in the middle of the night.

A year after the attacks, several nonprofits set up a group called the Unmet Needs Roundtable. Disaster aid caseworkers like myself could go there and ask for financial aid for our clients, people still struggling to piece their lives together again.

Every time I met with the Roundtable, another woman was there, too. She was a caseworker for something called the Coney Island Avenue Project, a nonprofit that helped locate Muslim men from Brooklyn who disappeared after September 11th. She presented case after case of men who'd emigrated -- legally -- from places like Pakistan and Bangladesh and Yemen, who worked as taxi drivers and bodega owners and Halal streetcart vendors, who had been arrested and held for months at a time on specious charges of overstaying their visas. I say "specious" because they had renewed their visas on time; it was the federal government that took nine months to a year to process the paperwork, then arrested them for having an expired visa.

Imagine filling out and sending in the paperwork to renew your driver's license on time, and the state taking nine months to process it, then arresting you for driving without a license.

The Coney Island Avenue Project searched the jails for these men on behalf of their families, found lawyers to represent them, helped their families with rent and food, and tried to find the men work again once they were released.

The Unmet Needs Roundtable didn't bar the Coney Island Avenue Project from its services because it reached out primarily to Muslims. Instead, it acknowledged that this was a pain inflicted almost exclusively on Muslims post-September 11, and with money donated by Christian churches and secular private donors, it tried to alleviate it.

Say Yes

Sarah Palin also tweeted, "Peaceful New Yorkers, pls refute the Ground Zero mosque plan if you believe catastrophic pain caused @ Twin Towers site is too raw, too real."

To that, New Yorkers must say no.

As long as the Park51 Islamic center meets the same zoning and building permit obligations that were also met by the Vanderbilt YMCA and the Jewish Community Center, by the American Buddhist Study Center on Riverside Drive and by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in the West Village, then New York City should say yes to this much-needed sanctuary for Muslims in Manhattan.

I, too, say yes. I say yes to a mosque next door to Ground Zero. And I say yes to inviting imams to participate in the ceremony that will, one day, mark the unveiling of the National September 11 Memorial. And yes to leasing office space to Muslim-owned companies in the re-built 1 World Trade Center. And yes, yes to Sarah Palin and Rick Lazio remembering that there is a difference -- a huge, huge, difference -- between Abdoul Traor and Touri Bolourchi and the fundamentalists who murdered them, between my client Mohammed and the clients of the Coney Island Avenue Project, and the Saudi terrorists who killed our neighbors and ripped a gaping hole in our skyline.

And I say yes, yes, oh yes, to, one day, standing shoulder to shoulder with my fellow New Yorkers -- Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Jew, agnostic, Hindu, Buddhist and atheist alike -- in the shade of the trees on the plaza of 1 World Trade Center, finished and bustling at last, or before the names engraved into the memorial, or in line at the inevitable Starbucks on the lower concourse, all of us recalling that once, some zealots knocked us down, but together we rose up again.