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Shai Baitel Headshot

A Tale of Two Mosques

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Some law schools ask aspiring lawyers to ponder not only if a good lawyer can be a good person but also, in the realm of legal ethics, if a legally 'kosher' action is necessarily a good or proper one. The answer is no. Is it prerequisite to be a lawyer to agree that the initiators of Park 51 project -- the Mosque at Ground Zero, the Muslim 92nd Y several blocks away from Ground Zero, the Interfaith Center, the Victory Mosque, Cordoba House, or however you want to call it -- have every right to build it? The answer is no. Are we all for freedom of religion? The answer is yes -- President Obama is for it as well, as we learned. And is an appeal to common sense to not exercise a right, say, to build a project, a denial of that very right? No. (If you disagree there is no point in reading further.)

Before offering some points of observation on Park 51, a look at another controversial mosque constructions might be instructive: There was the saga, spanning from 1997 until 2003, surrounding the construction of a mosque opposite the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, where Christians believe the Angel Gabriel foretold the birth of Jesus. In a dispute that was not simply religious but also about political influence as well as real estate problem, the city's Muslim community had proposed a mosque in honor of a dignitary believed to have been the nephew of Saladin, who had defeated the Crusaders in the 12th century and whose tomb is located at the site.

The location was a square which Christians had wanted to turn into a promenade leading to the Basilica, for tourists visiting Israel for the Millennium. The promenade project had been blocked by Muslim protesters who camped out on the site. The Israeli government stepped in and gave the Muslim about one-third of the square, prompting Christian protest as they deemed the project so close to the Basilica as to be disrespectful. Despite these objections, Muslims then laid a symbolic cornerstone for a $2 million, two story mosque that could have accommodated 1,000 worshippers.

After government panels, Pope John Paul II, U.S. President George W. Bush, and Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had weighed in an Israeli court ordered the demolition of the foundations of the mosque, which had, in the end, remained unauthorized. However outrageous this decision will have seemed to the mosque's proponents, Israel upheld its policy of respecting the holy sites of all religions and assured the rights of Christians who consider the Basilica a sacred place. The tomb was renovated and incorporated into a public square. It seems fair to assume that had the project's initiator's done their homework, had they listened, had they requested broad input, had they been the sensitive bridge-builders, they would have been able to better analyze the situation. And it turns out that a) freedom of religion was not touched, b) proximity matters, and c) effective damage control is possible before facts are established on the ground.

As with the case in Nazareth where, in the sympathetic reading of the events, Muslims did not pay attention to the sensitivities of Christians, it is fair to assume that had the Park 51 project's initiators prepared, had they listened, had they requested broad input, had they been the sensitive bridge-builders, they would not have been caught off-guard by the storm of protest. Their voice has been either missing or was unnecessarily defiant and combative. If these comments are an indicator for their ability to communicate a positive message and actually build bridges and explain their vision for Park 51 then they - and we all -- will be in for a bumpy ride. The Park 51 initiators as well as leaders of the American Muslim community in New York and beyond could most easily contribute to the debate by positively explaining if and why the project's proximity to Ground Zero matters -- or does not matter for building bridges.

It is a sad fact that they got themselves into that hot water by terribly misunderstanding and misreading the environment -- physically and socially -- in which they plan to establish their project. The anger, grief, and agony caused by the failure of the Park 51 initiators to do their homework is regrettable. They failed to understand that the attacks of 9/11, the loss of life in Shanksville, Arlington, and New York, profoundly changed the lives of everybody and that the reverberations can be felt every day. Have you been at an airport lately? How could the Park 51 initiators miss that? How could they not think there would be opposition? And how can they believe that it will contribute to calm the debate and have a more rational conversation in which their vision is heard when they charge that opposition to their project is, obviously incorrigibly and invariably, "hate of Muslims." One would have thought that cogent arguments could be made for both sides.

There is obviously no desire for de-escalation. Unfortunately, it is safe to assume that the most vociferous opponents will take advantage on this tone-deaf and irresponsible behavior. Muslims in America are the innocent victims of this debate where emotional charges fly. Is there any hope that the debate will not stir hatred against Muslims? One is almost resigned to shake the head in disbelief. The last available FBI Hate Crimes Statistics, of 2008, lists anti-Islamic crimes at 7.7 percent of the 1,606 hate crime offenses motivated by religious bias. Anti-Jewish crimes registered at 65.7 percent, anti-Catholic crimes at 4.7 percent, and anti-Protestant crimes at 3.7 percent. Where will we be when the statistics for 2010 are being published?

Having a right and doing the right thing, for one's goals and one's community, might be two different things. What worked in Nazareth -- de-escalation through not going forward and making compromises -- still has the chance to work with Park 51.