The increasingly heated debate over the propriety of permitting an Islamic center to be built a few blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks in Lower Manhattan, ostensibly not a Jewish issue, should sound familiar to the Jewish community. It seems to parallel the debate about a Catholic convent that was opened near Auschwitz nearly three decades ago.
Both cases pit people who put forth the claim that their religion’s edifice will be a tangible statement against the hatred that had taken lives nearby, versus those who find the building’s very presence in that place to be an affront.
Both sides can make strong cases. But the opponents of the planned Cordoba House Islamic Center, like the opponents of the Carmelite convent, deprive well-meaning representatives of other faiths — Islam in the United States, Catholicism in Poland — the opportunity to do public penance.
It is understandable that the relatives and friends of the nearly 3,000 victims — among them, Christians and Jews and Muslims — of the 2001 terrorism committed in the name of Islam should find a major Islamic presence near Ground Zero to be upsetting. Just as it makes sense that the families of Holocaust victims should object to a Catholic edifice near what became Europe’s largest Jewish cemetery during World War II.
But such opposition is shortsighted, turning away members of faiths who may be genuinely embarrassed about evil committed by people of their religion. To tell a group of nuns that their prayers are offensive is itself offensive (Poland is a majority-Catholic country, and attacks on its religion are considered attacks on the country itself), just as it is simplistic to consign any institution that bears the name Islam to the same category as the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.
In recent weeks, the 13-story Cordoba House, which is to include a mosque as well as a gym and performing arts center, has attracted national attention. While leading politicians support the project, a number of journalists, Internet bloggers and civic activists are opposed. “It would be a terrible mistake to destroy a 154-year-old building in order to build a monument to terrorism,” one woman at a recent New York Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing said recently. A ruling is expected in several weeks.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Sufi leader behind the Cordoba Center, is being portrayed by some critics as suspect. They charge that he has not spoken out forcefully against terror groups like Hamas and has associated with some more radical elements of the Muslim community in the U.S. In addition, he has not disclosed the funding sources for the $100 million planned center.
But we should be particularly sensitive about charges of guilt by association. Imam Feisal has long been a bridge builder in our community, involved in interfaith dialogue for years and an outspoken advocate of integrating Islam with modern Western society to create what he calls American Islam.
While we may be uncomfortable with some of his views, we are mindful that we cannot complain about the dearth of Muslim moderates if we don’t support efforts like his to incorporate democratic values and human rights into the faith.
Cordoba, the Spanish city whose name Imam Feisal has chosen for his center, symbolizes both interfaith tolerance and intolerance. It was the home of Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher, but it’s also the place he had to flee because of Muslim persecution. It’s where Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted, but also where they turned against each other in the Inquisition and the Expulsion from Spain, and in Ferdinand and Isabella’s war against Muslims.
Americans’ reaction to the planned Cordoba House will show which vision we embrace.