Translation of my weekly column at Alquds Newspaper (Arabic)
By: Aziz Abu Sarah
Tuesday 24th of October
Last week I was surprised when pro-Israel and well-known Jewish politician, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, expressed his support for the construction of the Islamic Center near the wreckage of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. The news of the center continues to draw the negative attention of media outlets, many of which have questioned whether Muslims have the right to build Islamic institutions in the United States.
Moreover, media coverage of the Cordoba Initiative’s plans to build an Islamic community center in Manhattan has been largely inaccurate. Many of the facts have been changed or misreported: the center has been described as a mosque, when in fact it is a community center with a mosque, and the location has been described as Ground Zero, when in reality the center is two blocks away and shares the neighborhood with a strip club and gambling parlor. In addition, the community center intends to open its doors to non-Muslims, and will contain a number of social and recreational activities. The center will have a swimming pool, a gym, a theater, a restaurant, a library, an art gallery and studios, and a memorial to the victims of September 11th. However, misleading reports have created widespread and popular opposition against building the center.
Nor is Bloomberg alone in his support for building the center. Many other Jewish rabbis and leaders across the United States have lent their support to the project. In fact, the support among the Jewish community has been so vociferous that when Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) spoke out against the center, thousands of American Jews responded by signing a petition supporting the Cordoba Initiative’s plans.
The problem is the United States is less than three months away from midterm elections, and many politicians are using the center as a campaign issue. Politicians have used the construction of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero to play on voter fears about Islamic influence in American society, and in doing so have encouraged the spread of false information.
Fortunately, the Cordoba Initiative and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf have handled the subject positively. Despite the political circumstances and approaching elections, they have succeeded in communicating effectively with many American leaders and individuals. The Cordoba Initiative has also mobilized significant support for the center and managed to overcome legal obstacles, which will allow construction to begin soon. Although some are still trying to convince the project managers to change the location of the center, they have been unsuccessful thus far.
It has not been easy for the Cordoba Initiative to attract support for its center from Jewish and Christian leaders. For the past several years, Arab community leaders and Muslim scholars led by men like Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, have been reaching out to the American public through interfaith projects. In addition, they have sponsored joint programs to serve local communities. These efforts have fostered new friendships across the religious divide.
One example is the Adams Mosque near Washington, DC. Last Ramadan, the Adams Mosque was over capacity with worshipers for late-night prayers. Needing extra space, the Imam of the mosque, Majid, approached a local synagogue, who agreed to let the Muslim worshippers use their space. Such experiences are positive examples of how Jewish and Muslim communities have been redefining their relationship.
Many assumed that the Jewish-American community would be the first to cry foul over the Islamic community center in lower Manhattan. There is a tendency to view Muslims and Jews as traditional enemies, given the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Increasing dialogue and cooperation, however, is turning these stereotypes on their head. Some Muslims and Jews are even finding common ground for joint projects by building a consensus on sensitive issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, agreeing on the need for a two-state solution as well as the importance of security and freedom for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
After 9/11, the American Muslim community was forced to reevaluate its relationship with the American public. The Muslim community suddenly found its loyalty to America questioned, and was accused of being a breeding ground for terrorism. However, many Muslims in the United States refused to play the role of passive victim. They began to search for ways to reach out to American society and challenge stereotypes and misconceptions about Muslims. Though this process has been difficult and is still in infancy, these efforts have met with some success.
The Muslim community has also made a special effort to reach beyond the majority, seeking avenues of communication with other minority groups across the U.S. This is important, as the limitation of freedom for any reason is never isolated to one minority, but often impacts other groups and liberties as well.
Despite facing many challenges in recent years, Muslim communities in the United States have been able to remain part of American society without compromising their Arab or Muslim identity. Ultimately, this experience may provide an important model for Muslim minorities in other Western countries. In addition, their example provides hope that in the future, Muslim Americans can be the bridge between the West and the Muslim world.