“In the mid-1650s, the small Jewish community living in Lower Manhattan petitioned Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant for the right to build a synagogue – and they were turned down,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in support of building a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center. For Bloomberg and others, including President Barack Obama, the right to erect the Ground Zero Mosque is an issue of religious tolerance.
On the other hand, critics of the proposed building cite concerns such as the funding sources of the $100 million construction project and the questionable ties of the mosque’s organizer, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. It has been reported that Rauf will turn to Muslim nations to help pay for the $100 million mosque and that Sharif El-Gamal, the real estate developer who put down the $4.8 million to buy the property in 2006, worked as a waiter at a New York restaurant in 2002, just four years before. Opponents have called the proposed mosque near the site of the 2001 terror attacks insensitive to those who died there. Jewish groups have weighed in on both sides of the debate.
El-Gamal said, “Our mission is one of peace, understanding, and tolerance.” The programs at Cordoba Initiative (CI), the sponsoring organization behind the building of the mosque, “are designed to cultivate multi-cultural and multi-faith understanding across minds and borders… The necessity to strengthen the bridge between Islam and the West continues to prevail. Cordoba Initiative seeks to actively promote engagement… by reinforcing similarities and addressing differences.”
However, as Shelomo Alfassa, former US director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries and a scholar of Judaic life in Islamic Spain, pointed out, “We must remember that a practice associated with conquering Islamic armies was the construction of a mosque at the location where their triumphant battle was won. Thus, this modern Islamic organization is seeking to build a mosque at the site of 9/11 attack — an attack which was carried out by 19 Muslim hijackers who considered their mission holy war.
Is the mosque a tribute to religious freedom or to holy war? If its promoters really want to seek multi-cultural understanding, why not build a multi-cultural center with multi-cultural funding and support? Why not take a stand in another, less potentially offensive, way?
For instance, a German think tank and a New Jersey-based interfaith group called Interreligious Understanding co-sponsored a trip from August 7 to 11 during which eight Muslim American leaders visited concentration camps and met with Holocaust survivors and subsequently signed a statement condemning Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. The trip, designed to teach the participants about the Holocaust by taking them to visit the concentration camp sites of Dachau and Auschwitz, was organized by Marshall Breger, an Orthodox Jew who served in the Reagan and first Bush administrations. He said it was designed “to educate those who may not have had the opportunity to learn the history of the Holocaust and to help combat Holocaust denial among Muslims.”
Islamic participants on the trip were Imams Muzammil Siddiqi of Orange County; Suhaib Webb of Santa Clara; Muhamad Maged of Virginia; Abdullah Antepli of Duke University in North Carolina; and Syed Naqvi of Washington, D.C., along with Dr. Sayyid Syeed of Washington; Sheik Yasir Qadhi of New Haven, Connecticut; and Laila Muhammad of Chicago. U.S. government officials, the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, and an official from the Organization of the Islamic Conference also took part in the trip.
The statement read, “We stand united as Muslim American faith and community leaders and recognize that we have a shared responsibility to continue to work together with leaders of all faiths and their communities to fight the dehumanization of all peoples based on their religion, race, or ethnicity. With the disturbing rise of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hatred, rhetoric and bigotry, now more than ever, people of faith must stand together for truth.”
If “peace, understanding, and tolerance” are the objectives of multi-faith understanding, we need to be sure that all parties are “on the same page.” Such understanding comes if – and only if – everybody is listening and everybody is committed to the same goals.
L’Shanah Tovah to you and yours,