On September 11, 2001, four airliners crashed into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a rural field in Pennsylvania. The coordinated terrorist attack resulted in the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, irreparably changing the skyline of New York and the world forever. Within hours of the attack, Muslim extremists were suspected, and by less than a month later, the FBI released the names and photos of the attackers: Muslim extremists, working for Osama bin Laden.
Eight years later, in July 2009, a building and plot of land was purchased by a Muslim-led group of investors. They have announced their plans to demolish the old building and, in its place, put a $100 million mosque called Cordoba House. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a big story, but there’s a problem: the Cordoba House is less than three blocks from Ground Zero.
Obviously this has evoked a visceral and emotional reaction from many, including New York-area Muslims, families of the victims of September 11th, as well as the mainstream media and political scene.
It was tough for me to write this post. Right about here, I got to a point where I was torn. You see, I initially started writing this post over a week ago, and stopped after the previous paragraph. I stopped because I felt like I lacked credibility on this subject. I’m not Muslim, I’m not a New Yorker, and most importantly (and I’m grateful for this), I don’t personally know anyone who was killed on September 11th. I don’t even personally know anyone who lost someone they knew on September 11th. I’m in the metaphorical nosebleed seats. And again, in a situation like this, you never wish for a front row seat and I’m grateful that while a lot of things changed on September 11th, 2001, generally my life remained on the same track.
A couple nights ago President Obama came out in support of the Mosque. In some ways this was a calculated political move: he was speaking to an Islamic group (who would undoubtedly support him), he was delivering his news on a Friday (when no one was really interested), and he was delivering it at a time when the subject could stand for some changing (as in, “let’s get everyone’s minds off the oil spill, economy, health care, whatever”). On the other hand, Obama taking sides like this was perplexing, to say the least. Undoubtedly, no matter what he said here, he would stir up controversy, so why even take a side at all?
Say what you will about George Bush and his policies, but I don’t think it can be argued that he didn’t want what was best for this country. In other words, he absolutely believed that what he was doing was the right thing to do. President Obama (and, probably, most other presidents throughout history), for all the controversy he’s created, for all he’s gone through, believes the same thing. In other words, this was probably not just an attempt to score some quick political points: it was an honest effort to take a stance and make a statement on religious freedom in this country.
The rest of the politicians in this country are taking their predictable sides: most conservatives believe that while these Muslim investors have every right to buy a lot and build a mosque anywhere they want, that they shouldn’t exercise it and the local authorities should do all in their legal power to stop it (and those are the nice ones). Most liberals believe that any attempt to block the mosque is a vicious assault on religious freedom by power-hungry, blue-blooded elites who want nothing more than a national religion as well as a national language. I highly doubt that most politicians really care; if you were to tell them they could reverse their position on the mosque and be guaranteed a win in November in whatever election they’re running in, I’d bet 95% would do it in a heartbeat, and the others would make some attempt to meet in the middle, a compromise between selling out and upholding their values.
Here’s the thing: every group of people has extremists. Just as the right wing of this country has Glenn Beck (who, I submit, has completely lost his mind), the left wing has Howard “YEEAAAHHH!” Dean. For each of the nineteen terrorists who were involved in crashing airplanes into towers almost nine years ago, there’s probably at least a dozen people who believe that anyone who eats meat should be electrocuted immediately, probably at least a dozen people who believe Hurricane Katrina was God’s wrath on the city for too much partying every March, probably at least a dozen people who believe that on the eighth day, God created the Green Bay Packers (inspired by a bumper sticker I saw the other day), and probably at least a dozen people who believe Michael Moore would make a great President some day (alright, I made that one up, no one could possibly believe that).
Being part of a civilized society means we don’t judge people exclusively by people they’re associated with, however loose the connection is. I’ve heard talk that Islamic tradition is to build mosques on land they’ve conquered. It may have been the case in the past centuries of the Ottoman Empire, but I don’t feel that’s the case here. After all, by the time the mosque is completed the new Freedom Tower will be nearing completion itself, a towering structure showcasing our ability to rebound from a horrific tragedy. If the goal was to conquer, shouldn’t this mosque have been built a long time ago, while the wreckage was still smoldering? To me, the timing suggests that these investors wish to make a peaceable gesture on behalf of their faith, offering a sanctuary to Muslim-Americans who no doubt still suffer because of actions by people who said they represented their faith.
We’re the country whose strongest ally is the country we broke away from in the American Revolution. We’re the country that led the way into Nazi Germany in World War II, conquering the Third Reich but helping them rebuild a democratic society. We’re the country that responded to the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil by liberating two countries from oppressive regimes. We’re the country that gave almost a billion dollars to an earthquake-ravaged country in the midst of a recession… and that was in less than a month. Are we not capable of being the country that welcomes the peaceful Muslim faith despite what nineteen of their violent followers did?
All that said, there’s only one group of people who should really be allowed to make this decision: the September 11th victims and families. I’ll repeat this: only the victims and victims’ families should have any authority whether or not to take local action. Only they can decide if the burden of seeing a mosque blocks away from where they or their loved ones were hurt or killed is just painful to bear. But if I were in their shoes, I like to think I’d at least do my best to do what Christ would do: turn the other cheek.