I live on Lispenard Street just south of Canal Street in Lower Manhattan, 14 blocks north of Ground Zero. My daily life on this street and this neighborhood gives me an insight into aspects of Muslim worship in Lower Manhattan people outside of New York City may not be aware of.
From my corner I saw with my own eyes the second plane hit the South Tower. I lived downtown through the scary nights and the many rough months after September 11, and I am here to say that my whole street is a mosque. Several times a day, small groups of Muslims -- mainly African street vendors who peddle carvings or fake Vuitton bags and Rolex watches on Canal Street -- pull out prayers mats, often just rolls of cardboard they store in the nooks and crannies of the buildings around, take their shoes off in all weather, wash their feet with water from bottles, kneel towards the east and pray, 14 blocks from Ground Zero, on ground they've spontaneously "hallowed." And the only thing one can say, in the words of my late Holocaust-refugee Polish-Jewish mother, is "Only in America."
Or at least, only in New York, where these outdoors rituals take place on the street surrounded by crowds of Chinese vendors, NYPD cops, business men, rich men's children and their nannies, and busloads of women tourists from the American South who have come to buy those fake Vuitton bags from those vendors (nice Christian ladies who have no problem breaking New York City's tax laws by buying fake label merchandise). Every day I pass these men praying across the narrow street from my front door and on corners throughout Lower Manhattan. It is an example of the religious freedom and tolerance that has made this country a beacon of freedom around the world.
And so the notion of keeping a mosque from the Ground Zero area is absurd: the streets all around it are already provisional mosques, because these men need to pray somewhere. Out of necessity they put the most private religious worship into the most public and the most humble of spaces. Along with the many who perished on September 11, they too bring to mind President Abraham Lincoln's words in the Gettysburg Address that "in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract." Ground can be hallowed many different ways. This is one that I witness every day.
Politicians like President Obama should be wrapping themselves in the American Flag, waving the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights and hollering about Freedom of Religion, the Mayflower, the Founding Fathers, Ellis Island, the Land of the Free, at the top of their lungs, throwing every righteous trope in the rhetorical book of the myth of America at those who would destroy "the better angels of our nature," not getting all wimpy and conciliatory in the face of people who pander hatred and bigotry and who are cynically manipulating the strong emotions of some Ground Zero Families and using the "hallowed ground" of Lower Manhattan as this week's battering ram against America's true greatness.