Making Space in Manhattan

Construction of the Islamic community center near Ground Zero should continue

The building of an Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero has clearly struck a nerve for the American people. Vociferous debate has erupted across the country over whether the development of the center, which is to contain a prayer room as well as a theatre, space for educational programs, a swimming pool, restaurant, and a 9/11 memorial, should be allowed to move forward. Not only do the planners of the community center have a legal right to build on the Park 51 site, but allowing them to construct the center undisturbed upholds the multicultural values that America represents.

The First Amendment promises freedom of religion, and since the creation of a Christian, Jewish, Hindu or other faith-based community center would undoubtedly face little opposition in Lower Manhattan, an Islamic one should be treated no differently. Constitutional rights apply equally to all Americans;  Muslims should be permitted to pray and gather in the same neighborhoods where members of other religions can do the same.

Additionally, the building of the Islamic community center embodies the spirit of diversity and tolerance for which America is proud to stand. Muslims have lived in this country for hundreds of years and have made significant contributions to its growth and prosperity. Many Muslims died in the 9/11 attacks and Muslim-Americans have suffered through the aftermath of those terrible events along with their fellow citizens. Therefore, the millions of Muslim-Americans deserve to be trusted to practice their religions safely. In fact, continuing the uproar over the Park 51 sight would further alienate Muslims in this country who have thus far acted in an upstanding manner. They may feel as if their conscientious actions have been willfully ignored and overshadowed by knee-jerk prejudice.

More generally, anti-Muslim rhetoric that makes an explicit tie between the Islamic religion and terrorists is unjustified and dangerous. The values and ideals of the terrorists who attacked New York City on September 11, 2001 are very different from the beliefs of the majority of Muslims. It is important to remember that the 9/11 attackers represent only a small, fundamentalist portion of Islam, and that the religion as a whole should not be interpreted only at its extremes. We appreciate Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s unequivocal support for the project.

Some outside observers fear that the funding of the community center is suspect and may come from sources who support those wishing to harm Americans. We understand that the devastating terrorist attack on New York City left many with emotional and practical reasons for concern. However, there is not enough information regarding the funding to claim that those building the mosque have ties to dangerous organizations. Development is, in fact, in its initial stages. Sharif el-Gamal, the developer, has not secured financing or started fund-raising for the site. The country should assume that any fundraisers eventually recruited are innocent until proven guilty. Still, as a step of goodwill, we encourage the Islamic leaders of this project to be forthcoming with their funding sources. Given the heated debate over their project, such openness would be a good olive branch to extend to the building’s opponents.

Given that the community center is now a nationwide symbol for American attitudes toward religion, it was correct that President Barack H. Obama commented on its construction. The tensions unearthed by the project have been echoed in similar situations across the country. Last week, there was a fire at the construction site of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, which news sources report was very likely a case of arson. A church in Florida is preparing to hold “Burn a Quoran Day” on the 9th anniversary of 9/11. As opposition to mosques and Muslim causes arises across the country, it is important to not let September 11th engender fear of Islam in general. The events of that day shaped but do not define America, and our 300-year commitment to multiculturalism should trump the actions of a few angry men.