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Rabbi Justus N. Baird

Rabbi Justus N. Baird

Posted: May 28, 2010 01:47 PM

Every once in a while we witness the perfect interfaith storm. It's always a combination of religion, politics, and one special ingredient, like money, scandal, or, as in this season's storm, collective memory.

This season's perfect interfaith storm is the proposed mosque and Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City. In a building that has lain fallow since 9/11, when one of the planes' landing gear came crashing through the roof, the project's founders hope to build an Islamic version of the 92nd Street Y, a community center and prayer space to replace a nearby makeshift mosque.

Last week, when journalists and muckrakers got wind of plans for Cordoba House, as the project is called, the borough and the blogosphere lit up with thoughtful reflection, deep emotion, and unfortunately, bigotry and character assassination.

Local politicians and the Community Board have given a clear response to the hate speech. The Community Board voted 29 to 1 (with 10 abstentions) to build Cordoba House. Mayor Bloomberg said simply, "Our city's open to anybody, no matter what your religion is."

But the deep emotional concerns about the location of Cordoba House have not yet been fully addressed. Listen carefully to their words. Patrick Bahnken, head of a paramedics union: "By no means am I saying the folks trying to build this place are responsible for 9/11, but you still have to take a hard look at it and say, how will it look to have this in your face? It's like salt in the wound - a constant reminder of what they did to us on 9/11." Mike Burke, whose brother was a fireman killed in the attacks: "I think the first concern for the families is that the religious beliefs of the terrorists who struck is going to have such a prominent place right around the corner from Ground Zero." Rosemary Cain, whose son was a firefighter killed in the attacks: "I think it's despicable, and I think it's atrocious that anyone would even consider allowing them to build a mosque near the World Trade Center ... That's sacred ground. It's a slap in the face." And from an angry participant in the May 25 Community Board meeting: "This is an insult, this is demeaning, this is humiliating that you would build a shrine to the very ideology that inspired the attacks of 9/11."

These concerns take on a special urgency on Memorial Day: how exactly can we remember and honor those who were killed? As a rabbi, I'd like to offer two things that seem to be missing from the now public discussion of Cordoba House: a pastoral voice, and a piece of wisdom from the past.

First, a pastoral voice. To some of those who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks, Cordoba House is a slap in the face that generates anger and disgust. In their mind, Muslims perpetrated 9/11, and now Muslims are building a shrine at Ground Zero.

These 9/11 families understand intellectually that the progressive American Muslims advocating for Cordoba House have no connection, theologically or personally, to the terror-thirsty, militant strand of Islam associated with the 9/11 attackers. Yet, for them, these two diametrically opposed groups are still connected in some way. In an honest moment, most Americans would admit that we share this feeling that all Muslims are connected. Muslim theologians would agree: the ummat al-mu'minin is the "community of believers" that make up the Muslim world. So let's acknowledge that while the followers of Cordoba House and the followers of al-Qaeda have radically different visions of Islam, they are both part of the Muslim world.

The other clear concern in these voices is that Ground Zero, and arguably the area around it, is sacred ground. My loved ones died here, they are reminding us. Be very, very careful where you walk.

But what are the boundaries of this sacred site? The architecture of the Biblical Tabernacle is instructive here. The holiest place was the Ark of the Covenant. Surrounding it was the Holy of Holies, and beyond that was the holy place with the altar, table, and lampstand, and beyond that was the outer court, and beyond that was a fence. Sacredness was safeguarded by a series of boundaries.

These voices are crying out to discuss the sacred boundaries of Ground Zero. Cordoba House is two blocks away, a three-minute walk. Is that inside or outside the invisible fence? And who determines what is sacred? To Muslims, many of whom died in the 9/11 attacks, a mosque is a deeply sacred space.

Only by acknowledging and addressing these concerns will the storm swirling around Cordoba House be abated. That's the pastoral voice. Now the wisdom from the past. It is sad but true that people around the world have experienced their own versions of 9/11. Lurking in the aftermath of the world's worst moments of murder and injustice is a precious piece of wisdom.

The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience is a worldwide network of nearly 250 places of memory that remember tragedies as well as triumphs of justice and everyday life. These sites open their spaces for people to talk openly about what happened there and their contemporary legacies.

One such Site of Conscience is Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. In the 1990s, South Africa decided to redevelop the Old Fort Prison that jailed political prisoners like Mandela and Gandhi alongside those who transgressed now-illegal apartheid laws. The Justices of the Constitutional Court deliberately chose to erect the new court in the shadow of the prison in order to learn from the history of a place that once symbolized the abrogation of justice. From the soil of terror would rise a safehouse of justice.

Before the site was redeveloped, a series of dialogues was conducted with various stakeholders, including former prisoners and guards, who described their personal experiences and talked openly about what happened there. The community's input shaped the design of the Constitution Hill complex, including a provision for office space for nonprofits to pursue justice. Without these dialogues, Constitution Hill might never have become what it is today: a place offering ongoing public discussions about how, in light of the past, justice should be defined in the new South Africa.

Another example is Memoria Abierta (Open Memory) in Buenos Aires. For decades, Argentine dictators sponsored violent kidnappings and torture. The terror claimed an estimated 30,000 lives, people who became known simply as "the disappeared." Open Memory has worked to identify hundreds of detention centers and torture sites and mark them as places that preserve memory and denounce authoritarianism. One such site, a former Naval Academy, set off a protracted disagreement among stakeholders, including different victims' groups. Open Memory held a series of forums among victims groups and state authorities, which has allowed the site to be opened in a series of smaller steps. The open dialogues continue today.

The parallel between these sites and Cordoba House is imperfect; Cordoba House is not intended to be a memorial to 9/11. Yet these stories contain wisdom: any development on or near the sacred ground of collective trauma must begin with listening and dialogue.

Cordoba House's founders have started the dialogue, which is why the local Community Board recently backed the proposal. But the dialogue needs to go broader and deeper. At a minimum it must include more families touched by 9/11 (some of whom strongly support the proposal), more nearby residents, and all of us who have trouble distinguishing a Cordoba House Muslim from an al-Qaeda Muslim.

Cordoba House should be built. Right now, however, Ground Zero has too many graves and too few relationships between Muslim-Americans and Americans of other faiths for the project to reach its full potential. By launching a series of community dialogues before the site is developed, Cordoba House can get an early start on becoming a vibrant and world-class facility that promotes tolerance and pluralism.